English with Nab

Everything you should know about Consonants and Vowels

(and how to teach your students)

Single consonant sounds, consonant-vowel-consonant words, consonant blends, and consonant digraphs (two or more consonant letters which represent a single sound) can be taught using charts and proper demonstration.

Single Consonant Sounds

Students learn how consonant sounds change depending on the letter before and after. For example, the ‘c’ in “consonant” makes the same sound as:

  • the c in cat
  • the c in castle
  • the c in tractor
  • the c in back

However, when a “c” is followed by an “i” or “e,” the “c” then makes an “s” sound, as in the following words:

  • cinder
  • circle
  • incident
  • exercise
  • trace
  • receive
  • recent
  • ‘crescent

Consonant Blends

Two consonants blend together to make a new sound. The most common consonant blends include:

  • bl- blue
  • br- bread
  • cl- clock
  • cr- cream
  • dr- draw
  • fr- friend
  • tr- trap
  • fl- flower
  • gl- glow
  • gr- great
  • pl- play
  • pr- press
  • sl- slim
  • sm- smart
  • sp- sport
  • st- start

Some of these blends can also occur at the end of words, such as “last” or “gasp.” Blends can also contain three consonants, such as:

  • str- straight
  • spl- splash
  • spr- spring

When teaching blends, it is effective to introduce them in groups. For example, a teacher may introduce the l-blends first:

  • bl – block, blast, blow
  • cl – clap, clam, cloud
  • fl – flower, flood, fling
  • gl – glow, gloomy, glad
  • pl – play, pluck, plow
  • sl – slow, slime, sleep

Then the r-blends:

  • br – brave, brown, broke
  • pr – practice, prance, proud
  • dr – drive, dread, drink
  • tr – trace, trick, treat
  • gr – great, grow, grasp
  • cr – crazy, crush, creep
  • fr – fruit, friend, fresh

Then the s-blends:

  • sp – spaghetti, spoil, spring
  • sk – skeleton, sketch, skate
  • sn – snake, snicker, snow
  • sm – smile, smell, smoke
  • st – store, stale, stick
  • sw – swallow, swing, swear
  • sc – score, scare, scratch
  • sq – square, squint, squirrel

Introducing blended sounds in groups is most effective.

Consonant digraphs: Two consonants that make a single sound when paired together, such as the “ph-” in “phonics.” The most common digraphs include:

  • ch- cheese
  • th- thought
  • wh- whistle
  • sh- shower

When introducing the concept of blends and digraphs, visuals such as cue cards often help.

Vowel Sounds

Some vowels sound similar to the non-English speaking ear and time should be spent practicing sound differentiation at the beginner levels. Picture cues can be displayed in the classroom so students have a reminder of vowel sounds when required.

There are three types of vowel sounds:

  • monophthongs (single vowel sounds)
  • consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words
  • diphthongs, otherwise known as vowel glides

Monophthongs (simple vowels) – Vowel sounds that do not require tongue movement (glide) to pronounce.

  • /i:/ – bean, seat
  • /i/ – bin, sin
  • /e/ – hen, send
  • /æ/ – hand, sand
  • /a:/ – bar, start
  • /o:/ – born, scorn
  • /o/ – bond, somber
  • /u:/ – boom, shoe
  • /yu:/ – beauty, few
  • /u/ – book, shook
  • /ər/ – burn, stern
  • /ə/ – bun, sun

Consonant-vowel-consonant words (CVC) – Three-letter words with consonants at beginning and end and a short vowel in the middle.

  • /i/ – bin, sin, tin, fin, did, bit, sit, lit
  • /ə/ – sun, bun, fun, done, ton, cut, but
  • /e/ – ten, set, get, let, jet, gem, pen, tell
  • /æ/ – fan, fat, man, mat, pad, bad, jam
  • /o/ – tot, rot, pot, fog, sock, cod, jog, top

Diphthongs – Vowel sounds which glide one into the other, such as /ei/, /au/, or /ʊə/. Take a look at the following diphthong chart:

  • /ɪə/ – ear, hear, cheer, deer, beer
  • /eə/ – air chair, rare, bare, their
  • /ʊə/ – tour, poor, sure, cure
  • /eɪ/ – day, say, pray, pay
  • /aɪ/ – I, eye, pie, sight, fight
  • /ɔi/ – oil, coin, voice, boy, boil
  • /eʊ/ – go, slow, so, bow, sow
  • /aʊ/ – owl, out, count, found, bow

A good exercise to practice identifying the difference between single-vowel sounds and diphthongs is to give students a handout which contrasts monophthongs and diphthongs. Teachers read aloud one of the words and students circle the word that they hear.

