Phon-Let Pictures

Making phonemes memorable is a matter of building multiple associations between the basic vocal gesture and other familiar experiences. In our practice at Auburn University, we have found it helpful to represent phonemes with letters, meaningful names, illustrations, and hand gestures.

A meaningful name is a real world sound that resembles the sound of the phoneme. For example, the phoneme /h/ calls to mind the panting breath of a runner. Phoneme illustrations portray the real-world sound analogue for the meaningful names, and hand gestures pantomime creating the real-world sound.

Research shows that learning phonemes with letters helps children remember phoneme identities (National Reading Panel, 2000). The letter symbol offers a concrete visual reference for the phoneme. It is also a permanent reference, applicable in every literate situation for life.

In themselves, letters are spare, abstract symbols. I thought of the idea of incorporating the letter as an integral part of the phoneme illustration. In effect, the letter becomes part of the picture. For example, the letter i becomes a couple of drops of goo dripping from icky, sticky fingers. My hypothesis is that this association will more readily link the letter with the illustration, helping beginning readers learn short vowel correspondences.

The following phon-let pictures were constructed from images found on the internet or in Open Court materials. I included multiple versions for e and u.


Crybaby Mouth a

Gesture: Rub beside eyes with fists.


Rocking Chair e

Gesture: Push elbows back as if rocking.


Bent Ear e

Gesture: Cup hand behind ear.


Creaky Doorknob e

Gesture: Pretend to open door, grabbing forward and pulling back slowly.

icky goo

Dripping Gooey i

Gesture: Shake open fingers.


Yawning Mouth o

Gesture: Pat hand over open mouth.


Goofy u

Gesture: Tap side of head with forefinger.


Foghorn Handle u

Gesture: Pretend to pull foghorn handle, grabbing upward and pulling downward.

Chin-rubbing u

Gesture:  Rub chin with u-shaped fingers.

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