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Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land

Classroom Activity


To learn how the International Phonetic Alphabet is used to communicate the sounds of words in different languages.

Materials for each team
  • copy of the "Sound Communication" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of the "Forming Sounds" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of the "IPA Symbols and Sounds" student handout (PDF or HTML)

  1. The parchments discovered in the Judean Desert's Cave of Letters were written in two languages, Aramaic and Greek. Scientists who study language, known as linguists, can communicate about different languages using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a set of symbols that provides a universal way to communicate the sounds of words. In this activity, students will learn some of the symbols and sounds of the IPA.

  2. Write the following words on the board and ask students to pronounce them:

    Jolly, jai alai, San Juan with pronounciation tips

    Students might try to pronounce some or all of the J words with a hard "j" sound. Note to students that this demonstrates that the same letter can sound differently both within—and among—different languages. Using the IPA, linguists can communicate with each other about language based on the approximate sounds of words.

  3. Organize students into teams and provide each team with a set of handouts.

  4. Tell students that humans are able to speak, in part, because they have evolved the anatomy to verbalize words. Review with students the parts of the vocal tract diagram on the "Forming Sounds" handout. To help students understand how some sounds are formed, have them pronounce the consonants and vowels listed on the handout that includes the vocal tract illustration (note that this only represents a few of the consonants and vowels in the IPA). Tell students many other sounds are created using different parts of the oral cavity. For a full tutorial on these sounds, have students visit the International Phonetic Alphabet for Teens Web site at

  5. Once students have investigated how some consonants are formed, have them work in their teams to review the chart on their "IPA Symbols and Sounds" handout. Have students speak the sample words to hear the sound represented by each symbol.

  6. After students have studied the chart, have them attempt to decode some of the words into English and then encode some English words using the IPA. Finally, have them try to encode the sentences using the IPA. Remind them to add a stress mark (`) before the stressed syllable for words with more than one syllable and to add slash marks (/) at the beginning and end of words or sentences. Help them decode words they are having trouble with. Make sure students are concentrating on sounds, not on how the words might be pronounced based on how they are spelled.

  7. To conclude the lesson, discuss with students why it is important to study language, including ancient languages. What can be learned by studying a culture's language? (Language provides an important way to communicate. Studying a culture's language can shed light on how traditions get passed down and how ideas are exchanged. How languages are formed and used also helps scientists better understand brain cognition.)

  8. As an extension, have students research how languages evolved and how many languages are currently spoken worldwide. Find an interactive U.S. Census-based map that shows the density of U.S. speakers of 37 languages and language groups at

Activity Answer

The IPA is based on the Roman alphabet. The IPA used in this activity pertains to Standard American English sounds; other language-specific IPAs contain symbols not used in the American English IPA. Although dictionary transcription symbols may be similar to IPA symbols, dictionaries of ten develop their own pronunciation systems.

Student Chart answers
sentence phonetic spellings

When translating words using the IPA, students may have trouble getting the correct symbols for the words bath and them. If this is the case, point out to students that the "th" sound in bath is pronounced with the breath only, while the voice is used to pronounce the "th" sound in them.

Students may also have trouble differentiating Schwa from Caret, which sound similar. The difference is that the Schwa, known as a schwa, is used when the all parts of the vocal system—tongue, lips, etc—are relaxed (schwa means rest), while the Caret involves slightly raising just the center of the tongue. In addition, the schwa of ten occurs in unstressed syllables, while the Caret occurs only in stressed syllables. The Caret is basically a more forceful version of the schwa. The schwa appears frequently in the English language; some students may recall seeing it in dictionaries. Some additional examples that contain the Schwa are the, Russia, and procession.

Capitalization should not be used because a capital letter could potentially be mistaken for a different IPA sound. Punctuation, however, is fine.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA Web Site—Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land
Find articles, interviews, interactive activities, and resources in this companion Web site to the program.

Cave of Letters Map
Shows a map of each chamber of the cave.

How Language Works
Presents an introduction to the study of linguistics and considers the meaning of words and how they are formed.

IPA Project
Links to English, German, French, and Spanish phonetic alphabets, and provides recordings of sounds and sounds in words.

Learn about what a career in linguistics involves, including some of the discipline's subspecialties.


Freund, Richard A. Secrets of the Cave of Letters: Rediscovering a Dead Sea Mystery. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2004.
Reviews the history of the Cave of Letters, including the story of the woman named Babatha, whose cache of letters was found in the cave.


The "Sound Communication" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Life Science

Science Standard C:
Life Science

Diversity and adaptation of organisms:

  • Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.

Grades 9-12

Life Science

Science Standard C:
Life Science

Biological evolution

  • Species evolve over time. Evolution is the consequence of the interactions of (1) the potential for a species to increase its numbers, (2) the genetic variability of offspring due to mutation and recombination of genes, (3) a finite supply of the resources required for life, and (4) the ensuing selection by the environment of those offspring better able to survive and leave offspring.

Classroom Activity Author

Developed by WGBH Educational Outreach staff.

Teacher's Guide
Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land

Video is not required for this activity
Google, BP Google BP HHMI