How to teach silent letters to EFL learners

Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for letters which are written but not pronounced in listen, island, knife, etc

Letters which are written but not pronounced is one of the trickiest points in English pronunciation and a common cause of mistakes, confusion and even frustration in students. However, silent letters are much easier to teach and learn than other pronunciation points like sounds that don’t exist in L1 and intonation. In fact, time spent on silent letters is probably the most efficient way to quickly improve pronunciation, and helps with spelling too. It also links in well with other pronunciation points such as homophones and minimal pairs. This article gives tips on explaining and practising silent letters, including silent letters games. There are also lists of the most useful words with silent letters on this site.

 

What to teach about silent letters

For a single word like “island”, students simply need to know that they shouldn’t pronounce the silent letter but they should include it in the spelling when they write it. This is sometimes more important than it might seem, as “island” will probably be confused with “Iceland” if it is pronounced “iss-land”, and “iland” is just as difficult to understand on the page. 

Something worth bearing in mind is that many so-called silent letters in English are pronounced in particular dialects and/ or are often included as a joke, so students might come across exactly the pronunciation that you are telling them not to copy. For example, it’s quite common to pronounce both the W and the H in wh- words like “when” (most famously in Scotland), and numerous comedies include characters who say “sword” with “w”. It might be worth mentioning this in Advanced classes, but it could make them less motivated to learn the standard pron and/ or spelling, so I would generally only mention it if they object to your more basic explanation.

Particularly for higher level learners, it’s also worth students working out or hearing about patterns in English like final -t being silent in words from French and gn- being a sound combination that doesn’t exist at the beginning of words in English, meaning that one letter must be silent.

Sound combinations that don’t exist (in the same syllable) in English, meaning that one letter must be silent, include:

  • final -bt in debt, doubt, etc
  • final -gn in foreign, campaign, etc
  • final -mb in comb, climb, etc
  • final -mn in autumn, column, etc
  • initial gh- in ghost, ghastly, etc
  • initial gn- in gnome, gnat, etc
  • initial kn- in knee, know, etc
  • initial pn- in pneumonia, pneumatic, etc
  • initial ps- in psychology, psychiatrist, etc
  • initial rh- in rhino, rhythm, etc
  • initial wh- in what, when, etc
  • initial wr- in wrap, wrong, etc

Note that all of these are just about pronounceable, they are just combinations that (standard modern) English doesn’t have. 

Other fairly common silent letters include:

  • final -t in words from French like chalet, buffet and ballet
  • t after s in the middle of a word in castle, listen, etc, including almost all examples of -sten
  • initial h- in honest, honour, etc, and herb in American English
  • middle d followed by another consonant in Wednesday, handsome, etc

Unlike the impossible word combinations above, all of these either have exceptions or are exceptions to a simpler more general rule.

 

What you shouldn’t teach about silent letters

There are many things which are included in online lists of silent letters and some EFL materials but which I would deal with separately or not at all. For example, some letters are silent themselves but seem to change other sounds in the word, such as:

  • “magic E” at the end of words like “hate” (which isn’t pronounced like “hat”) and “site”
  • final -gn which has a similar effect in “sign” (which isn’t pronounced like “sin”), “benign”, etc
  • -l changing the vowel sound before it in “calm” (which isn’t pronounced “cam”), “psalm”, etc
  • -u to make the g- before it hard in “guest” (which isn’t pronounced with a soft G like “gest”), “guess”, etc
  • -gh when it seems to change or act like part of the vowel sound in “light” (which isn’t pronounced like “lit”), “might”, “sigh”, etc

There are also letters which I wouldn’t necessarily describe as silent letters but rather as alternative spellings and pronunciations, such as the pronunciations of “ch” in “choir”, of “tch” in “witch”, and of “dg” in “fudge”. It’s also not worth dealing with double letters in a lesson on silent letters, as there are far too many examples in English, they are basically just an alternative spelling of a single letter, and they often change the pronunciation of the whole word by blocking the magic E and therefore stopping the vowel sound changing (as in “tinned”).

There are also some letters and syllables which can be said if you are pronouncing a word slowly and carefully but tend to be dropped in fast speech, like the middle E in “vegetable”. This is maybe worth a whole lesson on its own, but is too different from letters which are always silent to be mixed up in the same lesson.

