ESL Phonics Tips Can Help You Recognize
English Words and Spelling Patterns

These ESL Phonics guidelines can improve your reading and spelling. Phonics shows the relationships between the letters and sounds of a language. Most English phonics instruction is to help native English-speaking children learn to read. They need help because of the varied relationships between letters and sounds in English.

Some silent letters in English: examples of silent b, e, h, and k.
Some silent letters in English: examples of silent b, e, h, and k.

ESL Phonics instruction is a little different than the phonics English-speaking children study. Most people studying English as a second (or third or fourth) language are already literate. They are familiar with the basic sounds of alphabet letters in English as well as their own language (if alphabetic.)

If that describes you, you may find that just a little ESL phonics instruction can help a lot in recognizing words you know, as well as understanding how to pronounce and spell new words.

Standard English has about 42 sounds (with some differences for different dialects), but only 26 letters.

Another problem is that many letters can be pronounced in two or more ways, and most sounds can be represented by more than one letter.

There are historical reasons English spelling does not correspond more closely to its sounds.

  • a major shift in vowel sounds after printing began to standardize spellings,
  • no central language academy with authority to enforce consistent pronunciation or spelling, 
  • and heavy borrowing of words from other languages, often retaining part of their foreign spelling.

(For more information, see English Word Origins.)

On this page I’ll try to give a brief explanation of the most common sounds of each letter of the alphabet. Note that most consonants have one main sound, with common exceptions noted afterwards.

Vowels-- A , E, I, O, & U-- have long, short, and ‘r’-controlled sounds, as well as the ‘schwa’ sound for unaccented syllables. For more information on vowel sounds, including vowel combinations (digraphs, in which the combination has a different sound than either individual letter would have in the same location in a word, and cases in which one vowel is silent) see Short and Long English Vowels and English Vowel Digraphs.

See also Consonant Digraph Sounds , which give the letter combinations that can also represent English sounds.

ESL Phonics: Common Sounds For Each Letter

A

Long A: ate, day, plain, plane, say

Short A: at, class, plan, sad

B

bank, bed, boat, bubble, by, double, number, verb

Sometimes ‘b’ is silent, especially after ‘m’ or before ‘t’: comb, debt, doubt, dumb, lamb, numb, thumb.

C

cab, call, cat, coin, colony, cube, cut, lick, sack

cent, celery, certain, cipher, fascinate, lice, race.

C has a hard (‘k’)sound before ‘a,’ ‘o,’ & ’u,’ (or when followed by ‘k’), anda soft (‘s’) sound before ‘e’ or ‘i.’

For CH see Consonant Digraph Sounds (link just above the alphabet list.)

D

dad, dead, decided, said, tried

D makes a ‘t’ sound after certain (unvoiced) consonants: baked, hoped, fixed, guessed, washed.

E

Long E: complete, meaning, peel, sweet, three

Short E: address, desk, exit, pen, red, seven

Silent E (makes the preceding vowel long): close, cube, like, name, take.

F

face, feel, fluffy, free, puff.

(For the F sound, see also GH & PH on the Consonant Digraph Sounds page.)

G

G makes a hard ‘G’ sound before A, O, & U, as well as before L & R and at the middle and end of words: drug, game, gave, glass, glitter, gold, got, grass, great, rag, seagull, segment.

It usually makes a soft ‘J’ sound before E or I:generous, genetic (the same beginning sound as Jennifer), ginger, gist.

Exceptions include the hard G of get, girl, and give. (See also GH, Consonant Digraph Sounds.)

H

hair, half, help, hero, hit, home.

An initial ‘h’ is often silent, (depending on its derivation: the language it came from): herb, honest, honor.

See also CH, GH, PH, SH, TH, and WH in Consonant Digraph Sounds.

I

Long I: five, nine, right, write.

Short I: in, pill, sick, six.

J

J is usually pronounced /dʒ/ in English: jam, John, juice.

For more J sounds see G.

K

back, bake, keep, kind, kiss, make, rack, truck.

At the beginning of words, we usually use K before E or I, and we use C for the /k/ sound before A, O, or U.

At the end of words the K sound is often written CK (to keep the preceding vowel clearly ‘short.’)

For KN see Consonant Digraph Sounds.

L

all, lake, lack, light, lily, listen, love, silent, still.

M

am, make, mine, moment, some.

N

any, man, name, nine, none, turn.

For the N sound see also KN in Consonant Digraph Sounds. (See also the NG digraph.)

O

Long O: alone, boat, bone, cold, no, note, open, own, rose.

Short O: dog, drop, hot, mop, not, on, stop.

P

apple, pay, pen, pie, place, pretty, top, wrap.

(See also PH in Consonant Digraph Sounds.)

Q

(sounds like 'kw'): quantity, queen, quit, quite.

(See QU in Consonant Digraph Sounds.)

R

air, arm, baker, bird, charge, fur, hear, or, ran, red, rose, service, turn.

S

backs, glasses, maps, mats, pots, say, sell, sold.

See also Z (which is the sound S makes after a voiced consonant like B, D, G, L, or R) and see SH in Consonant Digraph Sounds.

T

at, met, pot, tall, test, taught.

See also TH and TION in Consonant Digraph Sounds.

U

Long U: cube, tube, mute, use.

Short U: cup, tub, under, up, us.

(See QU in Consonant Digraph Sounds.)

V

give, leave, love, value, very, visit, voice.

W

want, water, week, wife, will, wood, word.

W is silent in many words beginning WR: wrap, wreck, write, wrong.

See WH in Consonant Digraph Sounds. (Also see the AW, EW, and OW digraphs in English vowels, in which the W takes the place of U: awful, saw, new, brown, cow, grow, show.)

X

X usually makes the sound /ks/: box, excited, six, toxic.

Y

Y makes the International Phonetic Alphabet /j/ sound: year, yellow, yes, yet, you, young.

It can also serve as a vowel, taking the place of I, either as /ɪ/: mystery,

or /aɪ/ : cry, dry, fly, my, sky, try, type, or why,

or /iː/, especially at the end of multi-syllable words: any, carry, city, easy, lonely, sorry, study or very,

It is also part of the AY and OY vowel digraphs in play, say, way,

boy and destroy.

Z

buzz, fuzzy, zero, zoo.

(Many times S, especially in plurals, makes the /z/ sound: boys, news, noise.)

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This has been a summary of some of the most important or helpful ESL Phonics hints for recognizing the words you read, guessing word pronunciations from their spellings or spellings from pronunciation.

Even native English speakers are often unsure how to pronounce a word they read but have not heard.

That’s why English dictionaries begin a word’s entry with its pronunciation (or pronunciations, in some cases!)

Don’t worry too much about getting it perfect. Keep listening and keep reading, and more and more words will become familiar to you!

One good way to learn how to pronounce English words and practice listening and reading comprehension at the same time is with podcasts or videos that provide transcripts (so you can read along as you listen.)

Check out Listening and Reading Comprehension Exercises for several at different levels, as well as quizzes to check your understanding afterward.

HomeESL Reading Hints> ESL Phonics.

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