ESL | Phonics | Reading | Teaching | Teaching English

20 of the Most Important Phonics Rules

Here are some of the most important phonics rules for students and teachers of English, We cover rules about double letters, magic e, using y as a vowel, plurals and much more.

We have also put links to free and paid resources in the rules as well in case you need something to take away for your students or children from here 🙂 If you want to look at all our resources then click here.

As mentioned in our previous post, phonics is a great tool to get beginning readers building both skills and confidence to tackle more difficult reading. That post offered you an order to approach the teaching of phonics and the resources that could help you on the way. feel free to check it out here.

We have put these rules into a downloadable pdf as well. If you need to you can print and display in the classroom, or fridge or wherever you need. They are a useful crib card for you and your children or students.

Every Syllable has a Vowel.

Now this rule needs a little more explanation. whenever I say that some smart kid, or teacher, squeals out words like shy, or why, or rhythm. none of which have a Vowel….. LETTER. As we mentioned in the previous post, vowels can be annoyingly tricky.

The rule is that every syllable has to have a vowel SOUND. so in words like why, that sound is long ”i” made by the letter y and we have more on that later.

The vowel sound can be in the middle of consonants like in cat, cot, church, or it can be a stand alone sound like in pach – y – ceph – a – lo – sau – rus, or fam-i-ly and yes the dinosaur name is there for a reason.

How to teach Short and Long Vowels

Free Short Vowel Colouring CVC Phonics worksheets

How to tell if the vowel is a long or short sound, is such an important set of rules for all students but especially ESL students who don’t have English as language one.

If there a consonant after the vowel it will usually make the vowel say its short sound. like in CVC or CVCC words, cat, chop, ship, if there is not a consonant usually the vowel will be long. Like in so, to, be, we. As with all things in English this is most of the time…

If there is one vowel at the end of the syllable is will likely be the long sound, like above, he, to, so, we, man-go, bin-go. (technically this is caused an open syllable)

and if it is a closed syllable (which I guess you can work out what that is now) then the sound is likely to be short. (just in case it means if the vowel has a consonant following it) words like Sep – tem – ber, prin – cess, pump – kin

How to Teach The Magic E Rule.

Magic E Phonics Worksheets

I love teaching this as students are usually quite quick to learn and put in to practice, and it has loads of great materials to go with it. including great worksheets and a catchy song!

The rule is quite simple. If the word has a single vowel with a consonant and an e at the end. then the single vowel says its name, the long sound, and the e is silent. Words liek mole, cute, mate, wrote etc.

Teaching the difference between a digraph and a blend.

FREE Digraph word families Worksheet

These sounds are often confused. A blend is to separate sounds blended together, however it is still possible to hear the the to distinct sounds. They usually have 2 or 3 letters together. words like black, brown, cream, scream, green. Often they are taught with br / bl and gr / gl to show the difference between the sound, it can be difficult to hear particularly for second language learners.

A digraph is not a blend, it is an individual sound made up of more than one letter. The most commonly taught are ch, sh, but there are many more. wh, dg, gh, ss, ng, ph for example.

There is a great song for this ( though it seems to disappear from YouTube quite often.) and we have loads of resources here.

Teaching Diphthongs and Vowel Digraphs

There is a great song for this as well. when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking. The rule says that if two vowels are next to each other the first one will say its name, and the other will be silent. Check out the song its great. You can find this in words like boat, coat, foal, bead, sail.

A diphthong is an exception to this rule, this is where two vowels come together to make a separate sound. like au, oi and ou. In words like Paul, boil and foul.

R-controlled vowels

There are other vowel sounds. If a vowel is followed by the letter ”r” it forms a new sound. For example in car, start, fear, near, floor, door, girl, bird, perm. We have plenty of resources for this on the site as well. here and here.

Teaching Schwa

This sound is the most common in English is the ”schwa”. It is in both American and British English, though its use can differ sometimes. It is most often used in unstressed syllables. Words like the, but, and paper all contain it. As you say those words you can hear it sounds like a soft u sound. It is also the only sound that has its own name!

Soft and Hard letters. C and G

C has two sounds a hard and soft version. If ” e i or y” come after the letter c it will say its soft sound. This sound is the same as /s/ so words like certain, citrus and bicycle with all have a soft s sound. If the vowel is an ”a or o” it will say the hard sound (which we are more used to) catch, cold, cabbage, cottage.

