Teaching phonics is an important aspect of a balanced literacy program. This is especially true for ELLs. Phonics is the relationship between sounds and the letter or letters used to write it. 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 a picture before students read new words, matching pictures and words, or finding texts with photographs that include words in the text.
Set up a word study program
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 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 and Sorting with ELLs.
Connect word study with guided reading books
In addition to or instead of a separate word study program, guided reading books and content subjects are great places to find phonics topics. Look for word patterns that appear in the book that your ELLs are reading. This way the phonics work connects to the book that they are reading. For older students, this is one way to fit in phonics instruction if you do not have a dedicated time for it.
Give students time to practice with letters and sounds
Having a word work center is a great way to incorporate more independent practice time for ELLs. It is a good idea to use words and pictures that students have seen before so that students will be familiar with the vocabulary words. Using real objects is also a beneficial way to connect phonics and vocabulary.
Focus on teaching vowel sounds.
If time is limited for phonics instruction one area to focus on is vowel sounds.
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.
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One fun activity that does have an aspect of nonsense words is to read the book Did You Take the B from my -ook. In this book the letter b is removed from words. Students can help say the correct word with the b added back in. As an extension have them take a familiar story or guided reading book and use sticky notes to cover up a letter at the beginning of the book. Then they can share their own version of Did you take the ___ from my book.
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.
Alphabet Puzzles- These self-correcting puzzles are a fun way for young students to practice initial letter sounds. There are alphabet charts that show all of the vocabulary used in the puzzles. This is a great way to review the picture with ELLs before having them practice using the puzzles.
Color by Code Sheets- These color by code sheets are differentiated. One set has additional pictures and the other only has pictures with the target letter or blend. There is also a set of vocabulary sheets. You can use them either to review beforehand or for students to use as a reference for the pictures.