10 minimal preparation games to enhance phonological awareness and decoding skills


(Co-authored with Steven Smith)


Here are a few zero-preparation activities language teachers can use to enhance their students’ phonological awareness, decoding skills and alertness to sounds and aural input. Although they are especially suited for younger learners, they can be used with older students too.

1. Word Mind-reading

After presenting one or more phonemes and doing much receptive work (like the one envisaged here), the teacher writes a number of words (10-12?) containing that (those) phoneme(s) on the board. After warming the students up, the teacher writes one of those words on a mini-board (making sure the students can’t see it) and asks the students to have a go at guessing the hidden word. This elicits a lot of production of the target sound as the students volunteer their guesses, whilst giving the instructor plenty of chances of providing feedback by teacher echo. Younger learners love it and get very competitive. Of course, if you are practising ‘liaison’ in French you may want to use ‘chunks’ rather than isolated words.

2. Faulty echo

Write a sentence on the board containing one or more phonemes you have practised recently. Then, repeat the sentence twice, once correctly and the second time making one or more mistakes. Reward the person or team (if you split the class into groups) who spot the mistake(s) by uttering the sentence correctly.

3.Track the sound

Read a text and tell your students to clap their hands, put their hand up or make a silly noise every time they hear a specific sound. An alternate version: you read a text and tell them to note down every word they hear containing the target sound (it doesn’t matter if the word’s spelling is incorrect).

Another version the students enjoy, involves telling the students at the outset of the lesson that you will reward any instance of them  spotting the target sounds in the teacher’s input, at any point in the lesson.

This game helps enhancing L2-learner alertness to sound, a pivotal skill in listening skill acquisition.

4.Oral ping pong

Pair students up. Give them a list of sentences each,  which contain one or more of the sounds you have been practising with your class. The game: partner 1 reads out a sentence  from his list once, partner 2 needs to repeat it correctly. Make sure the sentences become increasingly longer as the students proceed down the list. Also, the sentences ping-ponged at each round should, out of fairness, always contain the same amount of items for each player and similar syntactic patterns. Finally, the words should be mono or disyllabic and the students should be familiar with them.

This game is not simply about pronunciation but also about training working memory to hold as many L2 items as possible simultaneously.

5.Say the next word or sound’

For near beginners or low intermediates. Simply read aloud a text you have been working on. When you pause, either at the end of a word, or in the middle of one, the students have to call out or whisper the next word or sound. Make sure that you pause before the target sound(s) or a word containing the target sound(s).

This technique is a very simple and effective way to enhance students’ alertness to aural input whilst practising decoding skills and pronunciation.

6. Memory game

Write on the board 8 to 10 words they know, each containing a different sound that you have been practising recently. Tell the students, divided in teams, that they have 2 minutes to memorize them in preparation for a memory game. When the time is up, erase the words, then utter a sound (e.g. French /u/) and ask the students to recall the word you rubbed out which contained that sound.

7.Disappearing words

Write on the board/classroom screen as many words as you can think of containing some of the sounds you have practised so far. Divide the class in two teams. Pronounce a sound and the first person to put their hand up will get the right to go to the board and erase the word(s) containing that sound; one point per word will then be awarded to their team.

This game is particularly suitable for younger learners – who get very competitive playing it.

8.Letter/Word maths

Write on the board sums such as, in French, ‘Travaille + use = ? ’ and, as you write, pronounce each item in isolation; then ask for someone – or a member of a team if you made it into a competition-  to volunteer the pronunciation of the resulting word (‘e.g. ‘travailleuse). Better if the words you create were not learnt before.

This game enhances the learner’s awareness of the combinatorial patterns in L2-phonology, i.e.  how words / letter clusters affect each other phonologically when they are combined with each other .

9.Non-word auction

Make a powerpoint. On each slide put one or more non-words containing the target phoneme. Make sure the non-word is moulded on one or more target language words they have learnt before, e.g. Paussures (moulded on ‘chaussures’ = shoes ). Divide the students in teams of three or four and give them a fictitious amount of money (e.g. 1,000 dollars). Each word has a price (e.g. 100 dollars). After you pronounce or mispronounce a word, ask them to write on their group’s mini-whiteboard ‘buy’ or ‘reject’. If they buy the word but it was mispronounced, they will lose the amount marked on the slide; if, conversely, the word was indeed pronounced correctly, they will gain that amount. The team with the highest amount of money at the end of the game win.

Of course, you can auction real words, too; but if you do, try and select words the students have not encountered before to see if they are applying decoding skills rather than rote memory.

10.Spot the intruder                          

Version 1: play a song whose lyrics you have doctored by inserting a few extra monosyllabic words here an there containing the target sound(s). Tell them how many ‘intruders’ you added in and to spot them. Of course, you can do this task without necessarily using a song, but simply altering any written text.

Version 2: you can also play the same game in reverse, so to speak, by reading out a text or play a song (if you can sing and play an instrument like some of my current colleagues do), adding to the version you read or play some extra words (not included in the students’ version) and asking the students to spot them as they listen.

Students love this game (especially the second version) and it really enhances they alertness to sound whilst recycling the target phoneme(s).




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