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Chapter 6     Teaching the Sounds of English

By the time that native English-speaking children go to school, even kindergarten, they should know the English alphabet.  However it is unlikely that non-native speaking children will know it.  The alphabet is fundamental to learning English.

Remember too that learning is achieved by comparing new information with information a learner already has.  Your young students may not even know their own alphabet - if their language has one.  It may surprise some but not all languages do. Languages such as Chinese use pictograms or pictures symbolizing words.  An alphabet may therefore be a new concept.

You will likely have to teach the alphabet from the very beginning including recognizing the letters and their sounds. You can have fun with the sounds and introduce them along with pictures of words that begin with those sounds.

Teach the Alphabet rhyme:

You and Vee
Double you・xx...Why・ed  (Zee if you are teaching American English)

It is important that children be able top relate the letters and sounds quickly to things in their world ・things that have meaning to them.  Therefore you want to relate the letters and sounds quickly to words.  Here pictures can assist you tremendously. Any student remembers things much faster and retains it longer if he sees it as well as hears it.

Teaching with Pictures

Pictures are essential when teaching young children.  It helps them to quickly visualize what you are trying to convey.  Teaching with pictures lends itself to many activities and teaching games.

A is for ・nt
B is for・all
C is for・at

Children love to cut out pictures. You can easily make up a booklet with the alphabet letters in one section and pictures in another.

Have your students find the letter that the picture begins with. They then cut out the letter and paste it next to the picture.

Related activities can include pronouncing the word・dding other letters and colouring the pictures once student have pasted the letters beside them.  Where do you find the pictures?  Bookstores are full of colouring books.  The Internet is another great source.  Clipart files work well, too.

For new learners, you can have the letters and pictures already pasted together on the wall. Then students merely have to find the right letters and pictures in their books.

A-maze-ing Sounds

Draw a maze on a very large sheet of paper.  Put pictures on it of things that begin with each letter from A - Z.  Students trace the maze, going from A to Z according to the beginning sounds of each picture.

Alphabet Hop
Tape the letters of the alphabet to the floor, as an obstacle course.  Children hop and say the letters in sequence to follow the trail to a surprise destination.
Alphabet Train
Attach 26 small boxes together.  Paint on the letters of the alphabet.  Use the train for letter recognition activities, and to sort and store pictures or small items corresponding to the letters of the alphabet.

Newspaper Collage
Cut letters from the newspapers to make collections, alphabetical order, spell name, make labels, create artworks etc.

Newspaper Cluedo
Hunt for and circle certain letters as teacher calls sounds. Play in pairs for speaking practice.

Lucky Dip
Make an envelope for each child in the class.  Put selected letters inside.  Sit in circle and take turns to take out a letter and sound it.  If the child can稚 sound it,  they have to put it back in the envelope and wait for their next turn to take out a letter and try again.  The winner is the first one with an empty envelope.  This game can be adapted later for reading words or photocopies of vocab pictures.

Round the World.
(Boisterous game for large area.)  Have two or three children running at once.  Put up 10 letters of the alphabet around the class or field.  Teacher begins the sound chant with a letter:  殿-a-a-a-a・and changes to another sound 鍍-t-t-t-t-t・when the players arrive at the correct letter.  Keep changing the sound until you have a clear winner out front. Encourage the other children to join in with the chant and to help point the runners in the right direction. Not for asthma sufferers!  This is another game suitable for multiple language targets.

Use sets of alphabet cards

Alphabet STOP!
Make sets of alphabet cards.  Put a red sticker on about one third of the cards, and a green sticker on the rest.  Children play in pairs using one set of cards for each pair.  Deal out half the cards each, face down.  The first player turns up a card to put in the centre, and makes the sound.  (If they forget to make the sound, they must pay a forfeit.)  If the card has a green spot they get more turns, until they turn up a red.  If it痴 a red spot, the other player says 鉄TOP・and takes their turn.  (Before playing the game the pairs can race each other to arrange their cards in alphabetical order, and then sing the alphabet song.)

