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How to Teach Phonics to ESL Students

Updated: Jun 27, 2023


Today we are going to talk about how to teach phonics to ESL children. At times, when teaching English to ESL students, phonics can be often overlooked. However, phonics is extremely useful when teaching English to ESL students. You may also be wondering, if I am teaching phonics to ESL students, how will they know how to use the sounds in words? Do I need to teach them new vocabulary too? These were the questions I was asking myself when beginning to teach groups of children with various languages as their native tongue.


In this blog post we are going to explore if and why you should teach phonics to ESL learners as well as what potential barriers or struggles they may come across. We are also going to look at the steps you could take when teaching phonics to ESL students as well as some activity ideas.


Do you want some free Literacy/ELA resources? Sign up here to receive a free phonological awareness pack, perfect for assessing your student’s phonological awareness through lots of fun activities. After signing up, you will be the first to learn about my new teaching resources, teacher tips and blog posts making sure you always have fun teaching ideas all year round! Click here to sign up!


Should you teach phonics to ESL students?


The short answer is yes. It is useful to teach phonics to ESL students as it is important for them to learn the correct pronunciation of letter sounds. However, phonics should not be taught in isolation but instead in combination with new vocabulary. It would also be effective to use aspects of the Whole Language method where children learn to recognise words instantaneously without the need to sound out. We already do this when teaching students sight words.

When considering teaching phonics to ESL students we need to ensure they have good phonological awareness skills. If you would like to assess your student's phonological awareness my Phonological Awareness Resource Bundle covers all these skills within a wide variety of fun activities. This means they can transfer these skills from learning their first language to learning English as a second language.




What is the difference between ESL, EAL and SEN?


ESL refers to students where English is a second language whereas EAL refers to students where English is an addition language. EAL is a more inclusive term as it applies to a wider range of students however, ESL is more commonly used.

SEN students have special education needs. Having English as an additional language (EAL) is not a SEN. However, there may be SEN students who are also EAL students. It is important to distinguish between the two, but it can be difficult.


Why is phonics important for ESL students?


Phonics is important for ESL students as they can learn the different sounds each letter makes as well as sounds combinations of letters make (digraphs, trigraphs etc). This means they will know how to pronounce certain letter combinations and it will give them the ability to read words. My phonics flash cards are a great resource to use when first introducing new sounds.

Knowing what sound each individual letter and letter combinations make will also increase ESL student’s confidence in a new classroom environment. If ESL students have learned phonics this will also help them develop good spelling skills too.


What are the barriers to learning for ESL students?


There are several potential barriers ESL students may encounter when learning English and Phonics.


For a student to become fully conversant in English, they need to be learning English for 6 years. This can be an obvious barrier if a student has little to no English to start with as it will take them a significant length of time to develop a somewhat fluent level of English.


Another potential barrier to consider is if a student is strong in their own language or not. If a student has experienced difficulties when learning their first language they may experience similar difficulties when learning English.


ESL students being grouped with learners who are a lot younger than them may be another barrier. Although these younger learners may have the same level of English, this could potentially damage self-esteem of the ESL students.


Another possible barrier that ESL students may experience, is if they are required to learn a new alphabet. If an ESL student’s first language is, for example Arabic, they are also required to learn an entirely new written alphabet as well as all new letter sounds. Pronunciation of sounds can be a barrier too for ESL students. Especially if they have learned a new alphabet and the corresponding letter sounds.



Another barrier is that phonics in English is just honestly challenging! In English there are 44 phonemes (sounds) but there are 120 ways of writing these 44 sounds. Sometimes one grapheme (letters used to represent a sound) can represent more than one phoneme (sound) depending on what word it is used in. My phonics flash cards will hopefully make introducing new letter sounds that bit easier as well as fun!


ESL students do well with word reading and decoding but less so with reading comprehension. This can cause a possible barrier when ESL students are reading for a purpose as their understanding of what they are reading may not be accurate. My Reading Comprehension Resource Bundle is a great way for students to develop reading comprehension skills. Students are asked to read simple decodable sentences or short passages and answer comprehension multiple choice questions.


Another potential barrier is if an ESL student’s native language is very different from English, for example Chinese, as this will create an increased barrier than if an ESL student was French or German. This is because there are already a lot of similarities between English and languages such as German, French etc.


Some ESL students may not be exposed to much written English outside of the classroom, for example if at home English is not spoken or written that often. This can also cause a possible barrier for ESL students when learning English.


Why do ESL students struggle with phonics?


When ESL students are learning phonics there are several reasons why they struggle.


One of these reasons is sometimes ESL student's reading skills progress quicker than their writing or understanding skills. Although ESL students may learn and understand phonics when learning English, it doesn’t mean their comprehension is developing at the same rate. My Reading Comprehension Resource Bundle features sentences and passages that use mainly decodable vocabulary meaning they are perfect for developing the comprehension skills of students who are learning phonics.

Another struggle ESL students may experience is they may find it difficult to transfer their learning within phonics inputs to other curricular areas.

Another difficulty ESL students may encounter is if they learn phonics in isolation, it will seem abstract to them and have no meaning and does not in fact help ESL students learn English any quicker.

Lastly, another struggle ESL students can experience is if their English vocabulary is limited as this will cause them some difficulties when blending sounds and giving meaning to what they are learning read.



