Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Alphabet Soup

Alphabet Soup (created using

I’ve just finished my second lesson with the beginner I’m teaching and blogging about (read the first post to find out more). For homework he had to practise the alphabet using the audio file I had sent him previously.

We started the lesson by using my laminated letters to randomly practise, and he got all but H and Y without a problem. Last week he’d struggled with more than half of the lessons, so it was great to see such a quick improvement – one of the reasons I enjoy lessons with beginners!

Next, I said the numbers 1-20 in a random order for him to write down. When he had trouble I spelled the word and highlighted anything he needed to rememeber. For speaking practice, I then said a number and he had to spell it out loud.

Once we’d consolidated numbers and letters, we moved on to eliciting any and all English words he already knows, designed to be a confidence builder and an evaluation task at the same time. He wrote the alphabet down the side of the page, then wrote any words he could think of. When he had spelling problems, I helped him out.

Through this we got on to talking about the phonetic alphabet, with me attempting to explain in A2/B1-level Czech what it is, how it works and why it’s useful! We got there in the end, and once he’d understood that we talked about whether he wanted to learn it or not. He decided he did, so this week’s homework will be me going through the key consonants which are similar sounds in Czech to start him off. That should give him at least 12 of the sounds straight away. I’ll use the English File symbols and pictures, as I think they’re the most useful version of the phonetic alphabet, using pictures to help you remember the sounds.

Do you teach the phonetic alphabet to students in general? And to beginners in particular?

Comments on: "Diary of a beginner: Second Lesson" (10)

  1. Hi Sandy – glad to read that you’re making progress with your beginner!

    Yes, I usually teach the phonetic alphabet in all of my classes. Like you, I use the NEF symbols as I find them particularly easy to use and, also, they are memorable for the sudents, especially the beginners. I have the large NEF poster on the wall in my classroom as a constant reference point. I also have the individual symbols as laminated flashcards and as the headers for A3 size posters on which students can write words containing that sound, as and when they come across them.

    Once students are familiar with the symbols, teaching pronunciation becomes a whole lot easier as well as being much more fun! There are also so many ways in which you can use the symbols for practise and consolidation.


    • Hi Andrea,
      I have them as flashcards and use them all the time! I really like the poster idea – that sounds like a great way for students to practise. I don’t have my own teaching room yet, but I’ll definitely use that idea when I do!
      I love using the symbols as I think it really helps the students, and the pictures make it fun too. If they’ve learnt nothing else this year, all of my students will know the (phonetic) alphabet! 🙂


  2. Hey! This sounds like it is going really well! I’m hoping to be able to start doing some one-on-one tutoring next year, so I’ll have to remember some of your tips. I’ve also thought about teaching the phonetic alphabet before, but was never sure it was quite beneficial for students I only had a few hours a week. I don’t know – I love it, and think it is fascinating, but I’m always afraid that my fascination with it will make it way over the students heads, and they won’t even understand! I’ll look forward to seeing how it goes with your student!


  3. With vowels, you can have great fun. I always get students to blow over the mouth of a bottle filled with water, then they drink a bit and the sound changes. That’s what we do with our tongues, changing the dimensions of our mouths. I say “say /i/ /a/” and notice how your mouth opens and closes. From those, and the other corner vowels /ae/ and /u/, they can start to work out what the other sounds are from the symbols and their position on the diagram of the mouth. Are you going to use that? I think that if you are going to teach the phonemic script, this helps.


    • Hi David,
      I’ve never used a mouth diagram, although I’m sure it would be useful. Can you recommend a good one? When I first started teaching phonetics, I was never really sure of mouth positions and how they corresponded to sounds, but now I’m becoming more aware of them.
      Thanks for the advice,


      • I couldn’t find any so I’ve made some for you:

        The first one shows where vowels are made in the mouth, the bottle analogy I described. The next two are of the red area in detail.

        This is what I do. First, ask them how many vowels there are in English. They will say 5 or 6. Then make either a vowel sound or a consonant sound. They will be able to say which is which. This leads into them realising that we’re talking about sounds, not letters. So there are actually 20 vowel sounds, represented by only 5 letters. Hence the chart.

        The second jpg is of pure vowels. If you do the front vowels first, you can go down the stairs saying the vowel sounds in Pete – pit – pet – putt – pat. You will be able to think of many more minimal pairs. Use your hand as a tongue, going lower all the time.

        Once you’ve done /e/ and /or/, then plot /er/ and ask students to slide from the /e/ to /or/, stopping half way, to get /er/. It’s good fun, and they’re noticing where their tongue is to make vowels, probably for the first time.

        The third jpg is diphthongs. If you draw each line, students can hazzard a guess, sliding their tongues from start to end point.

        This takes time, and you could easily spend a good few lessons on it. Ask them for words that have each sound. They will invariably get lots wrong, so you can practise minimal pairs, and you can refer to the chart throughout your course.

        Hope this helps!


        • Wow David! That’s an amazing set of resources – off to share them on Twitter now, and will try to use them soon. Thank you very much 🙂


  4. Thank you for your comments, Sandy. I hope they are helpful for you and your students.


  5. […] you’re interested, you can read about the first, second, third and fourth […]


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