Picture flashcards for phonics

The simplest of all ways to teach and practise phonics – and quite fun too!

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net

initial h phonicsTeaching phonics can be one of the most challenging parts of an EFL teacher’s job, so much so that one of my favourite techniques has become giving them a homework that is so difficult that it forces them to get their parents’ help. Many of the difficulties also exist for people teaching native English speakers, e.g. a lack of consensus on methods, expensive materials, and widely varying abilities in most classes. In EFL classes we might also have to deal with students who are used to a different script or a much more regular spelling system, having to teach the vocabulary before we can teach the phonics, and most of the best materials not being designed for our students. Many of us have also been told to teach oral English skills or “conversational English”, with teaching students how to read being tacked on as an afterthought at best. The same is true of a lot of the training that we receive, where not only do we not have much specific training in teaching reading but we also find that the activities that we do know are based around speaking and so almost impossible to adapt to this skill. Luckily, I have finally found ways to still do another of my favourite things, which is take a set of picture flashcards into class and somehow teach reading that way too. This article is to share those ideas to help others who were thrown in at the deep end like I was and need an easy way into phonics and/ or something familiar to hang on to. I also hope it will prompt others to share their own ideas, even if they are very basic ones like these.

The cards

Phonics picture flashcards look just like any other flashcards that you might take into class, but rather than being a vocabulary set (e.g. animals or adjectives), they have a single phonic in common, e.g. pictures of a chair, some hair and a pair of shoes for “air”. You can easily make sets of flashcards like this for yourself by searching for a list of words with that phonic and eliminating with ones which are useless vocabulary for your students. For example, I came up with words like horse, hangar and hook by looking at the Enchanted Learning online picture dictionary under H and words like train, rain and snail by looking at various sites for native speaker kids that I found by Googling “ai phonics” and editing the list down.

You can then search for some clip art to represent each word, e.g. putting each word into the Search box on the Microsoft Office Images page. Paste these pictures into a Word document, left click on each image and then stretch the corners until you get them to the right size (I tend to put one picture on one A4 page), then print them out (in colour if you can) and laminate them if you like. There are links to various sets of flashcards that I have made this way below. The same pictures can also be shrunk and used to make worksheets to practice the same language, and an article on how to do this is coming up soon.

As with teaching phonics generally, it is usually best to start with a set of cards where the phonic is the initial sound of the word, later adding ones where it is the last sound or in the middle. You can also mix cards with one phonic in with other sets (see below for ideas).

Presentation and basic practice

The way I almost always present a pack of these cards is to explain which card I am holding until students guess what it is, e.g. “The first letter is A, and the first sound is ‘a’. It’s a fruit and it is red or green” for “apple” (initial A phonics) or “It’s a white food that you eat with curry. The first letter is R and the last letter is E” for “rice” (I_E with an /ai/ sound). You can also use the same activity to practise the vocabulary later or to practise several sets at the same time, e.g. by mixing “ch” and “sh” words. Higher level classes can also play the same game in pairs or groups.

You can supplement or replace this description with other clues by writing letters from the word hangman-style on the board, miming it, or drawing it. All these can later be turned into practice activities using the same cards, e.g. by playing Pictionary.

This presentation stage can be turned into more of a game by asking students to put up their hands rather than shout out their answers and giving each card to the person who correctly guesses it first. You can also add extra language by giving them questions to ask you, e.g. “What colour is it?”, “What shape is it?”, “What is the first/ second/ third/ last letter?” or “Is it an animal?” If nobody guesses, show them the card, drill the word and put it back into the pack.

You can easily move from this into the well-known game Slap by spreading that same group of cards across the floor and describing or shouting out the name of one of the cards. The students should race to slap down their palm on the right card and shout out its name.

Another game that can be played on the floor between you is Pelmanism (= Pairs/ Memory Game). This is usually played with students trying to match the pictures to the words, so you’ll also need a set of cards with the names written them. These are then all spread across the floor face down, and students take turns taking two cards. If the two cards match (i.e. are the word and picture pair) they can keep them and score two points. If they don’t match, they have to put them back face down where they came from, and play passes to the next person. It is also possible to play Pelmanism with a pack of just picture flashcards if they are mixed sets, e.g. trying to find two “a” words (e.g. “cat” and “apple”) or two /ei/ words (e.g. “ape” and “cake”) from a set containing both.

You can move the practice to the whole room by sticking the cards to the walls and furniture and getting students to find and touch the card that you are naming or describing. Another great running around game is Stations, where the two things being practised (e.g. two alternative spellings like EI and A_E for the /ei/ sound or two similar phonics like “i” and “ee”) are stuck on opposite walls and students respond to the teacher’s prompt by running and touching the right one. With a large room that is empty of furniture such as a gym, students can also run and touch all four walls, each one representing one of four phonics etc. The prompts for this game can be calling out the word, showing the picture, drawing the picture by copying from the flashcard, describing the object on the flashcard, or giving spelling clues.

Miscellaneous tips

When you are choosing pictures to put on your flashcards, kids obviously really appreciate funny or cute ones but you have to also take into account the meaning of the picture being unambiguous and the potential disruption of endless comments from the kids on amusing or surprising pictures. There is also the danger of students responding to flashcards in a Pavlovian way without really forming a connection to its real meaning, or even without knowing what the card is supposed to represent. One way of getting round this is to have several pictures for each word, e.g. two or three different pictures of owls when doing the OW phonic. As with this example, this can also help when the students’ language has a different overall meaning than a simple translation might suggest (as many languages have totally different words for different kinds of owls and so students might associate the word with only one kind if you use only one picture).

Teaching phonics can also be a good chance to teach loads of vocabulary, but at least 50% of the vocabulary you use to introduce a new phonic should be familiar to at least some of the students. The easiest group to start with is words that are similar or the same in English and L1. Always start any presentation, e.g. the method suggested above, with at least three or four familiar words.

Examples of simple picture flashcards

Each of these was put together in about 20 minutes using Word and things that are easily available on the Internet. There are ones here for h, k, m, r, ai, oa, ie, y, j, ch, ee, or, and s, with many more to come:

TEFLtastic phonics

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
September 2010 | Filed under Pronunciation
There are links to more than 400 articles and 1000 worksheets plus 1500 blog posts by Alex Case on TEFLtastic blog.