How do you teach letter sounds to English learners?


When thinking about teaching letter sounds to ESL students, you would introduce letter sounds in the same way as you would to non ESL learners. Show each letter and teach the corresponding letter sound. My phonics flash cards are perfect for introducing all 26 single letter sounds as well as 26 digraphs. Make sure to spend time focussing on the shape you make with your mouth, tongue movement etc. Ensure to spend time practising pronunciation as this can be different from your student’s first language and is important as you don’t want ESL students to be misunderstood in the future.


How do you assess pronunciation in ESL?


During phonics lessons, games and activities give your students plenty of opportunities to practise saying new sounds, words etc they have learned. You can assess their pronunciation when they are doing this. Listen out to how they are pronouncing sounds, are they getting similar sounds such as “b” and “d” or vowel sounds mixed up? My Short Vowel Activity is ideal for determining if your students are hearing the correct vowel sound in CVC words. Students say the word for the picture featured then use the vowel slider tool to help them identify the correct short vowel sound. When your students are ready, they can move onto identifying the correct long vowel sound in the same way using my Long Vowel Activity.

You can also observe your ESL student’s ability to listen to and hear sounds correctly. This can be easily done during group games and activities. When asked to pick out a certain sound, word etc when said by you, are they able to correctly identify what they hear? My beginning, middle and end sounds phonics activities are a great toll to help you assess what sounds your ESL students are hearing at the beginning, middle and end of words.

You can also take notes of your observations, and these will inform your future lessons, activities and games with your ESL students.



How do you teach phonics to ESL learners?


Below I have outlined some tips for teaching phonics to ESL students.


  • You can teach phonics by introducing each letter and its corresponding sound. You can then move onto looking at digraphs and trigraphs. My phonics flash cards are a great way to introduce single letter sounds as well as digraphs. You can use a similar progression you may use with early readers. So beginning with the sounds s, a, t, p, i, n etc. It would also be a good idea to introduce sight words or tricky words that cannot be sounded out at the same time as working through your phonics progression. My sight word flash cards are an excellent resource for doing this and feature the first 100 Fry words.

  • When beginning to ask ESL students to blend words in English, aim to use nouns such as “hat”, “bag” etc . Try and use visuals to go with these words to increase their vocabulary and comprehension of these words. My CVC words Resource Bundle includes lots of hands-on ways to teach blending CVC words including CVC words jigsaws and CVC words flip books!



  • You may want to spend a bit more time reinforcing vowel sounds. These are the sounds that can often be muddled up in various languages. As I mentioned above, my Short Vowels Activity is a fun way to do this!

  • If teaching a whole class or larger group you may want to adapt the lesson to suit ESL learners, what is useful for ESL learners will benefit all learners.

  • You can pre-teach new vocabulary before using it in phonics lessons. For example, teach the English word for “cat” before teaching how to blend the sounds in “cat”.

  • You can use texts that are familiar to ESL learners to highlight new phonics learning of sounds or blending words. For example, well known fairy tales.

  • When using games or activities to help teach English, try and keep the concept or instructions simple. So, games such as pairs, snap etc are perfect! Try and not use games or activities with “nonsense” or “trash” words as if ESL students are still developing their vocabulary they may find this tricky.

  • When planning your phonics lessons consider the following 4 stages of learning new sounds: learn to say letter sound, write letter sound, blending sounds and segmenting sounds.



Phonics Activities for ESL students


Activities for learning letter sounds


Examples of activities could be pairs, snap or bingo where your students can match the same letter or a letter with picture beginning with that letter etc. Make sure that ESL students have been exposed to any new vocab you are using here. Simple flash cards, activities such as “find me …” Also look at digraphs and trigraphs once your students are confident with single letter sounds. My phonics flashcards and sight word flash cards are an excellent resource as you can carry out all the above activities using them!


Activities for writing letter sounds


Examples of activities here would be where you would be exploring letter formation. This can be done through various methods such as written, play dough, loose parts etc. Make sure to give your ESL students lots of opportunities for handwriting practise.


Activities for blending sounds


Ensure that you have introduced CVC word vocabulary first. This can be done using flash cards etc with visuals. Then, you can ask your ESL children to blend CVC words. Resources such as flash cards, bingo, pairs, snap would be ideal activities for practising this skill. My CVC Word Resource Bundle also includes even more fun, hands-on activities such as CVC word flip books that your students can make and CVC word jigsaws.


Activities for segmenting sounds


At first you can give CVC words to your students to segment into individual sounds. Then move onto showing visuals for the words you would like your children to spell out while segmenting the sounds that they hear.


Activities for tricky words


Activities such as tricky word flash cards, spotting tricky words in sentences, writing tricky words on white boards, using tricky word flash cards in activities such as, find me…, pairs, matching, snap, bingo etc will give ESL student lots of opportunities to become familiar with these words.




Overall, it is important to teach phonics when teaching English to ESL students as this allows them to learn the spoken sounds for each grapheme and will enable them to sound out words.


Keep in mind, phonics should not be taught in isolation and should be taught along with new English vocabulary which will give their phonics learning meaning.


Remember to consider the 4 different stages of learning new sounds when planning your phonics lessons and ensure your ESL students have lots of opportunities to say, write, blend and segment any new sounds they learn.


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