Cut out small cardboard fish.  Write a letter or draw a star on each fish, then attach a paper clip.  This game is best played in groups of five or six.  Each group gets twenty or thirty fish to put letter side down in their 都ea・ and a magnet attached to a string.  Give each player a small 澱ucket・(or paper cup) to collect their fish in.  Players take turns to catch a fish with the magnet.  If they can say the sound, and name a word starting with that letter, they get to keep their fish.  Otherwise they must throw their fish back in the sea.  If they hook a star, they keep it and have another turn.  Magnet fish are also excellent tools for learning sight words.

Scrambled Eggs.
Write the letters of the alphabet into the bottom of three egg cartons.  Sort 都crambled letters・in.  Variation: put a counter inside a carton.  Close and shake.  Open, name the letter and say a word starting with it.

Alphabet Hop
Tape the letters of the alphabet to the floor, as an obstacle course.  Children hop and say the letters in sequence to follow the trail to a surprise destination.

Me Words
Use the letters of childrens・names to make acronyms and display as a poster.

School Scavenger Hunt

Do a school scavenger hunt. First your students must find something that begins with "A," and then they find something that begins with "B," and so on. Once all the items are collected take a picture of your students in the middle of the items so you can all can remember what a wonderful thing your students accomplished.

I Spy

"I Spy" is an age-old children's game that has stood the test of time.  It is as useful today as it was a century ago.  You start by saying, "I spy with my little eye, something that starts with a 'B". Students look around the room for something that begins with that letter.  As students guess you might say "Good guess・ut that's not what I was thinking of. Try again!"  When someone gets the right answer, that student gets to pick the next object.  You can 'sweeten the pot' by offering a candy to winners.

Sometimes you will have to 砥nteach・things that school aged children have learned about English in their first language schools.

Often they will have been taught to spell by rote memoriziation.  You will see their eyes look inward to their memory store, then they will recite 鼎-A- T ・cat・ without any understanding of the phonetic connection between the letters and the sound of the word.  These children will often know the alphabet, and will be able to tell you that 鄭・sounds like 殿pple・  But show them an unknown CVC word, such as 堵ap・or 菟it・and they will be unable to read it.  It can be very valuable to take even older  students back through the basics to fill in the gaps in their understanding.

However you go about helping your students to learn the sounds of English, make sure you keep it creative and exciting. This will help your students to know that they are active participants and will increase their motivation and interest level in what they are learning.

If you can find a way to turn learning into a game, you will not have any problem getting your students involved with learning anything.

Useful games for testing and teaching phonic knowledge to children above the age of four or five, are variations of

鼎razy Word.・lt;/FONT>
Make up sets of letter cards in three different colours.  The first set should be initial consonant sounds (avoid difficult.or changeable ones such as 田・or 度・ but include 鍍h・ 都h・and 田h・)  The second set will be the middle vowels. (Later, more difficult vowel blends such as 兎e,・amp;nbsp; 登u・amp;nbsp; etc, can be added.)  The third set will be the final consonant sound. ( Once again, avoid the problem ones which break the rules, such as 途・or 努・)  Number the sets 1,2,3. These card can then be put together, first letter, second letter, third letter to form 田razy・or real words, and can be used in many games and activities.

 -   Use the cards individually as flashcards to have fun with the phonic sounds.  填nteach・the children from saying 殿ye ・a ・apple・  Who can say 殿-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a....・ the longest with one breath when you bring out the card?  Have fun with a starting car act as you say 途-r-r-r-r-r-r-...・amp;nbsp;  These practices can also help to correct the difficulties that some children will have with sounds that don稚 exist in their native language.  The keys to the success of these activities are imagination, repetition and fun.

