How to Teach English Letter Sounds in ESL: The 5 Big Ideas and 7 Activities
How often have you repeated the following sentence to your students?
English isn’t pronounced as it’s written, nor is it written as it’s pronounced.
While for about 15% of English this is true, there’s another 85% where the letters we use to record English in writing do represent the sounds we spit out when speaking.
Where’s the problem then?
Well, we all know it: There are only 26 letters that graphically represent around 44 sounds in spoken English.
So how does an ESL teacher begin to tackle letter sounds?
How to Teach English Letter Sounds
You’re going to face a lot of orange cones on this obstacle course. Here are some tips that can be applied to any method of teaching letter sounds.
Start teaching letter-sound associations from the first day
Teach those basic letter/sound combinations from the very first day of class. Just try to avoid going overboard with memorization of all the different possible sounds of each letter (or combination of letters).
You should also probably avoid trying to show all the possible ways that a particular sound can be spelled. Though spelling is often based on sound, it’s overwhelmingly based on a number of other factors, including word origin.
Separate “sound” from “spelling”
English openly borrows words from other languages. You already know that English doesn’t always adapt spellings, often using the original spelling of the words from languages that share an alphabet with English.
When we tell our students that one sound can be represented with one letter or various letters, this can be discouraging.
The truth is, the pronunciation typically comes from how the word is said by natives of the language of origin. English spelling is sometimes based on foreign, complex pronunciation rules or the original spelling of borrowed word. English and the foreign language may share some common ground, but can often be in conflict.
Recognize the “sound environment”
Even in languages with basically phonetic alphabets (where each letter generally represents a single sound), that sound can be altered by its environment—the sounds of the letters that precede or follow it.
In Spanish, for instance, the letter c can represent two different sounds depending on the following vowel: comer (eat) has a k sound while cenar (dine) has an s or th sound. The b in obtener (obtain) is pronounced as the p in optimista (optimist) simply because it’s followed by a letter t, which is, like the p, an unvoiced consonant.
So, with a language like English, with so many dialects, pronunciations and variations, a letter that you may teach as sounding one way will often sound another way when surrounded by the right sounds. Spelling rules will then often reflect this.
Watch out for native language interference
In many cases you’ll have to overcome a visual interference—when the sound of a letter in English will be different from that applied in the students’ native language. This can be seen when our German-speaking students make a v sound upon seeing a w.
In other cases, you may be teaching an alphabet and sound system that are totally unfamiliar to students, who will be accustomed to other symbols that represent their own sounds or words.
Provide opportunities for practice
It’s likely your students will be in different places when it comes to learning letter sounds. Give students the opportunity to put new ideas into practice and personalize their experience.
Exposing students to new vocabulary in context and allowing them to hear words (and see how they’re spelled) will speed up this process of letter/sound association. FluentU is the perfect platform to give ESL students the boost they need.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Plus, FluentU provides plenty of tools for students to actively practice English vocabulary and grammar, like interactive subtitles, flashcards, vocabulary lists and more. It’s great for in-class activities, but there’s a new homework feature that will let students personalize their language experience at home!
Aim to decipher the code
Once your students understand that what they see isn’t always a faithful representation of what we say or they hear, we can slice the 26 letters down into some fairly regular and useful sound/symbol combinations.
You’re seeking a middle ground, among the limitations presented by the English alphabet as a phonetic system, mainly by identifying your objectives in wedding sound to letter.
Your objectives will be:
- Presenting your students with a useful tool to record sounds they’re learning
- Helping students to recognize the sound value of a letter to aid in deciphering a written word
We’ll take a look, first, at a simplified scheme of basic sound-letter relationships in English. Then we’ll look at some ESL activities that can systematically help your students associate sound to symbol.
Sounds Good! 5 Big Ideas and 7 Activities for Teaching English Letter Sounds
Let’s begin by dividing those 26 symbols into their two major categories: consonants and vowels.
The Big Letter Sound Ideas to Teach
What, exactly, is a consonant? This will be a sound that’s produced by either vocal chord vibration or simply air which, on its way out, is somehow altered or obstructed.
2. The basic alterations of letter sounds
A first alteration would be any part of the vocal apparatus (parts of the body involved in producing sound—vocal chords, nose, mouth, etc.) obstructing the sound or air. The three letters that involve this kind of obstruction are: l, m and n.
A second alteration involves some type of friction—the sound gets out, but rubs against some part of our vocal apparatus. The letters that fall into this category would be: f, j, s, v and z. The most common digraphs (combination of two consonants that represent one sound) that make friction would be ch, dg, ph, sh and th.
