How to Teach Alphabet Letters Sounds to ESL Students

How to Teach Alphabet Letters Sounds to ESL Students
Page content

Letter-Sound Correspondence

Teaching pronunciation of English as a second language seems daunting to many English language teachers, but, contrary to

popular belief, the English spelling system is neither random nor unsystematic. Begin the ESL lesson on English alphabet letters and spoken sounds by teaching your English language students about the most frequent written letters and letter combinations that represent the spoken sounds of English. Give ESL students a copy of the following chart:

  • Spoken Sound – Written Letter(s)
  • [m] – m, mm
  • [n] – n, nn, kn, gn, pn, mn
  • [ŋ] – ng, n
  • [p] – p, pp
  • [b] – b, bb
  • [t] – t, tt
  • [d] – d, dd, ld
  • [č] – ch
  • [ĵ] – j, g, dg, d
  • [k] – k, c, ck, lk, ch
  • [g] – g, gg, gh
  • [f] – f, ff, ph, gh
  • [v] – v
  • [θ] – th
  • [ð] – th
  • [s] – s, ss, c
  • [z] – z, s, ss, x
  • [š] – sh, ch
  • [ž] – z, s
  • [h] – h
  • [w] – w, wh
  • [r] – r, rr, rh
  • [j] – y, gn
  • [ɾ] – t, d, tt, dd
  • [l] – l, ll
  • [i] – e, ea, ee, ei, ey, y
  • [i] – i
  • [e] – a, ai, ei, ey
  • [ɛ] – e
  • [ӕ] – a
  • [ʌ] – a, e, i, o, u
  • [ə] – a, e, i, o, u
  • [ɑ] – a, o
  • [ɔ] – au, ou
  • [o] – o, oa
  • [ʊ] – oo, ou
  • [u] – oo, u
  • [ɑi] – ai, ey, i, ie, uy, y
  • [ɑu] – ou, ow
  • [oi] – oi, oy

Explain that, although a one-to-one rule does not exist for English spelling, there are many predictable correspondences and patterns for the English orthographic system. For example, although the written letter f most often represents the [f] sound, words of Greek origin usually use the digraph ph to represent the [f] sound. Similarly, the pronunciation of the digraph ch as [č], [k], or [s] also largely depends on the origin of the word. Explain such patterns to help ESL students better understand the connection between letters and sounds in English.

Additional Rules for Vowels

Teaching vowel sounds is often the most difficult aspect of teaching sounds to ESL students. English vowels are traditionally described as short or long. However, these terms no longer describe the length of the vowel but rather a change in vowel sound. The five English vowels (a, e, i, o, u) generally represent different sounds depending on whether a consonant or a consonant plus e follows the vowel. The general rules for the five English vowels are as follows:

  • [ӕ] – a + consonant
  • [e] – a + consonant + e
  • [ɛ] – e + consonant
  • [i] – e + consonant + e
  • [i] – i + consonant
  • [ɑi] – i + consonant + e
  • [ɑ] – o + consonant
  • [o] – o + consonant + e
  • [ʌ] – u + consonant
  • [yu] – u + consonant + e

In addition to the letter-sound correspondence chart, also provide your ESL students with a copy of the rules chart for English vowels.

Alphabet Letter Sounds Activities

Learning about the sounds of the English language requires more than just learning the correspondences between spoken sounds and written letters. Use one or more of the following activities to reinforce how to teach alphabet letters sounds to students of English as a second language:

  • Create lists of unknown English words. Have the ESL students sound out each word. Discuss any words that could be pronounced in multiple ways because of the spelling. For example: h-i-s-t-o-r-y is most likely pronounced as [histori] and [histəri] according to the spelling. Optional: Discuss the dialectal variation across the English language by pointing out the various pronunciations for the same word. For example: c-a-r- is pronounced as [kɑr] in most American Englishes but as [kɑ] in some dialects.

  • Speak words out loud. The ESL students should then write down the word by following the rules for English spelling. Compare spellings. The students might be surprised to find out how many ways, or not, there are to spell some words. End this activity by providing the dictionary spelling of the word. For example: apple could be spelled a-p-p-l-e, a-p-e-l, a-p-l-e, or a-p-u-l according to the sound-letter correspondences for English.

  • Give the ESL students written passages in which one or more words is spelled incorrectly. Make the misspellings obvious in pronunciation. Read the passage aloud while the students try to find the misspelled words. For example: “The publication of thiz index to the Zenate marks the funal stage in the complation of this project.” → “The publication of this index to the Senate marks the final stage in the completion of this project.”

Just as learning how to spell and read in English seems like a daunting task for many English language learners, teacching letter sounds to ESL students can be just as frustrating for the English teacher. Sometimes the rules for spelling in English seem chaotic. However, there are many predictable correspondences and patterns that emerge in the English orthographic system.