G follows the same rules and C. It also has hard and soft sounds that follow the same vowel relationship as ”c”. so it words like gin, angel and clergy. This sounds like the sound of the letter ”j”

Double letter Endings

This is nice and simple. if the letters l, s, f and z are at the end of a one syllable word they are normally doubled. IF the word has a short sound vowel. so in words like fell, floss, puff, biff, fizz. however it is an important normally we added there! gas, and mass, fuss and bus…..English….sigh…. perhaps not so simple.

Ck and K word endings

These are, as with a lot of spellings in English, related to the vowel sound before them.

If the word a one syllable word with a short vowel sound then the spelling is normally going to be ”ck”. Like in trick, brick, black, block, if it is a long vowel sound or a consonant then it will be the ”k” spelling. For example, talk, folk, musk, busking, gawk.

The J Sound.

This sound, I didn’t want to put the phonetic symbol for it, is found above as the soft g as well. in this instance it follows a short vowel like in words judge, budge, fudge, podge, bridge. It also stops the word becoming a magic E word.

Magic e and -ing

This can be introduced when teaching magic e. To have the continuous form with both and ”e and ing” causes problems. So we simply remove it. We don’t go hikeing we go hiking. Are you hating this yet? Good! At least you are not hateing !

Or or Er

This affects words like word, work, worth, world. The rule is nice and simple, for a change. When ”w” is before the or sound, it changes the or to an er.

Pesky Plurals

Is it ”s” or ”es”. Countless English students have sat and take a stab at this over the years. So here is a simple way of helping them remember! Normally to make a word plural we just add ”s” to the end… right?

Well yes, unless that word ends with the following sounds. z, sh, ch, sh, s, or x. Then that changes to es. boxes, buses, gases, churches etc.

What about adding an ”i” to make it plural.

It is true some words can become plural if you add an ”i” to the end. Normally these words have been drafted in to English through Latin and have two acceptable spelling in their plural form. – cactuses and cacti. There are some that don’t but really, and I mean REALLY, you are not going to be using words like Stimulus in your class I would think.

Y as a vowel sound rules

y as a vowel worksheets

We have some pretty cool worksheets to help teach these actually! However here are the rules for Y as a vowel!

When the word has the ”y” at the end and it has two or more syllables then the sound of ”y” is the long e sound. For example very, easy, cherry, diplomatically

When the”y” is at the end of the word, and a one syllable word like shy, fry, buy, why then the ”y” will make the sound of a long i.

The ”y” usually makes the consonant sound when it is a the beginning of the word. Examples are words like yellow, yacht, yes, or you,

and finally, see if you can work this one out! Day say bay, fray, nay, ray. The Y basically acts like a magic e and makes the a vowel say its name.

Consonant Double trouble

Now…. there are soooo many rules for this that i am not going to list them. If you do want to see the full list, then get a cup of tea, sit down and hit this link. There are 111 reasons so far…. I am going to give you two pieces of advice instead.

It is very rare to have a double consonant after a diphthong or a long vowel

there are some letters that never have a double consonant! these are h, j, q, v, w and y. Now shall we go for a bevvy…… ohhhhhh.

English is weird

This phrase or variants on it are going to be said by every English teacher on the planet at some point. FOr every rule there are liekly to be 10 or more exceptions to it. So it makes peopel think there is either no point learning the rules of English or that it really doesnt have any set in stone ruiles. The first one is totally wrong and the second is msotly wrong.

It is totally worth learning the rules of English, they are massively more common that the exceptions, even when the exceptions include very common words and structures. Within phonics it is recognised when words don’t follow the phonetic rules we spend so much time teaching our little ones. We call them sight words. These are words, unlike other and the vast majority of English words, that can not be decoded with phonic skills. They have to be learnt by sight ( hence the clever name). The most annoying thing about these words is that they are some of the most commonly used words in English! Just check them out here. These include high frequency words which we will write about soon, and their importance as well.

There are more than 20 rules for Phonics of course, but if you introduce these first you can’t go far wrong.

We just gave one example for some of the rules, if you want more resources then feel free to check out all the resources on the site. we have thousands of pages.

About the author

Hi I’m Marc. A teacher of over 15 years, mostly English but dabbled in outdoor pursuits and media. Thought is was about time to sharing both what I have learnt during that time and the resources I have put together. On this site we aim to teach the theory and share our thoughts, but also go that one step further and give you access to the hard resources you need for your class or for you children. Feel free to take a look at our resources, email us on, or jump on the Facebook group to ask questions. Happy learning, teaching or playing!

I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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