 -  Put the three piles of cards face down on the ground.  Turn over one card from each pile to form a word.  Sit in a circle and sound out the words together or in teams.  Have pairs of players compete to sound out the word you make as you turn over a new card from one or other pile. (Changing only one card at a time helps children to see the connections between word families).  Award points to the winner痴 team, and extra points to the team who then says the word all together, the best, the loudest, the funniest.  Identify 途eal・ words.

 -  Have team relays using two game sets.  Players run to the front, turn over one new card and read the word that is formed, then run back and the next runner goes.  The winning team is the one which has turned over its・complete set of cards first.

 -  Hold 鼎razy Word・spelling competitions where students work together in groups of two or three to write the spelling for 田razy・words you dictate. 菟og; thot; wib・etc.

 -  Later, as childrens・understanding and ability grows, you can introduce consonant blends at the beginning or end or both to make it more challenging.

 -  Reinforce their learning with written excercises.  Let children use imagination or  spinners to make up their own crazy words, which they can then challenge their partners to read.  Help them to write a nonsense poem, as a whole class, then as a group or individual activity.

Alphabet Toss
Divide the class into two teams.  Put one team at each end of the room, with a set of  alphabet cards layed out on the floor in the middle.  Ideally the cards should have the scrabble values written on them for awarding points (x 10).  Players from each team take it in turns to toss a beanbag onto a letter card.  When the beanbag lands, the player must say a word that starts with that letter, before the opposing team can shout the sound of the letter five times.  Make it more challenging by banning the use of the same word twice.

Eggs In The Basket
Divide the class into two teams.  Each team lines up along the front and back wall of the class.  At the head of each line is a basket containing six letter or picture cards.  The first runner from each team must run to the other teams basket, take an 兎gg・and, depending on the target or ability level,  say the sound five times, or say a word that starts with that sound, or name the letter that corresponds with the picture, before running back, putting the stolen egg in their basket, touching the next persons hand and saying 敵O・  then going to the back of the line.  The game continues until one team manages to steal all the eggs.
 This is a good, energizing 都tirrer・ adaptable to any target language.

Tic Tac Toe
A tic tac toe game can be adapted in many ways to give practice in particular areas, and be used either in pairs or as whole class teams challenges.  Draw a tic tac toe grid and put one letter (or consonant cluster, or long vowel sound) inside each partition.   Players  take turns to choose where they want to put their nought or cross by saying the sound of the letter, naming a word that starts with that letter, naming a word that ends with that letter, or has that vowel sound in the middle, depending on their ability level.  An extra dimension can be added by making it Category Tic Tac Toe.  Write the numbers 1 to 6 on the board and a category for each number. (eg. animals, colours, jobs, verbs, etc ・whatever vocab the children have been learning.)  Teams throw a dice to determine which category they must choose their word from, then think of a word that starts with the desired letter.  Bonus points for spelling.


The BBC hosts a very worthwhile website for young learners:

This has excellent interactive games and activities which reinforce phonic knowledge, teach reading and spelling, and provide  good listening practice.

Phonics and Whole Language Learning

Can Phonics work together with Whole Language Learning?

Proponents of each maintain their particular approach is the key to engaging children in reading. As arguments over methods -- arguments often based on politics as well as education -- intensify, the ability to read well is more critical than ever.

Indeed, the ability to read is vital! Children who don't succeed at reading are at risk of doing poorly in school. That's why teachers and administrators are under increasing pressure to raise students' reading test scores. But actually guiding students to improve reading strategies and performance can be more difficult than simply recognizing the need. And then the haunting question remains: Which approach is best?

Simply stated, supporters of the whole language approach think children's literature, writing activities, and communication activities can be used across the curriculum to teach reading; backers of phonics instruction insist that a direct, sequential mode of teaching enables students to master reading in an organized way.

Emerging from the conflict over whole language and phonics is the increasingly widespread view that each approach has a different but potentially complementary role to play in the effective teaching of reading. Many educators now look for ways to use phonics as part of whole language instruction, striving to teach meaningful phonics in the context of literature.