We finally come to sounds where the vocal apparatus stops then releases the sound. These sounds first include the glottal stops represented by c (as in cat), g (as in good) and k (as in kite). Then we have the plosive sounds represented by b, d, p and t.
So, our basic code list representing common consonant sounds would be:
b, c (as in cat), ch, d, dg, f, g (as in good), j, k, l, m, n, p, ph, s, sh t, th, v, z
Note: When teaching pronunciation, we often have to place the above consonants into “voiced” and “unvoiced” categories (vocal chord vibration or not).
When teaching basic sound value though, we can happily overlook this distinction, as a voiced consonant can become unvoiced simply because of the sound environment mentioned above.
However, if you’d like more information on the different terms used to describe the various consonant sounds, there’s a handy reference here. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to stick to the basics and leave such subtleties for actual pronunciation work.
3. Seen but not heard: silent letters
There are several times when a consonant will not be pronounced in an English word. This usually occurs in words adapted from other languages and when there are two consonants together, as in the case of:
knee; gnome; psychology; write; clim b; ta lk; colum n; lis ten; whole
While there are innumerable examples of the silent consonant (and vowel!), you can group the most common ones into categories.
For teaching purposes, try putting up a large chart with several columns, each representing a particular double-consonant-with-one-silent digraph. At the head of each column, write the digraph in question: kn, gn, ps, wr, mb, lk and wh.
Each time a word comes up in class that falls into one of those categories, write it in the appropriate column and highlight the similarities like word origin that might have brought about the spelling vs. phonetics conflict. For example, knee and know share Middle English and Germanic origin, and they both went through an interesting pronunciation development as their sources and English drifted apart.
4. The letters left out
Yup, there are some letters that we consider consonants that aren’t on the above list, and for pretty good reasons. Let’s look at them separately:
The letter h is all by itself. Sometimes we sigh it out, sometimes we don’t. It’s often combined with a c, g, p or t to make one of those digraphs. Not a strong consonant, important in spelling but almost soundless in our discussion here.
The letter q in English will almost always be followed by a written u. Exceptions exist, mainly in words of Arabic or even Chinese origin. We can teach qu as a double sound of the k and the w combined.
The letters r, w and y fall into that sometimes so-called semi-vowel category. Nothing obstructs the sound they represent, though there’s often an alteration based on positioning or movement of the vocal apparatus.
Finally, x is usually ks in one letter.
There, I don’t think we’ve left any out. Let’s take a gander at vowels, then—the tone and heart of English.
There are a couple of dozen vowel sounds in spoken English. What’s more, if we counted all the possible vowel sounds from all the English dialects in the world, we might be able to double that number.
In actual speaking, though, so many of those studied sounds end up getting transformed to that neutral sound we like to call “schwa,” represented by putting the lowercase “e” on its head. Not really a letter.
For our purposes, combining graphic representation to basic sound, we’ll just stick to the time-worn “long” vs. “short” vowel pattern many of us learned back in grade school.
Take a look at this chart for a simple way to begin getting a grip on these sounds:
Long (note multiple spelling idiosyncrasies!)
|ē||even, three, dream, thes
Without getting too nitty-gritty about vowel sounds, most of them are a combination of two different tones, expecially in the case of the “long” sounds.
This concept will be challenging for some students whose native language may give simpler, more “pure” values to those same letters, for example Spanish or Italian speakers.
That weird “-ough” thingy
“The wind was rough along the lough as the ploughman fought through the snow, and though he hiccoughed and coughed, his work was thorough.”
That sentence, attributed to no one in particular, clearly illustrates that this peculiar leftover from ancestors (and even current siblings) of modern English will be confusing (and maybe a bit frustrating) for your students.
Though the vowel + “gh” spelling isn’t uncommon, it’s not so prevailing as to mean you can’t simply teach each instance as it comes to your students’ attention, always highlighting that there simply isn’t just one way to assign sound to that combination.
7 ESL Activities for Teaching Letter Sounds
First, a quick note on phonics-based activities
Many might think that phonics, the teaching of reading through the sounding out of individual letters, was the definitive answer to previous sight reading methods. This, however, was not the case. Learning to read through sounding out had actually been the norm for a while, while the so-called “look-say” method was a brief parenthesis.
One of the difficulties you’ll find with trying to use phonics in your ESL classroom is that it’s mostly useful for native English speakers.
Because of the myriad spelling irregularities in English, while a native speaker can identify a known word even when only sounded out approximately, an ESL student who doesn’t already know the word being sounded out will simply be trying to pronounce a foreign word. This limits its efficacy to only already learned vocabulary.
