Teaching phonics can be more than just drilling. While flashcards and charts of sounds have their places, sometimes it helps students to get up out of their seats and move around a bit.

Teaching phonics gets a lot easier with some variety. It’s possible to put down the flashcards and worksheets for a bit and get moving. Total physical response (TPR) is a useful teaching method, especially among young EFL learners who may not have solid language skills yet. As the name suggests, TPR involves getting connecting language to a physical movement. For students who learn by looking and listening, this is a welcome change of pace that adds a little excitement to lessons. Acting out lessons also gives kinesthetic learners a chance to shine.

Click here for more about teaching kinesthetic learners.

The table below gives suggested TPR for teaching all of the forty-two sounds of the English language.  These are suggestions only: there is no right or wrong action for each sound, and teachers may come up with more appropriate and effective actions themselves. Even better, you could have students come up with their own actions.

Teaching Phonics: TPR for Individual Letters

Sound Words Actions
a apple, ant, mat. Imagine ants are crawling up your arm and say a a a!
b ball, robot, bat, balloon. Mime hitting a ball with a bat and say b as it impacts.
c cat, cap, bucket. Mime a cat stroking its whiskers, saying c c c c.
d dog, drum, down bed. Bang a drum saying d d d as the drum is hit.
e egg, elephant, eraser, tent. Break an egg, saying e! as it drops into the bowl.
f fish, fan, flag, golf. Wave an imaginary flag from left to right, saying ffff.
g good, guitar, ghost, bag. Mime playing a guitar, saying g g g g g as you strum.
h hat, hand, happy, hot. Pretend it is hot, and pant using the sound h h h.
i in, igloo, ink, pin.

Pretend to put something in your pocket, saying i i i.

Pretend to be a mouse, saying i i i.

j jacket, jump, jet, jam. Jump, and say j j j  as you do.
k kite, key, king, book. Pretend to use a key, saying k k k to imitate the sound of the key in the lock.
l leg, lamp, ladder, pillow. Hold up and pat your leg saying llll.
m monkey, mouse, camera. Rub tummy saying mmmm.
n nose, nut, no, pan. Shake head from side to side as if meaning no. Say nnn . Put finger on end of nose, saying nnn.
o on, octopus, orange, box. Draw an octopus on the board. Point out the round shape of its mouth to the students. Mime an octopus, saying o o o o.
p pig, pen, piano, paper. Hold up a small strip of paper in front of your mouth, and say p p p, to make the paper flick up.
q queen, question, squid. Shrug shoulders as if meaning I don’t know. Say qu qu qu, for question.
r rabbit, rain, radio, carrot. Pretend to be a dog chasing a rabbit, saying rrrr  rrrr!
s snake, spider, sun, glass. Mime a snake saying sssss.
t turtle, tree, ten, rabbit. Mime chopping down a tree, saying t t t as the axe hits the tree.
u up, umbrella, ugly, cup Throw hands skywards, pointing towards the ceiling, saying u! u!  (for up)
v van, violin, volcano. Draw a van on the board. Say vvvvv, as you pretend to drive the van away.
w window, whale, flower. Mime opening a window, saying w w w.
x Six, fox, exit, x-ray. Hold up six fingers. Say six loudly, crossing your arms to form an X in font of you as you say the X.
y yellow, yes, yacht Nod your head as though meaning yes, and say y y y .

Teaching Phonic: TPR for Diphthongs and Digraphs


rain, train, nail


Cup ear as if to say ay?

boat, coat, goat


Bring hand to mouth as if being shocked by something, and say oh!

tie, pie, die


Salute the captain saying Aye-aye!

see, sheep, bee


Put up hands to make donkey ears.  Hold them upright and say ee.

corn, storm


Put up hands to make donkey ears. Point them forwards and say or.
oo short book, look, foot This is the short ‘oo’ sound.  Pretend to be a monkey, saying oo oo oo.
oo long spoon, moon This is the long ‘oo’ sound.  Pretend to have stomach ache.  Hold your stomach, saying oo!  oo!

out, shout


Pretend to jab yourself with a needle, shouting out ow!

oil, toilet


Pretend you want somebody’s attention shouting out oi!

car, farmer


Pretend the doctor is looking down your throat, and say ah!
ir bird, shirt, girl Pretend to be a dog chasing a rabbit, saying rrrr  rrrr!  Point at something disgusting, and say ur!

sing, ring


Pretend to lift a heavy weight, saying ng!

cheese, catch


Mime a steam train, saying ch ch ch.

ship, fish


Put finger to mouth as if saying ‘Be quiet!’, and say, ssshhh.

th θ


thanks, thin, thumb Put your hand on your throat so that you can feel the vibrations in your throat, from your larynx. With the other hand, hold two fingers as if you are going to pull your tongue out.  Show the kids the position of the tongue and make the voiced and unvoiced sounds alternately.  Have the kids copy this and feel for the vibrations during the voiced sound.

th δ


this, that As above.
ue, ew, u_e

Sue, blue


Luke, flute


These letters are sometimes pronounced like the long ‘oo’ sound, as in blue, flew and rune.  However, They are sometimes pronounced with a y sound in front of it such as in the word cue, few and tube.



This is the IPA representation of the schwa sound.  This is the most common vowel sound in the English language. It may be represented in many ways.  One common place it is found is in words ending in –er, such as sister, bother and reader. The –er is pronounced with the schwa sound.  Americans would pronounce this more like ir.

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A version of this article originally appeared in Shane English Schools Taiwan’s Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL) program, which is part of all new teachers’ orientation.

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