The future of Phonetics (25 Feb 2005)

Date: 25 February, 2005
Location: CILT,
Event type: Workshop

Programme | Abstracts

workshop attendees

Past event summary

This workshop explored the issues and problems faced in training the phoneticians of the future. How can we continue to maintain standards and traditions against a shrinking resource base (funding, staffing and time)? How can we attract people into a subject which is perceived as difficult and even to be avoided by many younger students? This workshop explored these issues, offered suggestions and, most importantly, listened to your experiences and ideas.


10.30 - 10.40 Welcome
10.40 - 11.00 Funding phonetics training in the UK Implications for the future
Gerry Docherty, Newcastle
11.00 - 11.30 The IPA Certificate Examination
John Wells, UCL
11.30 - 12.00 Teaching practical skills in articulatory/auditory phonetics
Gillian Brown, Cambridge
12.00 - 12.30 Coping with larger groups
Susanna Martin, City University
12.30 - 13.30 Lunch
13.30 - 14.00 Making phonetics attractive
Patricia Ashby, Westminster
14.00 - 14.30 Novel techniques in the classroom
Michael Ashby, UCL
14.30 - 15.00 Web support for books, courses and private study
John Maidment, UCL
15.00 - 15.30 Tea and plenary discussion


Funding phonetics training in the UK Implications for the future

Gerry Docherty, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

In this talk I present a brief survey of some of the factors currently driving the UK HE sector's capacity to deliver teaching and learning in phonetics, highlighting obstacles and opportunities. I identify a number of positive steps that the field could take to ensure that it thrives in the rapidly-changing landscape of higher education.

The IPA Certificate Examination

John Wells, University College London

The examination for the IPA Certificate of Proficiency in the Phonetics of English has three parts: a 2½-hour written paper, a dictation, and an oral. The written paper comprises a transcription exercise, an articulatory description, and two theory questions. The dictation covers both English (with rhythmical stress but not intonation) and nonsense words (ranging over the entire contents of the IPA Chart). The oral covers both recognition and production of segmental sounds and tone or intonation patterns, as well as a brief theory question.

In recent years, numbers entering had fallen to a mere handful. Last year UCL organized a dedicated two-week course of training. This proved very successful, and that year there were 30 candidates, of whom 28 passed. We shall repeat the course in 2005.

Teaching practical skills in articulatory/auditory phonetics

Gillian Brown, University of Cambridge

I begin by discussing the relevance of practical ability in phonetics to several career areas, going on to stress its significance for the teaching of modern approaches to the phonology of English and of other languages. I then briefly outline the content of a basic 10-hour course which can be taught to large groups and has the aim of sensitising students to some of the basic phonetic processes and possibilities which are relevant for the career areas discussed earlier and for the teaching of phonology.

Coping with larger groups

Susanna Martin, City University London

This presentation will consider the teaching of phonetics in the context of speech and language therapy (SLT) education and training.

It will review the findings of a survey of the maintenance and use of phonetics in clinical practice, and their implication for teaching. The presentation will review current teaching contents and practice, with particular emphasis of teaching large student cohorts and highlighting those elements of the phonetics syllabus considered fundamental for SLTs in underpinning analysis of disordered speech and language.

The presentation will look to proposals for amending delivery of teaching in the light of part-time degree programmes, CPD, e-learning and distance learning initiatives.

Making phonetics attractive

Patricia Ashby, University of Westminster

Two recent innovations in undergraduate phonetics have been trialled at the University of Westminster and have met with student approval: a new assessment technique and a new advanced level module. Inspired by an earlier LLAS workshop, a novel approach was taken to assessment of basic phonetic knowledge: students keep a weekly notebook, applying phonetic theory incrementally to a pre-assigned word. This positive experience of being able to do phonetics right from the start has occasioned an increase in interest in continuing with the subject which is catered for in a new final-year employment-related phonetics module. This paper outlines these ideas.

