To IP(A) or not to IP(A) – that is the question.

I’ve been working with quite a lot of primary school teachers recently. During the workshop I’m running with them on basic pronunciation teaching techniques I often get asked if they should use IPA symbols with their learners. It’s a question I’ve not been comfortable answering because I don’t have the relevant classroom experience, but I’ve spoken to lots of colleagues and friends who are full-time primary school teachers, and have seen that there is quite a division of opinions. Some do use IPA symbols and are convinced that it helps, and others don’t, saying that it only serves to add to their learners’ burden.

As always (for good and for bad), I can see arguments for both positions. However, the other day when I was working in Tenerife I came across this sign in Russian:

Text as meaningless pictures

Text as meaningless pictures – Cyrillic script in a Tenerife advert

If you are conversant with the Cyrillic alphabet, the two words on this advert will be easy to read (and even easier if you speak Russian or a related language). But as I stood there looking at the advert, surrounded by a very supportive context, I found that even as a skilled and practised language learner, I was struggling to deal with this short text.

What has this to do with young learners and IPA? Well, I suspect that IPA symbols have the same effect on YLs as Cyrillic script had on me in Tenerife. In addition, I would assume that the younger these learners are, the greater the effect will be. Imagine you’re a child aged somewhere between 6 and 8. You’re now more or less comfortable reading in your own language, which is phonetic – i.e. that letters or letter combinations you see on the page represent sounds that you say when you speak. Lots of languages are like this, so this is quite a common situation.

Now your teacher(s) begin to introduce you to written English, where the spelling–sound relationships are obscure and difficult, and don’t seem to obey any rules. Then, in a well-intentioned attempt to help you with this mess, your teacher introduces a load of pictures, some of which look like the letters in the alphabet you are beginning to use in English (and possibly now use confidently in your first language), and some of which just look plain weird. This is not helping, you think to yourself.

OK, enough imaginings. I don’t know what goes on in a 6–8 year old mind when faced with IPA symbols, and I’m not a primary school teacher so I don’t have first-hand experience to allow me to know. But staring at the two Russian words on the advert in Tenerife, I suddenly had a ‘eureka’ moment that allowed me to see how it must feel to be confronted with IPA symbols for the first time (at any age!), something I’d completely lost sight of after so many years of using them on a daily basis.

So now, still aware of my limitations as a trainer for the primary sector, I think that on being asked about IPA in the future, I’ll be tending much more to advising teachers that they delay introducing it until much later, and that they spend much more time helping their young learnings to tease out the sound-spelling relationships of English (i.e. a phonics-type focus) than burdening them with a third written script.

That said, if you are reading this and are a practising primary school teacher, please feel free to write and share your experience of this issue with us.

(PS. Once I’d dragged my minimal knowledge of Russian out of the dark recesses of my memory I was able to come up with SKOLA and ARENDA. SKOLA was obviously SCHOOL, and ARENDAR is the same as a Spanish verb (arrendar) meaning TO RENT. The rest was plain sailing.)

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One thought on “To IP(A) or not to IP(A) – that is the question.

  1. Hi, Robin. My experience teaching English in primary is very short, and I never tried to teach my students phonetics using IPA. Nowadays I teach adults and it is even difficult for them.
    My experience in this issue is related to the way my children learn English, they attend a British School with native teachers and they’ve never been taught phonetics or IPA. What they do with them is working with sound-spelling association, and I think it works for them.

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