Jim Scrivener looks in detail at a question from Module 1 of the TKT – Language and background to language learning and teaching.

Try this question

For questions 1–5, look at the two vowel sounds in each word. Match the vowel sounds in the words with the pairs of phonemes listed A–F. There is one extra option which you do not need to use.


1) over
2) homework
3) nightclub
4) learner
5) paper


A) /eɪ/ /ə/


B) /aɪ/ /ə/


C) /əʊ/ /ɜ:/


D) /ɜ:/ /ə/


E) /əʊ/ /ə/


F) /aɪ/ /ʌ/

Question focus

This question requires you to recognize which vowel sounds are used in different words and to know how these sounds are written using phonemic symbols.

What you need to know

Each individual sound in English (or any other language) is called a phoneme. These can be written down using phonemic symbols. The TKT exam makes use of the IPA – the International Phonetic Alphabet. There are phonemic symbols for vowels, diphthongs and consonants. This question tests your knowledge of the first two of these.

When we write a phoneme, we add oblique lines like this // on either side to indicate that what we have written is a phonemic transcription rather than ordinary spelling. For example, compare the spelling and phonemic transcription of this word: cough and/kɒf/.

There are six different symbols in this question.

/ʌ/ is a vowel sound. It is the vowel sound in the words cut, love and mother when they are spoken in the accent called RP as spoken by some people in the South East of England. (You might be interested to learn that it isn’t the normal pronunciation of these words when said by people from some other parts of the UK.)

/ɜ:/ is also a vowel sound. This is the vowel sound in the words bird, fur and her in RP. The two dots indicate that it is a long sound. When you say /ɜ:/ (or any other long vowel sound) you can extend it for as long as you have enough breath. Try it! Say: her..................... keeping the sound going until you run out of breath. (NB in RP the /r/ sound isn’t pronounced!)

/ə/ is possibly the most interesting English phoneme. It’s the most common vowel sound and is the only phoneme to actually have a name! It’s called the schwa. The reason it’s heard so frequently is that it often appears when a syllable is unstressed. So, for example, in the word agenda the second syllable is stressed, the first and last syllables are unstressed and the vowel sounds in those unstressed syllables are both schwa. It’s curious that there isn’t one single alphabetic letter to represent such a common sound, isn’t it? But that’s probably because even the most ‘perfect’ speakers of English have no idea that they are even using it. If you ask them how they pronounce the word to in the sentence Give it to me they would probably reply /tu:/ whereas in fact they will almost invariably pronounce it /tə/!

The other sounds in the question are all diphthongs. These are sounds formed when two vowel sounds are said very close together, with the first sound changing into the second. So, for example, /eɪ/ is made from the sound /e/ and the sound /ɪ/ – with the first sound lengthened a little. Example words with /eɪ/ are lake, grey and train. Example words containing /aɪ/ are night, tie and why. The diphthong /əʊ/ comes in go, sew and low. The letters of the alphabet A, I and O are pronounced using just these three diphthongs: /eɪ//aɪ//əʊ/. NB – it is important not to confuse /əʊ/ and /aʊ/ (they are often mixed up!)

So what are the answers?

1E; 2C; 3F; 4D; 5A. The option which you do not need is B.

What else should I study?

  • You also need to know all the other phonemic symbols – consonants as well as vowels.
  • Make sure that you can easily read a phonemic transcription of a word.