In a recent International Reading Association (IRA) position statement -- a statement that shocked many in the reading community who, rightly or wrongly, had seen the IRA as a bastion of the whole language movement -- the organization took a stance supporting phonics within a whole-language program. In "The Role of Phonics in Reading Instruction," the IRA maintains that:

 - "The teaching of phonics is an important aspect of beginning reading instruction.
 - Classroom teachers in the primary grades do value and do teach phonics as a part of their reading programs.
 - Phonics instruction, to be effective in promoting independence in reading, must be embedded in the context of a total reading/language arts program."

 - "Early, systematic, explicit phonics instruction is an essential part, but only part, of a balanced, comprehensive reading program," maintains John J. Pikulski, IRA President. The organization's position is that no one approach to teaching reading and writing is best for every student.

Cyclical Views

The debate over the best way to teach reading isn't new. In fact, the question has been argued through most of the past century. Different approaches come into favour while others fall by the wayside.  Sometimes, these are 'rediscovered' as teachers continue to look for the best way to teach. In that case, it goes full cycle.

The "look-say" reading method was widespread for 30 years, from around 1940 to 1970. From around 1970 to 1990, phonics was popular. And whole language gained a foothold around 1990. Several other approaches have also been utilized for a briefer time before they were found wanting.

After a global approach, such as the "look-say" method, is popular for at time, the pendulum tends to swing in the opposite direction toward a more analytical approach, such as phonics. Proponents of one method are often extremely critical of another method, as if the effectiveness of each method precluded the success of another.

Following is an article on Phonics vs. Whole Language Learning from the National Education Association in the USA. That body agrees that a balance works best:

Phonics Versus Whole Language: A Balanced View

Children cannot learn to read without an understanding of phonics. All children must know their ABCs and the sounds that letters make in order to communicate verbally. The question in early childhood programs is not whether to teach "phonics" or "whole language learning," but how to teach phonics in context-rather than in isolation-so that children make connections between letters, sounds, and meaning.

Phonics should not be taught as a separate "subject" with emphasis on drills and rote memorization. The key is a balanced approach and attention to each student's individual needs. Many children's understanding of phonics will arise from their interest, knowledge, and ideas. Others will benefit from more formal instruction. There are many opportunities to teach the sound a letter makes when children have reason to know. For example, the first letter a student learns typically is the first letter of her name.

Some teachers worry that encouraging children to learn through experience and inventing their own spellings will not provide them with adequate language skills. But literacy is not so much a skill as a complex activity that involves reading, writing and oral language. Ideally, children should develop literacy through real life settings as they read together with parents or other caring adults. Children begin to make connections between printed words and their representations in the world. Adults should keep in mind that children may learn to read at different paces during kindergarten and first grade. This is true for all children, including those with special needs and those from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds. If parents and teachers work together and demonstrate mutual respect, children's learning will be reinforced at home and in the classroom.


Talk, read, and sing to infants-they learn from everything they see and hear even in the first stages of life.

Take your baby to the park, zoo, and the store with you. Bring her attention to objects, signs, and people.

Always make books a part of your baby's toy selection, even if he enjoys handling books more than being read to. As your student grows, point out pictures of objects and offer their names. Eventually, your student will be able to name the pictures, too.

Encourage associations between symbols and their meaning-as they get closer to toddlerhood, children may begin to recognize familiar signs for products and logos for cereal or fast food restaurants.


Help toddlers make the transition from baby talk to adult language by repeating their words and expressions correctly without reprimanding them. Let toddlers "read" their favorite picture books by themselves while you remain close by to comment. Or, pause before a familiar word as you read to your toddler, and let her fill in the missing word. This works especially well with rhymes or repeated refrains.

