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Phonetic phrenzy

Explore phonetics and Q-codes in teams in this covert communication challenge.

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You’ll need

  • Scissors
  • Scrap paper
  • Pens or pencils
  • Elastic bands
Game cards (Phonetic phrenzy)
PDF – 143.6KB

The International Phonetic Alphabet is a system which helps you understand how words are supposed to sound when they are read out loud. 

It uses sets of symbols, which each have a distinct sound that exists in spoken language. IPA is split into different sections and the system relies on good pronunciation of each sound to help spell out the word.

The NATO phonetic alphabet is a Spelling Alphabet used to spell out each letter in a word over the phone or radio.

For example for the word 'Scout' you would say 'Sierra, Charlie, Oscar, Uniform, Tango'.

The International Phonetic Alphabet is for the pronunciation of words, how they sound when the whole word is read out loud. 

For example the pronunciation of 'Scout' is written as /skaʊt/.

Let’s start with consonants

Some consonants are pronounced as you would expect, these include: b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, v, w and z.

The following consonants have a sound pronounced in different words and you’ll be able to see where they are by looking at words in the English Language: 

  • /j/ – not to be confused with the sound we write in English as – this is the English “y” sound.
  • /ŋ/ – the “ng” in “sing”.
  • /θ/ – the “unvoiced” “th” in “think”, “path”, or “thistle”.
  • /ð/ – the “voiced” “th” in “that”, “this”, or “there”.
  • /ʃ/ – the “sh” in “ship” or “wish”.
  • /ɹ/ – the “r” in “red”. Sometimes when writing English in IPA, this is written as /r/ for the sake of simplicity. But technically /r/ is the “rolled” r sound in languages like Spanish.
  • /ʒ/ – the “s” in “pleasure” or “vision”, or the “g” in “genre”.

There's also the English <j> and <ch>. Both sounds are actually a combination of two consonants that you can see above. So <j> in IPA is /dʒ/ and <ch> is /tʃ/.

Now for some vowels

Vowels can be more challenging. The diagram below represents how a symbol is said and the placement of the symbols relate to where your tongue should be in your mouth as you’re saying it.








i • y


ɨ • ʉ


ɯ • u



ɪ   ʏ





e • ø


ɘ • ɵ


ɤ • o









ɛ • œ     


ɜ • ɞ

ʌ • ɔ









a • ɶ



ɑ • ɒ

For example, for /i/ (the “ee” sound in “sheet”), your tongue is high and close to the teeth. For /ɑ/ (the “a” sound in “cargo”), your tongue is low and retracted.

Each position in the chart has two symbols. The symbol on the left is the “unrounded” version of the vowel, and the one on the right is the “rounded” version. This refers to the shape of your lips.  Say /i/ again: notice that your lips are spread wide in a smile. Now say /u/ (the “oo” in “shoot”): your lips are pursed tightly like they're puckered up for a kiss. That’s what “roundedness” means.

Example table and practice

This table shows you more examples on how the symbols, sounds and pronunciations fit within words.
























































































Starting activities 

IPA takes time to learn and practise. Here are some words for you and your group. Try to work them out using the symbols and sounds you’ve learned from this sheet.

  • tɛnt = 
  • geɪmz =
  • nɒt =
  • skɑːf =
  • kæmpɪŋ =
  • bæʤɪz =
  • vɒlənˈtɪə =
  • kʊkə =
  • nævɪˈgeɪʃən =
  • rɒk ˈklaɪmɪŋ =
  • kaɪækɪŋ =
  • səˈvaɪvəl skɪlz =
  • aɪ ˈprɒmɪs tuː duː maɪ bɛst =
  • naɪt haɪk =
  • biː prɪˈpeəd =
  • kæmpˌfaɪə sɒŋz =

After this allow everyone the opportunity to work in pairs or small groups to create a sentence or phrase for another group and write it using IPA. Then, allow them to swap over and translate the sentence.

Q-codes are an international set of abbreviations created to simplify radiotelegraph messages. Each code comprises three letters all starting with the Letter ‘Q’.  The first Q-codes were created before 1909 by the British Government and were used as communication channels for radio operators who spoke different languages.

Q-codes are divided into three areas, QAA-QNZ are reserved for aeronautical use, QOA-QQZ are for maritime use and QRA-QUZ are for all other services. Below are example Q-codes for amateur radio users. These codes are the same as those used in the card game.

