Teaching phonics is an important aspect of a literacy program. This is especially true for ELLs. Phonics is the relationship between sounds and the letter or letters used to write them. Phonics connects sounds with letters and combinations of letters. In the English language, there are 26 letters and 44 sounds (called phonemes). A grapheme is how to spell each sound with either a single letter or letter combinations. Phonics helps students learn specific sounds in the English language. For newcomers that have a background in a language that does not use the Western alphabet, phonics is a way to help them learn the letters and sounds of the alphabet.
For older students, it is important to be mindful of the materials that you are using. Photographs are one way to find appropriate pictures. Connecting phonics to content materials is another strategy.
Tips for teaching Phonics to ELLs
This helps to build ELLs vocabulary as they are learning phonics. Sometimes this might mean showing pictures before students read new words, matching pictures and words, or finding texts with photographs that include words in the text.
Use Word Sorts
This allows students to learn about a wide range of word patterns that are appropriate to their developmental spelling stage. The Words Their Way with English Learners is a great resource to get started. I have sets of words grouped by word patterns with simple pictures that can supplement a word study program or that you can use on their own.
One benefit of word study activities including word sorts, is that it allows students to use critical thinking skills as they are learning new vocabulary and phonics skills. Once students have some experience with word sorts they can use an open sort and come up with the categories themselves. Another idea is to use a closed sort (where you give students the category) and challenge students to add additional words that fit the category. In The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox, Ferlazzo explains the benefits of using inductive learning. In it, students are given examples and challenged to find a pattern for them. Ferlazzo states that this method of teaching is especially beneficial when teaching phonics to older ELLs. You can read more information about using Word Sorts with ELLs, Word Word Activities for ELLs, and Sorting with ELLs.
Practice phonics skills in connected text
Decodable books and passages give students practice reading words in the context of sentences and paragraphs. They are typically controlled to only include phonics patterns that students have been introduced to along with a limited amount of high frequency and content words. This allows students to both practice decoding and learn new information or enjoy a story. Reading words in context also helps with vocabulary development since the words are not in isolation. You can read more about using decodable books with MLs and suggestions for Decodable Books to Use with MLs.
For students that are just learning basic letter sounds have them build simple CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words. Include a picture to support vocabulary development. Give students the letters they need to create the word. Then the student just needs to arrange them in the correct order. This process requires students to focus on letter sounds and think about what sound they hear at the beginning, middle, and end of the word.
For students that have a basic understanding of letter sounds, try word chains. A word chain is when words change by only one letter or sound at a time (cat- mat- bat- bet- bed- red). Having students write or build each new word allows them to practice both phonemic awareness skills and phonics skills. I have sets of word chains with matching pictures along with word ladders.
Focus on teaching vowel sounds.
If time is limited for phonics instruction one area to focus on is vowel sounds. This is particularly helpful for older students that may not be receiving phonics instruction in their Language Arts class.
Vowel letters look the same in Spanish and English but are named differently and represent very different sounds. Therefore, English vowel sounds and their numerous spellings present a challenge to Spanish literate students learning to read English because the one-to-one correspondence between vowel letters and vowel sounds in Spanish does not hold true in English (Peregoy & Boyle, 2000).
Use caution with nonsense words
ELLs are already having to learn new vocabulary and for some new sounds that many of their peers already know. Formally teaching nonsense words takes away time that could be used for other purposes and can be confusing to ELLs. Occasionally having students create a list of words that follow a word pattern and then sorting those words into “read” and “nonsense” words is one way to authentically use nonsense words with ELLs.
Resources to Teach Phonics to ELLs
Phonics Mega Bundle– This HUGE set comes with vocabulary sheets, color by code, puzzles, and sorting cards. Here are a few materials that are included in the set.
Decodable Phonics Books Bundle Print & Digital– Help students practice reading new phonics patterns in the context of a short story. The decodable books follow the progression of short vowels, blends, final e long vowels, long vowel pairs. This set comes with one page foldable books and digital Google Slide versions.
Words Their Way for ELLs– An overview of using word sorts with ELLs along with specific strategies to support ELLs.