06 Jul The Silent Letters: Tips for TESOL Trainers

A couple of weeks ago, we were looking at pronunciation in our TESOL group. When I went home that evening, I had to chuckle when I read my son’s spellings:

Gardener
Voluntary
Portable
Temperature
Secretary
Cupboard etc

On the face of it, this seems a strange choice of spellings for a nine year old, with no apparent theme. However, any ESL teacher would immediately see the link. The silent letter, of course! My TESOL group had been looking at exercises that morning, one of which covered the silent letters as part of pronunciation work.

Silent letters are letters that you can’t hear when you say the word, but that are there when you write the word.
Unfortunately, there are no rules; your learners simply have to learn them. The other bad news for learners is that over half the alphabet can appear as silent letters in words. They can be found at the beginning, end or middle of the words and, from the sound of the word, you wouldn’t know that they were there.

Fortunately, there are a few pointers for your students:

 1. Silent e
Silent e is the most commonly found silent letter in the alphabet. There are some hard and fast rules for spelling when a word ends with a silent e.
A.  When you wish to add a suffix to a word and it ends with a silent e, if the suffix begins with a consonant you don’t need to change the stem of the word.
For example:
Sincere + ly         =            sincerely
Force + ful           =             forcefully
B. If however the suffix begins with a vowel or a y, drop the e before adding the suffix.
For example:
Fame + ous         =             famous
Criticise = ism     =             criticism
2. Grouping silent letters is a good way to make it more memorable
For more advanced groups, you can look at this as a whole (not hole….) or for lower levels, you can bring groups in when appropriate in different lessons e.g. deal with the silent h when introducing “WH” questions or set as mini homework challenges.
I’ve attached below some of the more common Silent Letter groupings, the ones that spell trouble (with a silent o) for our learners!
Silent N
Autumn
Hymn
column

Silent D
edge
hedge
Wednesday
handsome
handkerchief
badge
wedge

Silent G
gnome
gnarl
sign
resign
design
foreigner

Silent U
guest
guess
guitar
guard
building
guilty
rogue
vogue
biscuit
tongue

Silent H
what
when
why
which
whether
ghost
honest
hour
while
white
where
rhythm

Silent T
switch
fasten
castle
watch
butcher
scratch
listen
match
Christmas
mortgage
soften
often

Silent K
knife
knee
knot
knitting
know
knock
knuckle
knight
knack
knew

Silent B
lamb
thumb
numb
crumb
climbing
bomb
comb
doubt
plumber
limb
debt
tomb

Silent L
almond
palm
yolk
calm
salmon
calf
half
chalk
talk
walk
folk

Silent W
wren
wrote
wrestling
wriggle
wrinkle
sword
whole
wreck
two
wrap
wrong
wrist
writing
I often (silent t…) use these as fillers or ten minute games i.e. match the word to the picture, find the silent letter, test each other on the spelling.  Or I may give them words with mixed silent letters and have a quiz in groups to read them aloud and see who can get the most right.
At the end of the day, we really do just have to learn them, much to my son’s disgust.  The more fun you can make it, the less your learners will lament the lack of rules!

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