On the other hand, having students whose native language doesn’t share the English alphabet simultaneously learn a new alphabet and its basic sound values has been shown to be advantageous in specific situations. Repeated use of phonics in your class may help students to begin to recognize patterns based upon root words that become longer words.
In either case, since so many students will be faced with English texts when doing homework or in their daily lives, it’s certainly not harmful to teach the basic concepts of phonics to your ESL students.
How to present sound/letter associations
Before getting to the activities, let’s talk about the best way to present the letters and their respective sounds. In many cases, you may want to use double annotation: writing the word on the blackboard as correct spelling dictates, while noting the actual pronunciation of the word beside it. You’ll want your students to note words in this fashion as well.
I suggest you use, as much as possible, the actual English alphabet when making this annotation. The best way to clearly indicate that what you’re writing is sound value and not spelling is to always make these notes in traditional square brackets [like this]:
enough [ē nŭf]
Besides having a large chart visible to all your students that includes the consonants, digraphs and vowels discussed above, any new word you introduce to your students should be noted on the board. You would first spell the word correctly, then annotate in square brackets and, if possible, the translation of the word following it in the students’ native language.
By having your students copy your habit of this double annotation, you’ll be helping them distinguish between spelling and pronunciation while reinforcing the basic sound value of each of the letters they use, both in the spelling and phonetic transcription.
Note the use of the symbol on the vowels from the above chart to distinguish between long and short sounds.
Once you’ve noted the spelling then the pronunciation, another trick is to underline diagraphs (enough) and cross out silent letters (
Now, let’s get to those activities!
1. Letter name / sound quiz
I used this activity at least once a week with younger kids. They love challenging themselves and each other by accumulating points and seeing how many more points they earned from the previous quiz.
- Complete single letter and digraph flashcards
- A point chart with students’ names in the first column and a column for each date you do the quiz to record progress and show it to the students
How to play:
- For letter names, use the single-letter cards. Shuffle them up.
- Put Dana in the “hot seat.”
- Hold up the first letter card. She must immediately say the name of the letter.
- If she gets it right, put the card face down in one pile. If she gets it wrong or isn’t quick enough, put the card face down in another pile. (Keep a steady rhythm and give her only a couple of seconds for each card. We don’t want her to begin at a and run through the letters in order until she can tell you that she sees a g.)
- Count up how many she got right and record the number.
- Show the cards she got wrong and ask other students to volunteer the name of the letter.
- Move on to Vicente and through the entire class.
Adjust exposure speed to your student’s individual knowledge. If Vincent is really good at this, flip through the cards really quickly. If Anna has trouble, give her a little (but not much!) more time to remember.
Now, add the digraph cards, this time students making the basic sound of the letter.
You may think that kids will fidget, impatient for their turn, but this won’t be the case. The hot seat student gets personal attention for a couple of minutes while the rest eagerly watch for the one in the hot seat to do better (or worse!) than last week.
2. Mixed up ABC song
- Alphabet flashcards (don’t forget to include the digraphs!)
How to play:
- First round, hand out all the single letter cards in order.
- Have students line themselves up in alphabetical order.
- Now, have them sing the ABC song with the names of the letters, each student singing out their letter.
- Now, have them sing the ABC song with the basic sound of the letter. Vowels can be either long or short sounds.
- Collect the alphabet cards, add the digraph cards, hand them out, three to each student, have them sing the alphabet song out of order, simply singing the sounds of the cards they have.
3. Sing and whisper beat box
- Vowel flashcards (cards with a, e, i, o, u, several of each one)
- Consonant flashcards
How to play:
- Hand a vowel flashcard to each of your students.
- Put them in groups of two or three students.
- Hand out consonant flashcards to each group member.
- Have them improvise a rhythmic sound-song, each using the syllable created by their combination.
So, Joan, with a “b” and an “a” card, has two choices, either bā or bă. He may start the song by giving the basic beat, bă / bă / bă / bă. He then invites Susana to join him, by adding her “w” and “e” syllable, wē / wē / wē / wē. Then they can alternate: bă / wē / bă / wē, then add another student.
- Give the groups about five minutes (use that egg timer!) to compose their beat box song, then have each group present, showing the pair of flashcards when they make the syllable that they’re singing.
4. Silly Scrabble
- Scrabble tiles (probably from a couple of sets) or letter cards
- Vocabulary list from current lessons
How to play:
- Distribute the tiles to your students at random, making sure that they have at least five tiles each (more if you have an abundance).
