Using phonemic symbols with (one-to-one) students

A couple of days after my blogpost about error correction in one-to-one lessons I had an interesting discussion on Facebook about using phonemic symbols with students.

It had never occurred to me that a teacher would be against it, but apparently that is the case. So I’ve decided to write about the reasons why I think using them is beneficial for students.

First of all, I want to say that it took me a long while to be comfortable with the symbols, and even today I still need to double-check some of the things I write. I studied History at university and as an English student I had an idea they existed, but I couldn’t really understand them.

If you have a similar background to my own, which is getting into English language teaching without having done a university course for it, I highly recommend taking the Celta. That’s when I was properly introduced to phonemic symbols. I was still afraid of them, however, so it was only when I did the Delta some years later that I really got my teeth into it.

With all that said, how can these funny little symbols help my students? The area where I think it is the most helpful is pronunciation. Students often have problems hearing or isolating specific sounds the teacher makes. A visual explanation, therefore, goes a long way.

Take the pronunciation of the -ed past simple. You could tell your students that the vowel sound is not pronounce like this, for example:

worked 1

That might even work for a lot of verbs, but you are missing the chance to show students that the d is pronounce like a t.

worked 2

I don’t think students would get confuse or scared if you told them that the ending of the verb worked is pronounced /kt/.

Some rules of thumb that you should keep in mind when using phonemic symbols. Always use them with forward slashes //, so that students know this is not English. The first time you use them it may be useful to say that the symbols which appear between slashes are used for pronunciation only. It is also a good idea to use a different colour if possible. With my one-to-one students I tend to use pink for pronunciation features (such as word stress or phonemic symbols).

Another case in which the visuals really help students is in the pronunciation of CH sounds. Students often struggle with words like cheat, for example.


I start by saying that the funny S is the symbol for SH and get students to make the sound individually and then pronounce sheet. Then I say that in words with CH, there’s generally a t sound before the /ʃ/. Again, we pronounce the sound in isolation and then say the word cheat. Visual students will definitely appreciate the use of symbols.

Another point is that you don’t need to transcribe whole words all the time, particularly when you first introduce the symbols. They can help your students with sounds they struggle with. The more comfortable students get with them, the more symbols you’ll be able to use.

The last words I’d like to talk about are country and culture. I’m sure you have had students literally killing these words (by saying /kɪltʃər/). Because of that, /ʌ/ is one of the first vowel symbols I introduce.


Last week I observed a Celta lesson where a candidate beautifully helped students pronounce culture by comparing it to the word up. It reminded me of the classic chart from English File where words were drawn around the symbols. I think the visual can’t get any clearer than an arrow pointing upwards for the /ʌ/ symbol.


Using the symbols is even easier with one-to-one students as the learner training is faster and you can do it consistently. Using phonemic symbols in my lessons has helped students with their pronunciation and has also made me work hard to get better at using them.

Thanks for reading.


3 thoughts on “Using phonemic symbols with (one-to-one) students

  1. Great post! I am actually one of those teachers who hate phonemic symbols, but you have just sold me! The way you explain it makes a lot of sense. Hopefully I’ll be able to take the CELTA or DELTA someday and improve my teaching skills, but right now it isn’t available near me… 😦


    • I’ve been there Eliana, and I still feel I have a lot to learn when it comes to phonemic symbols.
      As for the Celta/Delta, if they aren’t available near you, your best bets are either taking an intensive course during January or July in a city that offers them (like São Paulo or Buenos Aires) or trying an online module.
      I can recommend some schools if you are interested 🙂


  2. Pingback: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish | ricardo barros elt

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