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Phonics for English Language Learners

Learning to read, spell, and write can be difficult for ELLs. By teaching phonics to English language learners, you can build a strong foundation that will help your students reach success.

Fun fact: learning to speak English is really, really hard! Think about all the “weird” sounds we get out of letter combinations. Don’t believe me? Think about the word “sugar.”

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It starts with an “s” and is followed by a “u.” Phonetically, it makes zero sense these two letters together would make the “sh” sound. So, how can we help English language learners to be better readers through phonics?

Fun fact: learning to speak English is really, really hard! Think about all the “weird” sounds we get out of letter combinations. Don’t believe me? Think about the word “sugar.” Click To Tweet

For starters, by teaching them the fundamentals and then throwing in our silly little “exceptions” later on. 

We know learning how to speak English, and therefore read English, can be incredibly difficult, but there is a good starting point to help our English language learners. Where do we start? Well at the very beginning of course!

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

When we are first learning how to speak and read in English, we want to make sure we can start the word off right. There are many ways we can use phonics activities to master beginning sounds. 

Sort it Out

One way to learn beginning sounds or practice beginning sounds is by choosing between five and ten letters. This range can change and should be whatever works best for your students. 

  1. To start “sorting” out your sounds print your letters and cut them into even squares. 
  2. Then find pictures or better yet physical items that start with that letter sound. 
  3. Review the sounds of each letter. 
  4. Review what each object is.
  5. Have students tape the letter on the picture or the object that matches that sound. 

You can repeat this game over and over again until students have mastered the sounds letters make at the beginning of words. Keep in mind it may take extra time to learn vowels because of the short and long vowel sounds. 

Sounds Tic-Tac-Toe

What child doesn’t like Tic-Tac-Toe? When starting this game, I usually play it in my small group instruction and I play against the students until they understand the game play.

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  • This game is played like traditional tic-tac-toe.
  • Players take turns by first reading the word on the marker they are going to use, then placing it on the game board to cover the corresponding picture.
  • First player to get three in a row wins.

Tic-Tac-Toe may seem like a simple game but it is very effective. Engaging and hands-on activities like this one allow students to have fun while learning.

Touch, Build and Blend

Another way to practice beginning sounds is through the Touch, Build, and Blend sound game.

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  1. Begin by giving students a picture card with blending words.
  2. Students will use the dots under each sound to follow with their finger and TOUCH the sounds as they blend them to read the word.
  3. Then, give students the word building cards.
  4. Students will say the name of each picture word and listen for the sounds they hear.
  5. Students will use letter tiles or provided letter cards to build the words then read them.
  6. Each word a student builds and blends correctly gives them one point.

You can play this game as often as you like and allow students to use their points for prizes. 

Sound Bingo

Once a majority of your beginning sounds are mastered, you can play “sound bingo.” Sound bingo works like this. 

  1. Use a bingo card generator online to make your Bingo Cards. 
  2. Then give students squares of construction paper or anything to cover up the letters. 
  3. Play various games of bingo saying words or simply making the sounds the letters make. 
  4. Students cover up the letters they have to get a bingo. 

Again you can give points for bingo wins or prizes or students can just experience the glory of winning! Regardless, this is a fun game to help students learn their beginning sounds 

Spin Write Cover

Another game that my students love is Spin, Write, Cover. This game is available in my Phonics for ESL Intervention Year Long Bundle.

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For this game, students will use a paperclip (or you could assemble with a plastic spinner), game mats, and marking pieces such as bingo chips, mini erasers or small linking cubes.

  • Students will spin spinner.
  • What ever sound pattern the spinner lands on, Player 1 will cover one picture word on their board that has the spelling pattern.
  • Players will take turns until one player has covered all spaces on their game board.

This game is interactive, hands on, and makes a great addition to your word work centers in the classroom.

Beyond the Beginning

Moving beyond the beginning sounds, there are several other fun phonics games you can play with your English language learners. 

Stretch It Out

One way to start working on putting letters together is to stretch it out. For this activity you will need: 

  • Letters that have a hole punched on the top. 
  • A piece of string that will hold three to four letters. 

When you stretch it out, you start with two or three letter words and spread them out on a piece of string. Then you discuss what each sound makes. For example, “f, a, n”. Discuss what each letter sound makes individually and then put the sounds together. 

You can repeat this with longer words as your English language learner gets better at phonics. 

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Roll It

Another way to teach words is to take a toilet paper roll and cut it about an inch and a half in. On the longer half write down endings that are common like –at and –an. Then on the shorter side write single letters that will make the endings complete words like “b” or “f.”

Students will get used to these words and hopefully transfer this knowledge to other words as well. 

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As an active ESL teacher, I have found that giving my students hands on activities to learn English is best practice and provides my students with concrete and tactile learning.

To help in this, I started creating units of phonics instruction that would help my students when mastering their phonics skills in class.

This year long bundle will have all you need to effectively review phonics skills with your english language learners.

This year long bundle will have fifteen units when completed and cover the following skills:

  • Short Vowels
  • Long Vowels
  • Consonant Digraphs
  • Diphthongs
  • Double /oo/
  • Bossy R
  • Double Consonant Endings
  • Hard and Soft C and G
  • Trigraphs
  • Final Stable Syllables
  • L-Blends
  • R-Blends
  • Final Blends
  • Prefixes and Suffixes
  • Synonyms and Antonyms

Whenever we are starting something new there are so many challenges, but we find a way to make it work! One way to help overcome challenges is to help each other through innovative activities.

Be “that person” for your English language learners and use phonics to help them out! Not only will they have fun, but the hands on activities will help them remember the sounds words make.

Helping these learners become better readers will ultimately help them be successful not only in your classroom but in all their classrooms and lives to come after. 

Interested in more activities that can help your ELLs? Check out this blog post on vocabulary review. You might also like this blog post on how to use Boom Cards to help your students while using technology to learn.

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