QRA What is the name of your station? The name of my station is ___.
QRI How is the tone of my transmission? The tone of your transmission is ___ (1-Good, 2-Variable, 3-Bad.)
QRJ Are you receiving me badly? I cannot receive you, your signal is too weak.
QRR Are you ready for automatic operation? I’m ready for automatic operation. Send at ___ WPM
QRV Are you ready? I’m ready.
QRZ Who is calling me? You’re being called by ___.
QSM Shall I repeat the last message that I sent you? Repeat the last message.
QSQ            Have you a doctor on board? (Or is ___ on board?) I have a doctor on board (or ___ is on board.)
QSY Shall I change to another frequency? Change to another frequency.
QTB Do you agree with my counting of words? I don’t agree with your counting of words. I’ll repeat the first letter or digit of each word or group.
QTG Will you send two dashes of 10 seconds each followed by your call sign? I’m going to send two dashes of 10 seconds each followed by my call sign.
QTH What is your location? My location is ___.
QTJ What is your speed? My speed is ___ km/h.
QTR What is the correct time? The time is ___.
QUA Have you news of ___? I have news of ___.
QUG Will you be forced to land? I’m forced to land immediately.


Starting activity

Give everyone the opportunity to send and reply to messages. This can be done using hand-held radios or talking to each other from other sides of the room. Consider giving them a situation or scenario where they’d need to use Q-codes to send and receive a message.

Different methods of communication allow us to pass messages or have discussions where not everybody will be able to understand them. This activity looks into the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and Q-codes and gives everybody the opportunity to practise what they have learnt by matching up the correct answers.

Before you begin

  • Print and cut out the IPA and Q-code cards from the ‘Game cards’ sheet. Keep these in separate piles. Print an extra set of each as an answer sheet.
  • Shuffle each pile and wrap an elastic band around each one.

Configure your codes

  1. Explain what the IPA and Q-codes are to the group. If anyone has any questions, use information at the beginning of this activity to help. There are starter activities included here, to get everyone used to these forms of communication.
  1. When everyone’s having a go at these, set up four activity bases in different parts of the room. At each base, have one of the sets of cards prepared earlier. Have the Q-code cards adjacent to one another, and the same with the IPA cards. Remove the elastic bands and spread the cards out in the base area, face-down.
  1. Split the group into two teams. Have one team on the Q-code side of the room, and the other on the IPA side of them room. Each team should stand between the base with their symbols/codes and the base with their answers.
  2. Explain to the teams that each team-member should take turns to quickly run to their two bases and collect one card from each. That person should decide whether the two cards match.

Start de-coding

  1. Start the game. Team members who think they’ve found a matching pair should keep hold of the cards and return to their team. Team members who don’t think they’ve found a matching pair should return the cards to where they found them, face-down. Continue until all the cards on both sides have been matched up.
  2. The person leading the activity should come over to see how many correct pairs each team managed to find. This should be noted down, but not shared with the other team.
  3. The teams should then swap sides. Those who collected IPA pairs should now collect Q-code pairs, and vice versa. Run stage 1 again, then see how many correct pairs the teams got.
  4. See which team got the most correct answers for the IPA, for Q-codes and altogether.


Different methods of communication allow us to pass messages or have discussions that somebody else won’t be able to understand. We’ve looked at the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and Q-codes, which are two good examples and everybody’s had the chance to try them out and test their knowledge. Which method was the easiest to master? Has looking at phonetics changed the way you think about word sounds? Why might using Q-codes over a radio transmission be more efficient and reliable than speaking? Think about what you and the person receiving you might have in common, and what differences you might have!


All activities must be safely managed. You must complete a thorough risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Use the safety checklist to help you plan and risk assess your activity. Always get approval for the activity, and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.


Supervise young people appropriately when they’re using scissors. Store all sharp objects securely, out of the reach of young people.

Active games

The game area should be free of hazards. Explain the rules of the game clearly and have a clear way to communicate that the game must stop when needed. Take a look at our guidance on running active games safely.

A time limit increases the difficulty of the card-matching game. Play with the cards upturned for an easier, quicker challenge.

Adapt the card-matching game for those with mobility issues (i.e. by putting the cards somewhere easy for everyone to reach).

Double-check the text on the cards is clear enough for everyone to read easily. Adapt with Braille cards or enlarge the font if necessary.

All Scout activities should be inclusive and accessible.

Everyone should write their name and a common phrase in IPA symbols. Give these to the person leading the activity to present to the group. See who gets the name and the phrase fastest.

If anyone has access to radio or walkie-talkie equipment, try out the Q-codes by having conversations with them over the airwaves!

Young people could create their own cards for this game, featuring IPA symbols and Q-codes.