Teaching Similar Phonics Sounds to ESL Students

Teaching ESL students to speak English fluently and naturally requires a strong emphasis on phonics. Many of the sounds of the English language are simply not used in other languages, and ESL students can easily confuse many of the sounds, or treat two different sounds as if they are the same.

A prime example of this is the “short e” sound (as in “met”) and the “long a” sound (as in “mate”). To many ESL students, the words “met” and “mate” will sound exactly the same, and this can make it difficult to understand them in casual conversation. (Imagine someone asking over and over, “Do you know Jane?” when they are really talking about someone named “Jen”.)

Students also tend to confuse the “short I” sound (as in “hit”) and the “long e” sound (as in “beef”). This can easily lead to confusion. Imagine someone saying “John beat me!” when he/she really means to say “John bit me!” Or take the more classic example of someone talking about how much they love the “beach”, when it sounds like they are saying something much, much different (and much more inappropriate).

Check out these free, printable lessons, which compare and contrast sounds that may seem similar to ESL learners:

Short a vs. Short e

Short a vs. Long a vs Short e

Short i vs. Short e vs. Long e

Short i vs. Short e vs. Long e

Thr vs. Fr

Similarly, it can be difficult for students to master the subtle different between “short e” (as in “bed”) and “short a” as in (“bad”). In my own conversations with ESL students, I’ve gotten stuck several times trying to understand what a student is saying because of this small difference.

And it’s not only vowels that are hard for ESL students to tell apart. Sounds such as “fr” (as in “free”) and “thr” (as in “three”) often sound the same coming out of the mouth of a non-native speaker. Also, if students don’t have a “v” sound in their native language, they will be likely to produce it as “b”, leading to further confusion.

If all of these problems are not addressed in the course of a phonics class, students will end up speaking unintelligible English, regardless of how well they understand the grammar and vocabulary words. You will be struck by sentences such as “Ban has free pats”, when they mean “Ben has three pets”.

To remedy this, it is important to stress these similar sounds in phonics class, giving the students a chance to practice saying these sounds as well as hearing them. This can be the difference between a student who is praised for sounding like a native, and a student who is greeted with furrowed eyebrows and questioning looks.

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