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Ells and Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

I have decided to build upon a deep discussion that the Literacy community have been discussing on teaching phonemic and phonological awareness . I recommend following the thread and exploring some of the links shared. These included:

As part of this discussion Jane Carroll shared an article, Do you speak Kiwinglish?: New Zealand's distinct linguistic identity. It helps you to understand the learning curve new arrivals to our country have to go through even if they already speak English.  


Phonemes are the smallest units making up spoken language. Depending on the particular dialect spoken, English has around forty-four distinctive sounds or phonemes.  Phonemes combine to form syllables and words and make a difference to the meaning of words. For example, the word stop has four phonemes (s-t-o-p), while shop has three phonemes (sh-o-p).

Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to identify and manipulate these phonemes in spoken words. It is also the understanding that the sounds of spoken language work together to make words.

ELLs and Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

To add to this discussion I thought I would share a few pointers about ELLs and phonological and phonemic awareness. As I am no expert in this area I have gathered these from a number of websites which I have listed at the end of this update.

  1. Phonemic awareness is difficult for ELLs because they may not yet have enough experience with English to be able to distinguish sounds that differ from those of their native language. ELLs cannot develop phonological awareness in English until they are familiar with the sounds of English. Children should have extensive experiences with fun and appealing songs, poems, chants, and read-a-louds that will allow them to hear and reproduce the sound patterns of English.

 Most second language learners, especially in the early stages of learning the language, make use of the closest sound in their own language when the English phoneme is unfamiliar (and they probably “hear” it as the sound of their own language, too). Gibbons, P. (2002) Scaffolding language, Scaffolding learning pg 113.

  1. Sounds that either don't exist in the first language or sounds that are perceived as different in English but the same in the native language can cause confusion for ELLs. Explicit instruction and opportunities to practice these sounds should be the focus of instruction. Because these differences vary from one language to another, teachers will have to become familiar with which sounds of English will need extra practice, depending on the language backgrounds of their students.
  2. Once phonological awareness has developed in any language, it transfers to other languages that are learned. Therefore, students who are literate in their first language will not need to develop this skill again in English; they will only need to become familiar with the sounds of English and to learn to discriminate sounds that are different between their first language and English.
  3. Some phonemes may not be present in ELLs' native language and, therefore, may be difficult for a student to pronounce and distinguish auditorily, as well as to place into a meaningful context. For ELLs it is important that instruction have meaning, so that the words and sounds students are manipulating are familiar. It is therefore necessary for ELLs to have knowledge of the English vocabulary words within which they are to understand phonemes. Teachers can teach phonemic awareness while also explicitly teaching vocabulary words, their meaning, and their pronunciation to ELLs.
  4. ELLs respond well to meaningful activities such as language games and word walls, especially when the activities are consistent and focus on particular sounds and letters. Songs and poems, with their rhythm and repetition, are easily memorized and can be used to teach phonemic awareness and print concepts to ELLs (Hiebert, et al., 1998). These rhymes exist in every language and teachers can ask students or their parents to share these culturally relevant and teachable rhymes with the class, and build phonemic awareness activities around them
  5. Students may not be able to "hear" or produce a new sound in a second language. Students who cannot hear and work with the phonemes of spoken words will have a difficult time learning how to relate these phonemes to letters when they see them in written words.
  6. Students, who have not learned to read in their native language, may struggle to put together the sound/symbol correspondence concept, new words, and new sounds all at once.
  7. For students with strong first language literacy skills, help them understand that they can draw upon their first language reading skills and apply them to learning to read and write in a second language.  
  8. Ells may find it hard to master English’s stress system. In connected speech, many languages have equal stress on every syllable, whereas English stresses some syllables but not others.

Activities to teach sounds

Pauline Gibbons in her book Scaffolding language, Scaffolding learning (2002) pgs 114-116 suggests several good activities for focusing on sounds and providing practice.

Minimal Pair Exercises see this you tube clip on teaching minimal pairs  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnH4w-4UDA8

Word Linking learners need to be able to recognize critical grammatical markers such as past tense ort plural endings. This may be difficult for some children who come from languages where final consonants are not fully “released.” Many Asian speakers, for example, may have difficulties with the sounds /p/. /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/, in English when they occur at the end of a word. Learner’s speech will be less ‘staccato-like” in these contexts if you get them to consciously link the end of one word with the beginning of the next.  

E.g. Get it out please.   Ge-ti-tout please.

Put it in the bin.    Pu-ti-tin the bin.

He said I could take it.    He sai-dI-could-ta-kit.

Gibbons, P. (2002), page 115.


Say It Again In this activity students’ watch video segments (or listen to audio-taped conversations) and repeat selected lines, attempting to imitate the exact wording, pronunciation, and intonation.

1.  Play the excerpt to the students.

2. Select one or more lines spoken by the characters in the video selected. These are the lines that students are later going to practice. The lines should be in chronological order but should not all occur together.  The scenes you select should be of high interest to the students and have some “memorable lines.” Write the lines on a chart so there will be whole class focus on them.

3.  Display the list of lines to be practiced.  Before you play the tape, ask the students to say the selected phrases or sentences.  Give simple paraphrases so that the students have a general sense of each _expression_. 

4.  Play the tape again while the students listen for the sentences. Have them raise their hand each time they hear one. Stop the tape at this point and ask them to repeat the line, exactly as it was said. Pay attention to all aspects of pronunciation, including stress, intonation and vowel weakening segment once to set the general scene.  They may need several rehearsals with you!

5.  Play the scene a third time. This time, stop the tape before the selected lines. The students say the line as you point to it. After several repetitions, continue the tape until just before the next line. Encourage students to say the lines in character, not simply to repeat them as an exercise.

Shadow Reading This activity can be used with an audio or video tape or tape a short story, and give students a copy of one paragraph from it. They first listen to the story all the way through. Then play only the paragraph, stopping after each sentence to give students a chance to repeat it. They should try to copy the pronunciation, stress, intonation, and pace as closely as possible. When the whole of the paragraph has been rehearsed in this way the students “shadow” the tape by reading along with it, remembering to pay attention to the stress and intonation patterns. This stage may be better done as individual work so that children can proceed at their own pace.

ESOL Online has a number of speaking and listening activities including a variety of different types of dictation.  

Resources and links on phonological awareness and ELLs

I would love to hear what activities and websites you have found to be particularly helpful for supporting ELLs’ pronunciation of English.


Kind regards