pho·​nol·​o·​gy |
\ fə-ˈnä-lə-jē \

  • The sounds and sound patterns of a language and the rules that govern how they combine.
  • One of the four universals of language and literacy which also include morphologysyntax and semantics
  • It is the set of sounds and sound combinations that make up a language. 
  • Each sound is a unique auditory identity governed by a set of patterns.

 Merriam-Webster, 2019 

Putting it together for learners!

Why is it important?

There are four basic steps used in describing a language.  The fancy names are not important. Knowing what the basics steps are and how each step may or may not need explicit instruction and how to provide that explicit instruction is what’s key.  Below are the steps in brief.  See the references for greater depth and study.

Discrete Units:

No language has a one-to-one correspondence with its written format, thus letters or combos of letters represent different sounds. For example, the letters /o/, /u/, /g/, and /h/ each have individual or multiple sounds by themselves and when combined into ‘ough’ have as many as six depending upon the regional variation: though, through, rough, cough, thought, and bough.

Remember: Phonemes are fickle and change how they sound depending upon who they are with but are recognized by those who speak the language as being the same sound. Think about the difference of how you say the ‘t’ in the words /t/op and s/t/op. Different right? One pops out and the other is softer, but it is the same sound.

Categorize the Units:

There are two basic units: consonants and vowels.  How these units are formed depends upon where in the mouth the sound is formed.  English has 5 long vowels a.k.a diphthongs, 9 short vowels, and 1 reduced vowel. English consonants are either voiced or voiceless and a variety of digraphs or trigraphs (again, combos of letters to express sounds).

What’s important? 1) know where and how these sounds are made, 2) how to demonstrate how these sounds are made, and 3) an understanding that not all languages have the same sounds and representations and not every learner implicitly knows how to make these sounds. A google search of how to make the sounds of English will show a wide variety of resources and videos to help you help your learners.

Group the Units:

Phonemes can be individual letters or grouped as vowels or consonants as above or as long, short or reduced sounds.  Do a simple google search on YouTube and you’ll find a plethora of pronunciation videos to help with proper placement of the lips, teeth, and tongue.  It takes some practice to be able to show how to pronounce the different sounds, but keep at it.

What’s important? Again, it’s figuring out what your learners do or do not know or can or cannot produce without help, and finding the correct way to help explicitly teach them the new skill. Some languages have the same sound/letter correspondence, some do not. Some have more/ some have less. Do a little research into the phonology of your learner’s L1 to see what they might need help with.


These are those patterns that native speakers use without thinking. Sounds like /ng/ that only happen at the end of a syllable are subconscious for natives

What’s important? Knowing the basic patterns and possible skills that your students may or may not automatically know.

Applications & Activity Examples

Discrete Units

Here are some activities focused on helping ELs and other learners differentiate sounds that correspond to the letters. 

(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for your patience.)

Combining Units

consonant/vowel sorts
short/long vowel sorts
(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for your patience.)

Grouping or Categorizing Units

voiced/voiceless sorts
nasal/non-nasal sorts
(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.
Thanks for your patience.)


m/n/ng sorts
k/g sorts
/s/ /z/ /es/ sorts
/ed/ /d/ /t/ sorts
(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for your patience.)

References & Resources

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2016). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (6th ed.). Pearson.

Curzan, A., & Adams, M. (2012). How English works: A linguistic introduction (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2014). Essential  linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and  grammar. (2nd ed.). Heinemann.

Helman, L., Bear, D. R., Templeton, S., Invernizzi,  M., & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way with English learners: Word study  for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (2nd ed.). Pearson.

Johnston, F., Invernizzi, M., Bear, D. R., &  Templeton, S. (2018). Words Their Way: Word Sorts for Letter Name –  Alphabetic Spellers (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2017). Building  literacy with English language learners (2 ed.). Guilford.

Phonology examines which sounds make up the distinctive consonants and vowels of a language, which sounds would be considered by speakers just to be variants of those distinct sounds, and which sounds or sound combinations do not occur in that language. Every language differs from others in at least one of these categories. Some languages contain sounds that other languages do not (the African language Xhosa has clicks and English does not). Some languages distinguish between two sounds that other languages do not (English distinguishes between /l/ and /r/ and Japanese does not). Some languages allow consonant clusters that others do not (German allows the cluster /ƒp/ and English does not, except in Yiddish borrowings.) When we study English phonology, we are attempting to describe the system of English sounds.

(Curzan & Adams, 2012, p. 64)

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