When you’ve checked something on Wikipedia, you’ve probably noticed those strange symbols after an entry, and perhaps you’ve wondered what on earth they are. Or you may have been in an EFL classroom, and noticed a chart like this hanging on the wall. Why, you may ask yourself, are teachers wasting time on these hieroglyphics?

In fact, these charts are a much-needed tool to the EFL teacher, but are sadly perhaps also under-used. It can seem a bit daunting to the uninitiated, so let’s have a closer look at it.

One of the key problems with the English language for EFL learners is that it has 26 letters in its alphabet, but 44 sounds. Each of the symbols above represents each one of those sounds. Many other languages are phonetic, meaning that each sound has one way of being spelt, and one way of spelling is only pronounced in one way, but in English, this is not so. You’ve probably seen those riddles with ough. Can you think of how many ways it can be pronounced? We have through, though, thought, trough, bough, just for starters. This is where the phonemic chart comes in: we can represent each sound clearly, so that someone who doesn’t know the word can recognise it in phonemic script. The above words would be /θru:/ /ðəʊ/ /θɔ:t/ /trɒf/ and /baʊ/ – and you can already see that there aren’t as many sounds in the words as there are letters.

The symbols are international, so that any of these sounds that appear in another language will have the same symbol. They also have other symbols, or phonemes, to represent the other sounds in their language.

We start using it from day 1 with our learners, and they don’t struggle with it as much as you’d think. In fact, they find it much easier, and once they recognise it, they can refer to dictionaries, and confidently pronounce words that they’ve never heard before. If teachers start using it with words that the learners know, for example their own names, they can build on this knowledge. The key is to use it in every lesson, little by little, so that learners are introduced to it, slowly-by-surely. Then they’ll soon be writing new words in phonemic script with very little effort!