Provide magnetic and block letters to introduce a toddler to the spelling of his name.
Before you take your toddler on a new type of outing, read about the events you are about to witness. Talk with your student about the experience, and follow up with further reading to reinforce learning.


Add new books to your student's collection, but keep reading old favorites. Your preschooler may know them by heart now-this represents an important step in learning about reading.

Continue to take children shopping with you, and let them help identify products with coupons. Let preschool children join in as you follow a recipe. Take books on long trips with you to encourage reading as entertainment.


Continue to read to your student, even if she has learned to read already. Take turns reading pages of your favorite books. Encourage story writing by listening to the stories children tell. Play word games like Scrabble or Boggle with children and introduce them to crossword puzzles.

Copyright (c) 1996 by National Association for the Education of Young Children. Reproduction of this material is freely granted, provided credit is given to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

(More on using Phonics in the chapter on Reading)

The TEYL Perspective

ESL students often have little knowledge of phonics and lack strategies for working out an unknown word.  English teaching in their own native school may have relied heavily on memorization of whole words by rote learning.  These students are confounded when confronted by an unknown word. They may believe that they cannot read something unless they have already been taught it.

Their motivation to read may be low, as their experience may be that it is a boring, perhaps frightening chore, with little intrinsic value. Compounding this problem, ESL students often haven稚 had experience of enjoyable, engaging English language reading material.  These will benefit greatly from exposure to good childrens literature. They need books they can read, books that can be read to them, and interest books that they can browse through.

With this in mind, it is obvious that young ESL students need an integrated approach to the teaching of reading, in which phonics instruction  is included within the context of a larger reading and language program.

Ideally, these children would have access to a comprehensive literacy programme, which complements, draws on and adds to their language learning.

The problem for an ESL teacher will often be one of time.  Many language programmes give each student only two or three hours per week, and some as little as 40 minutes.  A comprehensive literacy programme (such as the one adopted by British schools), sets aside one hour per day for the exclusive study of reading and writing.  To gain the most benefit from their limited time, ESL students will need an adapted approach which maximises learning through the use of accelerated  techniques, enhances the childrens motivation to read, and teaches language at the same time.

Some ESL teachers may be tempted to neglect the teaching of reading, in favour of having more time to spend on the learning of essential language.  I would caution against this.  Although a reading and phonics programme will take up time, and the results will almost certainly not be as immediately visible as the results of straight language teaching, the long term gains make it vitally important.
Childrens ability to understand, absorb and use language in a wider context will be greatly enhanced.  Their knowledge and understanding of the world will grow, as they are simultaneously learning the language to understand and express the concepts.  Their vocabulary will eventually be extended far beyond that which is actively 鍍aught・ Phonics practice will give the added advantage of improving pronunciation and listening skills.Through reading activities such as pairs, shared or guided reading, students will greatly improve their fluency and confidence in spoken English.  Through the teacher痴 careful choice of stories for reading aloud,  they will learn to sustain active listening, and will be motivated to strive for the meaning of language that is just beyond what they know.  And of course, basic language structures and vocabulary will be learnt and practiced  as a by-product of any classroom instruction.

If you can give them the tools that they need to decipher written language, and the  motivation to want to do so, you will help your students to unlock the doors to their own learning.

So, with perhaps very limited time per student per week, what should an ESL teacher focus on?

It is the ESL teacher痴 challenge to give their students the courage, tools and motivation to begin their reading journey:
 -  Courage ・give encouragement, and provide fun, non-threatening reading experiences
 -  Tools ・teach the particular skills needed for de-coding.
 -  Motivation ・provide interesting, captivating texts.

For additional ideas on teaching literacy, have a look at the National Literacy Strategy on the British government痴  Standards Site:

Go to the NLS Framework and Resources and click on a suitable year group to check out a comprehensive breakdown of  what native English speaking students are being taught. There are also many free downloadable and printable activity and work sheets, including some specific resources for ESL (or EAL as they are now called) students.

Chapter 7
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