 

Typical student problems with silent letters

The most common student issues with silent letters are:

  • pronouncing written silent letters (and sometimes adding an extra syllable because of that)
  • not recognising words when they are pronounced without their silent letter
  • missing silent letters when spelling words (“parlament” X, etc)
  • writing homophones instead (“He couldn’t untie the not in his shoelace” X, etc)

Students who speak languages with extremely regular and phonetic spelling like Spanish tend to have the biggest problems with pronouncing silent letters and/ or not recognising words when they are pronounced without their silent letters. Speakers of other languages with many silent letters like French tend to find this less of a problem. However, another problem is that many silent letters in English are pronounced in the Latin, German, etc that the words came from, and so speakers of related languages might copy L1 and pronounce such letters.

 

How to present silent letters

Teaching techniques for explaining silent letters

Silent letters are overwhelmingly something that you should teach as you go along, when students make mistakes with pronouncing them but also as you present vocabulary that they will probably pronounce wrongly. The easiest way to do this is to put brackets around the letter which is not pronounced, as in “s(w)ord” and “(h)onest”. I find that this works better than crossing the letter out, which makes it look like a spelling mistake, or underlining it, which looks like you should make sure that you pronounce it or even stress it strongly. I sometimes also use this on worksheets presenting the new vocab, either writing the word as “crum(b)” or putting that after the word written in full (“crumb – crum(b)”, etc). 

Other ways of showing the pronunciation of the word without the silent letter include writing phonemic script (for the whole word or just the part with the silent letter), writing your own approximation of how it could be spelt as it is pronounced (e.g. “sord” for “sword”), or, when possible, writing a homophone that doesn’t have the silent letter written in it.

Homophones are great for showing pronunciation even when the homophone word itself is not so useful and/ or too high level for the class, like “rote” for “wrote”. However, if you have classes that insist on asking about or memorising every word, you might want to avoid particularly obscure examples like “mite” for “might”. Also, some homophones have spelling that is confusing in other ways, so it might not help to write “witch” to show the pronunciation of “which”.

It can also be useful to write another word which has the same silent letter, preferably one they already know. For example, if you are explaining the spelling and pronunciation of “crochet”, you could also write the familiar words “ballet” and/ or “buffet” to show the silent final T in French words, something that they’ve already been using without realising it.  

If you want to do a whole lesson on silent letters, you can combine the useful teaching techniques above with the specific presentation activities below.

 

Silent letters presentation activities

Spotting silent letters

The easiest presentation activity for silent letters is for students to see the spelling and hear the pronunciation of words with silent letters and put brackets around the letters which aren’t pronounced. In the most intensive but easiest version, students are given a list of words which all have silent letters and the teacher reads through the list in the same order, maybe very quickly to add a bit of interest and challenge and to prompt them to ask checking/ clarifying questions like “Can you repeat that?” and “Did you say… or…?” The same thing can also be done in pairs if one student has just the spellings and the other student has the same words with the silent letters in brackets.

A trickier version is to put the words with silent letters in a list of similar words where the same letters are actually pronounced (“listen” with “listicle”, etc), meaning that the students also have to spot which words do and don’t have silent letters as they read and listen. Alternatively, they can listen to a whole text such as a dialogue and listen out for the words with silent letters in it.

After finishing, students can analyse which letters are often silent and in which positions/ combinations with other letters, try to remember the same silent letters without being able to listen to help and/ or try to put the silent letters back into words spelt wrongly without them (“lisen”, etc).

 

Silent letters list dictation

This can also be used as an easy practice activity, but I would usually use it as the first stage of a whole lesson on silent letters. The teacher or a student reads out a list of words with something in common such as the same silent letter until someone in class correctly guesses how those words are similar, perhaps with points for correct guesses but points off for wrong guesses. You can also include other similarities such as all words with silent first letters and all words originally from French.

Students could then be asked to find the same missing letters in a mixed-up list of the same words and/ or try to remember what positions and combinations those letters were silent in.

 

How to practise silent letters

Silent letters simplest responses games

If you are particularly focusing on one or a couple of silent letters, you can play a game in which students listen to words and raise their hand only if they hear a word with a silent letter in it. For example, if you are practising “wh” words, they raise their hand if they hear “where”, “whoever”, “nowhere”, etc, but keep their hands down if they hear “wearing”, “hoover”, “blowhard”, etc.

 

Silent letters pelmanism and snap

Make a pack of cards with at least four cards for each missing letter, e.g. “write”, “wrap”, “wriggle” and “wrist” for silent W. For pelmanism (also called “pairs” or “the memory game”), students turn all the cards face down and take turns trying to find two that match by having the same silent letter. For snap, they deal out the cards but don’t look at them, take turns putting their top card face up on the table, then race to shout “Snap!” if the last two cards to be turned face up have the same silent letter.

