Phonics in a Flash: 4 Simple Ways to Use Flashcards When Teaching Phonics

Phonics in a Flash
4 Simple Ways to Use Flashcards When Teaching Phonics

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 41,983 views

How can ghoti spell fish?

The sometimes crazy rules of English phonics make it possible. This classic example combines gh as in enough, o as in women, and ti as in nation to creatively spell the common word referring to our fin finned friends. And while you probably won’t tackle this example in any of your ESL classes, odds are you will be teaching phonics in some form or other. When you do, you’ll want some easy go to activities. The following will fit that bill. They are simple phonics games and exercises that use flash cards – something easy to get or make. Take a look and see how many you have tried in your English classes.

4 Simple Ways to Use Flashcards When Teaching Phonics

  1. 1

    Word Family Towers

    You may hear about minimal pairs more in the ESL classroom than you hear about word families, but the two are very closely related. Minimal pairs are two words that differ in only one sound (such as bat and hat). Word families build on that idea and group several minimal pairs together (including cat, mat, that, fat, pat, sat, etc.) into a “family” that follows the same phonics rules. After you present a few word families to your students, try this exercise. Make sure each word in two or three word families is written on a playing card or index card, or use premade flash cards. Mix the cards together and leave them face up on a table. Then have two students race to gather all the words which belong to one word family and build a tower of cards with them. Students will have to know their phonics rules, but they will also have to have skill and a gentle hand when building their towers. The more words in each word family, the more difficult the tower will be to build. Whichever student finishes his tower first wins the game.

    Note there is one major difference between minimal pairs and word families. Minimal pairs focus only on the sounds in a word regardless of the spelling, so bait and gate would be minimal pairs even though their spelling is very different. They would not, however, belong to the same word family because they do not follow the same spelling rules. To keep things simple for your ESL students, stick to word families for this exercise.

  2. 2

    There’s No Place Like Home

    Once your students are comfortable with word families, move on to talking about minimal pairs and how two of the same sounds can differ in English spelling. Then try this activity to review. Have your students draw a simple house which includes a door and two windows, each of which should be the same size as your phonics flash cards. Then give each person several cards to choose from. They should choose minimal pairs (or threes) from their phonics cards to complete the house picture. One card should be placed over each window and the door. When the picture is complete, the house should contain three words that differ in only one sound but that also have different spelling patterns (such as bee, flea, and brie). Then, have students remove their cards and start again with a new set of minimal pairs. If you like, challenge your students to find as many sets as they can within a two or three minute period and declare the person with the most correct sets the winner.

  3. 3


    If you haven’t played this game in your ESL class, you might want to give it a try. To play Slap, divide several cards between two to four players. Players take turns laying one card on the center pile. In the classic game, when two cards of the same number appear in a row, the players race to slap the pile of cards before anyone else can. The person who slaps first (and ends up with their hand beneath those of the other players) wins the entire stack of cards and adds it to the cards in their hand. Play continues until one person has won all of the cards. You can play a phonics version of this game with your students very easily if you have phonics flash cards on hand. Instead of slapping for two of the same number in a row, your students will slap for two of the same initial word sound in a row. Or you can make the game more difficult by having them slap for the same final word sound or even harder by slapping for the same vowel sound. As in the classic game, the player who ends up with all of the cards wins.

  4. 4

    The Silent E

    A silent e at the end of a word can make a huge difference in what the word means. In this activity, students will practice reading words with and without a silent final e. Have students start with a few cards with words that do not use a final silent e written on flash cards. (You might try kit, mat, bit, lit, ban, slid, rid, bid, and other similar words.) Have students lay these cards out face up on their desk. Then give them a card (or have them make one) that only contains the letter e. Students should read one word on their desk (e.g. kit) and then place the e at the right end of the card and read that word (kite). They should then read another word and then that word with a final silent e. If you like, have students define both words. Students continue reading the cards without and with the final e until they have read all of the cards on their table.

The odds are, if you teach English as a second language, you also teach phonics. If you collect or make phonics cards for your class, these activities will be fun and easy ones to incorporate into your teaching routine. They can also be tweaked to become independent learning centers for your classroom. Either way, your students will have fun, will use their body as they learn language, and will retain the rules of English phonics and spelling when you give these activities a try.

These are just a few idea on using flashcards in class.

What have you done with them?

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