Novel techniques in the classroom

Michael Ashby, University College London

Traditionally, there has been a distinction between the practical class and the teaching of phonetic and phonological theory. We have recently begun to bridge this unnecessary division, by taking the tools of acoustic analysis into the practical class. Radio microphones in the classroom permit both teacher's and students' speech to be instantly analysed and displayed for comparison, and this activity is interwoven with interactive access to teaching materials and reference corpora.

Practical skill is thus shown as something which can be objectively monitored, while the practical sessions become an additional route for understanding theory and appreciating its applications.

Web support for books, courses and private study

John Maidment, University College London

I will give a brief survey of types of web support for phonetics: (1) Tutorials (2) Exercises (3) Tools (4) Resources. Each type will be illustrated by examples of existing web pages and I hope to generate a discussion about further developments and colleagues' experience of the usefulness of web support.

Event report: The future of Phonetics

by Alison Dickens

This was great. I had too organise my heavy schedule to get here and it was thoroughly worth it.

- Workshop attendee

This event was organised on behalf of the Subject Centre by Patricia Ashby (University of Westminster). The aims of the seminar were to discuss current issues and concerns relating to the place of Phonetics in UK higher education and to present new materials and ideas for teaching.

In his introductory talk, Gerry Docherty (Newcastle) discussed issues relating to the f unding of phonetics training in the UK and identified implications for the future. He noted that currently there are fewer academic positions for phoneticians and consequently less resource to support the subject. This, of course, affects many other subjects and should not detract from the fact that applications for PG funding in Linguistics are currently quite successful. He noted also that with new technologies Phonetics is actually cheaper to teach (in terms of materials) as some of the software is distributed at little or no cost. He also suggested some tactics that could be adopted to develop the profile of the subject. These included:

  • Demonstrating to potential students the relevance, value and challenge of Phonetics
  • Pitching teaching at the right level and being creative in teaching (using IT and new methods)
  • Demonstrating to research funding councils the ways in which Phonetics research contributes to their priorities
  • Changing public perceptions of the subject, e.g. as in the BBC Voices project
  • Working collaboratively on materials development and research the benefits of this have been demonstrated recently by the North-West Centre for Linguistics

Following this talk, John Wells (University College, London) presented The IPA Certificate Examination which is currently undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to some recent initiatives, e.g. exam preparation summer schools. This exam, which has been in its current form since 1971, includes both written and oral/aural components. It can be motivating for students studying Phonetics as it represents a recognized qualification, however it is not easy to pass without specific preparation. Nevertheless of those that take it the majority pass with either a first or second class grade. Indeed following UCL's summer school last year the pass rate for the exam more than doubled. More information download John Wells's presentation: The IPA Certificate Examination (Powerpoint, 200Kb)

In her talk Gillian Brown (Cambridge) described how she teaches practical skills in articulatory/auditory Phonetics to large groups of Applied Linguistics students. Her 10-hour course covers some basic phonetic skills, the aim of which is to raise students' awareness of how the subject can be relevant to their future careers (mainly as ESOL teachers). The course introduces the sound types and places of articulation with students using mirrors to observe this at first hand. This is followed by ear-training and transcription exercises which train students to work both with individual words and whole sentences. This way they are able to observe that words in streamed speech do not necessarily behave in the same way as they do when taken as discrete units. In order to keep students motivated consonants are tackled before vowels (they are easier to distinguish) with vowels being covered in less detail. Here particular attention is given to areas that are relevant to the students' professional interests (e.g. where errors may occur for non-native speakers of English). As the groups are so large students work in groups and take responsibility for correcting each other. The course is complemented by a parallel course in introductory Phonology.