For example:

  1. bet
  2. lord
  3. far
  4. man
  5. ride
  6. get
  7. let
  8. cough
  9. trick
  10. got
  11. bird
  12. Through
  • bait
  • load
  • fair
  • main
  • red
  • gate
  • late
  • cow
  • trek
  • goat
  • beard
  • throw

Practice Activity

The following exercise is also effective for practicing single vowel sounds and diphthongs:

  1. Break students into pairs and provide each student with two reading passages.
  2. One passage has the vowels/diphthongs highlighted that on their partner’s corresponding sheet are left blank. Instruct the students to read the passages to each other, one by one, allowing their partners to fill in the blanks based on what they hear.
    1. Partner A“The fair was very far from Joey’s house. So he had to get ready quickly so he could make it on time. He trimmed his beard and fed his pet bird. He left through the back door to throw out the garbage. Then he took the ride on his red bicycle. When he arrived, he could feel the weight of his wet t-shirt from sweating so much. Luckily, he made it on time”.
    2. Partner B“As soon as you get through the gate, turn left. You will see the goat that I got bitten by last year. On your right, you will see the horse with its mane in a braid, and a girl feeding it some bread. The man you are looking for will be in the main office building. If he’s not there, his secretary will let you know if he will be late. When he is ready, he will shout your name and ask you to shut the door behind you.” 
    3. Partner A“As soon as you _____ through the ______, turn left. You will see the ______ that I _____ bitten by last year. On your right, you will see the horse with its mane in a _______, and a girl feeding it some ________. The ______ you are looking for will be in the _______ office building. If he’s not there, his secretary will _____ you know if he will be ______. When he is ready, he will ______ your name and ask you to ______ the door behind you”.
    4. Partner B“The _____ was very ____ from Joey’s house. So he had to get ready quickly so he could make it on time. He trimmed his ______ and fed his pet ______. He left _________ the back door to _______ out the garbage. Then he took the ______ on his _____ bicycle. When he arrived, he could feel the ________ of his _____ t-shirt from sweating so much. Luckily, he made it on time.”

Each student repeats the passage a few times depending on student level and ability.

Minimal pairs are words whose pronunciation differs by only a single sound, causing confusion for many EFL students. Teachers use these pairs of words to practice listening and pronunciation and help students recognize the minor differences between muted vowel sounds in English.

For example:


  • sheep and ship
  • sit and seat
  • desk and disk
  • wet and wait
  • bat and but


  • lice and rice
  • thin and thing
  • alive and arrive
  • catch and cat
  • sea and she

Word Stress

To understand stress, students should first be able to distinguish syllables. Every word in the English language can be broken down into syllables. Take a look at the following chart:

It is important to point out that every syllable has at least one vowel in it (with the exception of a rare few words).

To practice syllables and word stress, write a few words of varying lengths on the board. While reading them out loud, students clap their hands on each syllable. Additional words can be taken as needed from the text. With practice, students will be able to distinguish syllables on their own.

Once students are comfortable with syllable counts, they should start to listen for the accented syllable. Have students listen carefully as you enunciate the words. Let them guess which syllable is the stressed one. Students tend to pick on word stress quickly as well.

Afterwards, have students record how many syllables each word has, and which one is stressed. This can be followed up with a handout of words that students complete individually.

For example: (the | indicates the clapping of the hands, the underlined bold part is the stress)

  • |din|ner
  • |to|mor|row
  • |yes|ter|day
  • |un|be|lieve|a|ble
  • |ex|plain

With word stress, there are two rules to explain. The first one is: The stress in every word is almost always on a vowel. No matter what the word is, its stress occurs on one of its vowel sounds as vowels are the voiced parts of words.

You cannot stress a consonant by itself. Take a look at the following examples:

  • |op|en (1st syllable)
  • |re|peat (2nd syllable)
  • |ge|o|gra|phic (3rd syllable)
  • |de|pen|da|bil|i|ty (4th syllable)

An example for where this rule doesn’t apply would be on a word that uses a “y” in place of a vowel, for example “pry.”

The second most important rule is: Every word only has ONLY ONE stress. If two different stresses are heard, then two different words are heard! However, there are several two-syllable words in English whose meaning and part of speech change when the stress is placed on different vowels.

Take a look at the following example:

  • |pre–|sent = a noun meaning “a gift
  • |pre-|sent = a verb meaning “to show/offer

There are other rules that can be introduced to advanced students to help with pronunciation training. They are more complex in nature, dictating where stress is placed according to part of speech, syllable count, and composition.

Students shouldn’t rely solely on these rules as there are many exceptions to them. A combination of repeated exposure and practice with application of the rules will yield the best results.

The following charts demonstrate stress rules.

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