Before, after or between those games, students can work together to match the cards up by silent letter.

 

Missing silent letters

Give students words with the silent letters taken out like “clim” and “sene” and ask them to spell them correctly by adding silent letters. This looks like a spelling activity, but I find it to be just as useful for getting students to remember that those letters don’t help with the pronunciation.

 

Silent letters storytelling

Students take turns using words with silent letters to tell a story, placing down cards with those words written on or crossing off those words from a list as they do so. Note that most words with silent letters don’t work well in this activity, so the words on the list or cards will need to be chosen carefully. Good ones include action words like “climb” and “wrap”, objects like “biscuit” and “bomb”, places like “aisle” and “isle”, and adjectives like “foreign” and “glistening”.

 

Practising checking/ clarifying with silent letters

Silent letters are a great resource for getting students to check things with questions like “How do you spell…?”, “Is that… (or…)?”, “Do I need… (between… and…)?” and “How do you pronounce…?” You can add another level of difficulty and so make it more necessary to use the questions if you include some homophones without silent letters, such as including both “wait” and “weight”. If possible, it’s best to put the words into whole sentences, for example in phone messages like “Can you tell him that the weight of the delivery was wrong?” Alternatively, you could give the students single words but ask them to put them into sentences as they say them to their partners.

 

Silent letters hangman

I’m not generally a fan of hangman, but it does work well for silent letters. To start with, you or the student in the teacher role could give the players more help and point out the silent letters by putting brackets around one of the gaps that they have to guess letters into, e.g. “__ __ __ ___ (__) ___ ___” for “glisten”. You can then move onto doing the same but only adding the brackets after they guess and/ or mix it up with words without silent letters such as homophones of them like “soared” (which is a homophone of “sword”).

You can also play a game similar to hangman in which the students can only guess the next letter and only once before it is given to them, which is good for raising awareness of what letters go before and after silent letters.

 

Homophones of words with silent letters activities

Homophones are perhaps the best of all ways of learning silent letters. Perhaps the best way of using them is to include them in another activity above such as checking/ clarifying or storytelling. Students can then be tested on their memory by being given the ones with silent letters and being asked to write the homophones without silent letters. There are also some more specific homophones activities below.

 

Silent letters and homophones reversi

For super-intensive practice of this point, you can make cards with “which” on one side and “witch” on the other for students to guess or remember the other side of. For example, if they see a card with “Knows” on it, they should pronounce it, say “N, O, S, E” as the spelling of the homophone on the other side, then turn over to check. There are many possible rules for this game, but I usually just get them to do as many as they can each time until they make a mistake, leaving any that they get right the other way up for the next person to guess in the opposite direction (e.g. from “Nose” to “K, N, O, W, S”).

 

Silent letters the same or different

Make a list of words with silent letters and accompanying homophones, minimal pairs, and other common confusions like “Iceland” with “island”. Perhaps after a listening stage where they hold up cards saying “The same” or “Different”, students label each line with “S” for the same or “D” for different, depending on the pronunciations of the two words given. They can then be tested on their memories of the homophones.

 

Silent letters secret message

Students find the silent letters in a list of words and check what the letters spell when they are put together in the same order. For example, if the words are “vehicle”, “artistically”, “damn” and “sandwich” then the silent letters are H, A, N and D, and the secret message is “hand”. Longer messages such as whole sentences are better, with instructions like “Stand up” probably the best.  

 

Silent letters odd one out

Students read or listen to lists of words and work out which one word in each list is different. This can be because it is the only one with a silent letter, the only one without a silent letter, the only one with a different silent letter, etc.

 

Silent letters Call My Bluff

Give students a mix of words with silent letters and words with the same letters pronounced, all of which could be useful but they almost certainly won’t know. One student chooses one of the words at random and then secretly flips a coin to see if they can look at the definition (heads) or if they should be pretend to be looking at the definition but actually look at something else (tails). After they finish looking at the dictionary, Google, etc, they then explain the true or made up definition and pronunciation.

 

Silent letters discussion questions

Give students lists of discussion questions like “Should governments spend money on ballet if it is mainly of interest to rich people?” and/ or give them similar words which they can make their own discussion questions out of like “Christmas” and “wrestling”. Students ask each other questions without showing the words or questions to each other, being careful with their pronunciation. After a few minutes of that, they can work together to find all the silent letters.

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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