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Five Phonics Problems With Teaching ESL

Updated on August 31, 2012

A is for Apple


The importance of phonics can often be overlooked, as it is not one of the macroskills-- reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary, or grammar-- of a language. However, a strong foundation in the sounds of a language is important for developing an understandable accent.

Therefore, when teaching phonics, ESL teachers should be aware of potential issues they are likely to face, as well as useful activities to help students speak the sounds of English correctly. Even placing pronunciation charts on the wall so you can point to the correct sounds while students speak can be very helpful for making students mindful of their pronunciation.

Using a Phonemic Chart Pros and Cons

Sounds Which Do Not Exist in the Student's First Language

If a sound does not exist in the student's first language, they are likely to have difficulty pronouncing it. For example, the Korean alphabet has no equivalent to the letters f, v, and z, so Korean language learners often pronounce them /p/, /b/, and /dʒ/ respectively. Additionally, the sounds /g/ and /k/ and the sounds /r/ and /l/ are each represented by a single letter in Korean, causing further difficulty with correct pronunciation.

In terms of vowels, the sounds /e/ and /i:/ are represented by a single letter, so bit and beat would be pronounced the same, for example. Furthermore, although /æ/ and /e/ are represented by different letters, they have virtually the same pronunciation, so Korean students have difficulty distinguishing between man and men, for example.

As a result of these differences, Korean students often have great difficulty differentiating between these sounds and, as a result, saying them correctly.

The Student Cannot Hear a Given Sound

This is also related to sounds which do not exist in the student's first language. If a given sound does not exist in their language, students may actually hear it as a different sound which does occur in their first language.

This can be combated with minimal pair activities. Minimal pairs are words with only a single different sound. Man and men are minimal pairs, because only the vowel sound is different. In a class of students sharing a single first language, teachers can focus on a limited number of difficult sounds. With a mixed class, teachers can provide a wider variety of minimal pairs.

Example activities which can be used to make students aware of the differences are listen and repeat: the teacher says the two words together and has the class repeat, and listen and circle/ write: the teacher says a word and the students either choose the correct word from a minimal pair provided or write the word they hear.

Hearing a sound correctly is the first step to saying it correctly.

The Student Can Hear a Sound, but Cannot Say It

In some cases, hearing a sound is half the battle. If a given sound does not exist in their first language, even if they can hear it, they still may not be able to say it. Spanish students, for example, can easily hear a trilled /r/, but may need extensive practice to be able to say it reliably, especially in fast speech.

English is no different for language learners. Some sounds, such as /l/, may seem no effort to say, but to many Asian ESL students, it is difficult to even speak as an isolated sound, much less in fast speech.

This is where a diagram of a cross section of a mouth can come in handy. Visually showing students where certain letters are formed, and how, can be far more useful than descriptions alone. "Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth, just behind your teeth," would be more easily understood by most students when accompanied by a visual highlighting exactly how the tongue should be shaped and the exact point of contact between the tongue and palate.

Students Think They are Making a Sound Correctly

This can be a result of the previous three issues combined: if a sound does not occur in the student's first language, they may not hear it correctly or know how to make it correctly. As a result, they may think the sound they are producing is the correct one, even if it is not.

In my own case, I am from the Deep South in the US, and as a teen, I spent a year studying in Germany. Although an English /u/ and a German /u/ are quite similar, I had great difficulty consistently saying it correctly in German, because of my Southern drawl. To my ears (and mouth) the English word true and the German word fruh rhyme, which they may, when Germans say them, because they don't speak with a drawl, y'all.

Fortunately for ESL teachers, modern technology can be a big help. English Central has thousands of hours of video, which students can listen to and repeat, and have their pronunciation graded syllable by syllable. Each syllable they record is marked red, yellow, or green and they can click on any syllable to hear it isolated and get more pronunciation help for free. (There is a subscription option which provides more services, but pronunciation help is free.)

Take a Tour of English Central

Differences in Alphabets

As I said above, I had difficulty as a German student using my English pronunciation of u. When two languages share an alphabet, language learners can have difficulty assigning a new sound to a familiar letter. Sometimes, this can result in overcorrection, such as a German ESL student pronouncing /v/ as /w/. In Korea, I'll have students say things like, "Ferfect!" overcorrecting for the lack of an /f/ in Korean.

When the learner's first language does not use the Latin alphabet, there can be problems created by writing English words in their native alphabet, or by following the rules of that alphabet. For example, in Korean, there are no consonant blends. So, when an English word with blends is written in hangeul (the Korean alphabet), an uh sound is added between the two consonants. (It is also often added after a final consonant.) So, the word brown has three syllables when written in hangeul and is pronounced buh-ra-oon.

To combat this, I play a variety of phonics games, such as Phonics Olympics: the leader says a word and the players flash a "score" related to the number of syllables. To go back to the example of brown above, the correct score would be one. Students with the correct score get a point. Sometimes to make it more challenging, I deduct the number of points between the correct score and the player's score, so a score of three for brown would result in -2 points for the player.

I also stress the importance of strictly using the Latin alphabet when writing English words and pronunciation. Often, students will want to write the pronunciation in hangeul, but that is a bad habit which will lead to pronunciation errors which can be difficult to overcome.

What Phonics Problems Have You Encountered?

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  • Paul Kuehn profile image

    Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


    This is an excellent hub on phonic problems when teaching ESL or EFL. Most of my Thai students have the same problems your Korean students have when making English sounds. Your idea of having a diagram of the mouth to show how sounds are exactly made is excellent. Thanks for the information about English Central. Voted up and sharing with my followers.

  • Jenniferteacher profile image

    Jenniferteacher 4 years ago from Seoul

    The chart really can be helpful. For any students with decent internet connections, English Central can be an excellent resource for solo accent reduction, as well as listening practice, because you can watch the videos with or without transcripts.

  • profile image

    ESLTeachersTales 4 years ago

    This is a great hub for beginning ESL teachers--or even those who have been teaching for a couple of years. It takes some astute observation to notice these things. I love that you include that sometimes students can't hear a sound they're unfamiliar with.

    I have also found that different languages stress vowels and consonants differently so I have difficulty getting some students to stress "s" sounds or other consonant sounds. I can see that they're making a reduced version of the sound but I need to then tell them they need to hit it harder so I can hear it fully. I'm constantly hissssssing at my students to get them to understand the importance of "s" in English.

  • Jenniferteacher profile image

    Jenniferteacher 4 years ago from Seoul

    Good point about the stress differences-- I can see that with my students all the time!

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