Susanna Martin (City University London) also considered the role of Phonetics in a professional sphere: in speech and language therapy (SLT) education and training. She presented the findings of a recent survey she undertook to investigate the maintenance and use of Phonetics in clinical practice, and the implications of the findings for teaching. She found that once qualified, many speech therapists report that they make minimal use of, or have forgotten' much of the Phonetics learnt as students. A majority only use broad transcription techniques and there is little awareness of extIPA symbols for transcribing disordered speech. These findings give rise to a number of questions: is too much taught? (students are possibly overwhelmed), should teaching be more selective? (relevant to what they will be able to use in practice), is there an adequate bridge between the classroom and the clinic?. Susanna concludes that one of the problems for teaching is that with increasing numbers of students (hence large groups) there is often a mixture of abilities and it is difficult to ensure that each student is learning actively. Once graduates are in the workplace it is also difficult for them to maintain skills that they don't use regularly and there is little time for extra study. There is, therefore, a need for more self-study support materials and the provision of continuing professional development for practitioners.

In his talk, one of the points Gerry Docherty made was that there was a need to make Phonetics more appealing to potential students. An example of how this could be achieved was given by Patricia Ashby (University of Westminster) in her presentation. In this talk she presented a new method of assessment and a new module she has recently developed. The first of these Phonetics in One Word was inspired by a talk given at a previous Subject Centre event (Resources and methods for teaching linguistics) by Lynne Murphy (Sussex) on her Adopt-a-word course. This involves taking one word and subjecting it to a number of linguistic, or in this case phonetic analyses. Thus the student learns about Linguistics/Phonetics through an exploration of just one word. In Patricia's course the students compile a field notebook in which they record what they are discovering about the word allocated to them. The notebook is built up as they learn more about phonetic transcription, articulation etc. and forms a major part of their final assessment. In a context in which students frequently vote with their feet in Phonetics (there is a perception that the subject is difficult) this assessment technique has had an extremely favourable response from students who enjoy the heuristic nature of this approach and are frequently amazed at how much they have learned in just 12 weeks.

Building on the success of this and in response to the need to demonstrate the relevance of Phonetics outside the academic sphere, Patricia has developed a module:Working with Phonetics in which students explore the applications of Phonetics in the workplace: gaining experience of Phonetics in practice and compiling a portfolio on the area of application that they have chosen to investigate, e.g. Forensic Phonetics, Dictionaries, Voice coaching.

As pointed out by Gerry earlier in the day, Phonetics is well served by new technologies which are actually making the subject easier and often cheaper to teach. In his talk Michael Ashby (University College, London) demonstrated some of these new technologies which he is using, to very good effect, with his students.

He demonstrated how it is possible to have available, on a laptop, all the equipment necessary for demonstrating and experimenting with sounds. Tools range from the widely available PowerPoint which is highly interactive and can incorporate sound and vision (audio and video files), to specialised speech analysis software such as WASP ( With the addition of a microphone, or better still a wireless radio microphone, sounds for analysis can be generated in the classroom by both teacher and student. This is highly motivating and involves the students in the learning process much more closely. Other tools that can be exploited are interactive whiteboards ( which allow storage and retrieval of material that would be written on a traditional whiteboard. More portable than this is a graphic tablet (e.g.WACOM) which performs a similar function, allowing PowerPoint slides to be annotated live'. Finally even a simple tool, such as a blue tooth mouse (wireless) can make teaching more interesting as this allows equipment to be operated away from the computer (and therefore away from the front of the class). This is particularly useful when working with small groups.

In a complementary presentation John Maidment (University College, London) demonstrated some of the materials that are available on the web to support the learning of Phonetics. These included t utorials, exercises, tools and resources. Some examples include:

Siphtra System for Interactive Phonetics Training and Assessment

Phonetic Flash Quizzes

Prosody on the Web

IPA Help interactive phonetics chart


The seminar provided a good balance between discussions of some of the problems that are faced by Phonetics in higher education and demonstrations of some of the aspects of teaching the subject that serve to make it both attractive and innovative. This helped to keep the day on a positive note and gave participants (which included a number of students) plenty of ideas that were forward-looking and innovative, proving that despite some of the challenges it faces an academic subject, Phonetics does very much have a future.