- The tiles should be face-down on their desks.
- Recite a vocabulary word to your students.
- Students quickly turn over their tiles and find sounds that are in that word. Students must then find others who have sounds that they don’t have to make the entire word.
So, let’s say you just said the word “blackboard.” Students will need to find the letters that represent the sounds b, l, a, k, o, r and d. No one will have all the sounds necessary. They’ll need to join forces to create the word, once they have their individual contributions.
- Once two or several students have gathered to make the word, have them pronounce it, each making the sound that they have. So, if Juan has “b” and “a” and María has l and k, they’ll do this: Juan: b; María: l; Juan: a; María: k.
It’s very important to remember that this isn’t a spelling game. It won’t matter if a student uses a “c” instead of a “k” to represent the k (as in kite) sound. Nor will it matter if a “p” is used instead of the second “b”: these are a voiced/unvoiced pair, articulated in the same way.
5. Syllable Scrabble
Again, you’ll need those scrabble tiles.
In this game, you want your students to first create syllables, consonant + vowel.
How to play:
- Hand out all the tiles.
- Have students make as many consonant + vowel syllables as they can with the letters they have.
- Ask Gerry to pronounce, loud and clear, one of his syllables. He shouts out “po.” Lucy has a syllable she can add and shouts out “ta.” With a bit of luck, someone will have to to conclude the word. And, another student may have an s that adds a final touch to “potatoes.”
- Once a word has been made, collect those tiles from Gerry, Lucy and the other students.
- Continue until no more words can be made with remaining tiles.
You can adapt this activity to a “wander about” one simply by having students stand up and look for someone with whom they can construct words. You can also give chips or play money to students for each tile spent.
Distribute and play again.
Note: Add special vowel sound spellings when you feel students are ready.
Once your students have a firm grasp on the basic sounds that individual letters and consonant digraphs represent, you can introduce some of the odd letter combinations that represent vowel sounds.
Make special flashcards with these combinations (for example, for the long ē sound, ee, ea, e + silent e, y, ie and ei) and gradually include these spellings to help your students begin to remember those.
The same can be done with words that contain silent consonants.
6. Phonics matchmakers
- Consonant, consonant cluster and consonant digraph flashcards
- Vowel and vowel combination flashcards
- Poker chips or play money
How to play:
- Mix the consonant and vowel flashcards (it’s a good idea to make each type a different color to help students find a partner for word-making).
- Sit at the front of the room and have your students line up to receive a card.
- As soon as everyone has a card, students have to move about to find one or more students with whom they can create a word.
- Once two or more students have made a word, they must come to you and present their word.
- If you accept the word, give each student a token or a bill and a fresh card. Collect their cards and mix them back into the deck.
- At the end of the playing session, count up chips or money to see who participated in making the most words.
Ignore spelling and exact pronunciation in this one. For example, if students bring you “ha pee” for “happy,” accept it, point out the correct spelling and move on. The students have recognized the sound value of “ee” and that’s where you’re focusing.
7. The phonics spelling bee
- A list of words from former and recent lessons
- Tokens or play money
How to play:
- Choose three students.
- The first goes to the board. The second reads the word to be spelled. The third spells out the word. The first writes the word as it’s being spelled.
- If the word is spelled correctly, the speller receives a token.
- If the word is spelled incorrectly, the first changes places with the third. The second reads the word again. The first has the chance to spell out the word while the third notes it on the board.
- If the word is spelled correctly, the speller receives a token.
- If the word is spelled incorrectly, the second spells out the word while the first and third write out the word on the board.
- Once any of the three spells out the word correctly, have the trio sit and bring a new trio up to play.
A variation of this activity would be to have students make the letter sounds instead of naming the letters. This can be done after having played the first way a few times.
Make sure to rotate quickly so all students get a chance to be reader and speller.
The Final Sound Off
Coming to grips with the sounds that letters make in English can be a challenge both for you as a teacher and especially for your students. New symbols representing new sounds and sound combinations, frustratingly irregular spelling rules and interference from native language can make the process seem nearly all uphill.
On the other hand, if you make the effort from the outset to let your students know that despite the irregularities, there’s a method behind how we pronounce and speak English and how we write it down, you’ll be giving them an invaluable tool for their efforts in taking notes, learning how to write and finally making reading easier.
As long as you keep spelling at an arm’s-length from letter sounds, you’ll find your students adapting to English letter-sound combinations and finally learning rapidly, just as you did, that English can be spelled, written and read by anyone.
Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.