Abstract Details

Learning Phonetics The “Easy Way”: Student Reflections Of A PC Vocabulary Learning Game

This presentation describes a pilot study with the prototype of a new PC-based, card-style vocabulary practice game that is part of a larger suite of language learning games called ELLE the EndLess LEarner (Johnson et al., 2020). This game, developed over the Spring and Summer semesters of 2021, is designed to handle vocabulary terms in any language, and is connected to a database. Terms are entered into the database through a user-friendly website, and the database can house text in any language (foreign term and translation), image, and audio. The card game prototype does not yet utilize the audio in the database (though it will be added in future iterations), so players match a term, displayed at the top of the screen to its translation or its image (terms and answer options are randomly selected), displayed on a row of cards at the bottom of the screen. The player uses the mouse to drag the card displaying the matching text or image to the term at the top of the screen. If the match is correct, the outline of the question will turn green and the question and term card will disappear and a new card will replace the card that was just ‘played’ in the row at the bottom of the screen. If the match is incorrect, the outline of the question will turn red, and the card will drop back down to the bottom of the screen with the others.

This game was piloted as part of an IRB-approved research study in the Fall 2020 offering of a graduate level Applied linguistics course, where cards and images matched phonetic terms (text, such as “Voiced Alveolar Nasal”), phonetic symbols (text, such as “/n/”), and mouth positions (images). Students enrolled in this course were offered extra credit to play the game periodically (whenever they wished) and to write an end-of-semester reflection on their experience with the game. Other than demonstrating the game and assisting students in downloading it, no other course time was spent on the game. This presentation describes the reflection papers written by the four students in this course who chose to participate in the study.

One of the most challenging skills English language learners have to master is pronunciation. Although they indicate a strong desire to learn pronunciation, a very small percentage of learners receive formal pronunciation training (Derwing & Rossiter, 2002). Coincidentally, second language teachers report not only a frustration but also a lack of adequate phonological knowledge (Ross 1992; Burgess & Spencer, 2000) when it comes to providing pronunciation instruction in their classrooms. This lack of confidence could be explained by the insufficient training in phonetics in their teacher preparation programs. The participants in this project were teachers-in-training in an Applied Linguistics course. The purpose of the course was to introduce them to the major sub-areas in linguistics, such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax, and how these apply to language teaching. Applied Linguistics is required for students from multiple programs and colleges, and, thus, contains learners from diverse academic backgrounds. Students struggle with phonetics because it is the most technical area in the field, and some even drop the course when they encounter the topics of phonetics and the International Phonetics Alphabet. Though we did not collect demographic data from our participants, many of them mentioned that they were English language learners themselves, and others also mentioned that they were also language teachers, thus, they had the ability to provide feedback on the game as both teachers and learners.

Students who chose to participate in the study played the game for the frequency and duration they wished, as the researchers were also interested in student study habits and preferences for game-based vocabulary practice. Unfortunately, a technical difficulty in the connection between the database and the game prevented the researchers from obtaining an accurate record of student time in game, but the timestamp data that did record shows play durations from one minute to one hour. Participants played the game an average of 12 times, with the lowest number of games being 4 and the highest 17.

In their reflections, students mentioned a number of things that they would like to see in future versions of the game. Notably, all of them mentioned that it would be helpful for the game to play a recording of the phonetic sound at some point in the game to help the player make the connections between the text, images, and audio. All four student reflections included requests for additional player feedback within the game: one suggested that the game display the correct term-sound match for a second or two before disappearing, and all participants asked for additional player performance statistics and information so that they could better monitor their progress toward mastery. Though the website does keep track of this information and displays data visualization charts to students and teachers, it was also being modified throughout the semester, so these participants did not have access to it during the study.

Student reflections also described the aspects of the game that they found helpful. All four stated that they believed that playing the game had helped them better learn the phonetic sounds and symbols. One specifically noted the repetition of terms as being helpful for learning, while the others did not articulate any specific aspect of the game they felt helped them learn. Two participants stated that playing the game had increased their confidence with phonetics, with one even commenting, “Now I do not feel overwhelmed by phonetics; in fact, I find it fun!” Increased confidence with phonetics was also included in student reflections. The game seemed to lift the burden of memorization for some participants. One stated, “Without making the effort of reading more books, I become more confident with the phones in English just by playing a game.” Although this student was in fact practicing these terms and doing the actual work of memorization, because it was in a game setting, they felt it was not as much of a chore as, “reading more books.”

The most compelling feedback we found, however, was the fact that two participants described ways that they added auditory elements to the game themselves. All participants requested the addition of audio to the game, and two of them actually supplied their own audio while playing the game. One stated, “I often found myself practicing the sound while matching it to the place of origin.” Another attributed this phenomenon to the images, explaining, “I think the pictures with the places of articulation are fundamental in the game to strengthen the visual memory of the sounds and connecting them with their transcriptions of the sound classes.” The images were helpful to another participant as well, who stated, “Thanks to the visual memorization of the cards, in some cases I am just unconsciously placing the mouth correctly when I come across certain sounds written on paper.” This participant transferred the knowledge practiced in the game to other situations where phonetic symbols were used.

Planned future work includes adding audio to the game and asking students for feedback on the data visualization elements on the website, as well as expanding to foreign language courses such as Spanish and conducting larger scale mixed methods studies.


  • Burgess, J. & Spencer, S. (2000). Phonology and pronunciation in integrated language teaching and teacher education. System, 28(2), 191-215.
  • Derwing, T. M. & Rossiter, M. J. (2002). ESL learners’ perceptions of their pronunciation needs and strategies. System, 30(2), 155-166.
  • Johnson, E. K., Giroux, A. L., Merritt, D., Vitanova, G., & Sousa, S. (2020). Assessing the Impact of Game Modalities in Second Language Acquisition: ELLE the EndLess LEarner. Journal of Universal Computer Science, 26(8), 880-903.
  • Ross, L. (1992). Teaching phonology to teachers: the phonology element in initial training courses. In: Brown, A. (Ed.), Approaches to Pronunciation Teaching. London: the British Council.

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