Budget embedded picture mnemonics

Early years teachers around Australia are this week starting to set up their classrooms for the new school year. Many are about to set up alphabet friezes and word walls.

I’m hoping that my new, cheap-and-cheerful embedded picture mnemonics ($10 plus GST) will encourage and help them to instead set up sound friezes or sound walls.

Early last year I commissioned talented, tolerant, patient Melbourne illustrator Cat MacInnes to turn my vague ideas into 46 cute, colour pictures you can print to help kids learn sound-letter relationships. They’re her copyright, so I have a limited number available (get in quick!).

Linking sound to spelling – embedded picture mnemonics

Children’s alphabet friezes typically associate each letter with a picture, ‘a’ with an apple, ‘b’ with a bus’ etc., generally going a bit pear-shaped when they get to X (xylophone? X-ray? fox?).

Research shows that integrating letter shapes into relevant pictures is more effective than just associating letters with a relevant picture. You can watch US expert Dr David Kilpatrick (this year’s LDA Tour speaker, details will be here) talk about this at 18:40 on the video clock here, read about it on p272 of his book, or read relevant research here, here, here and here.

The embedded picture mnemonic on the right below is thus more likely to help learners remember the letter C than the image on the left.

Available sets of embedded picture mnemonics are often designed from a print-to-sound orientation, and thus only represent 23 sounds, because the letters c, k and q represent the same sound, and x represents /k/ plus /s/.

Sometimes these sets include digraphs, but often don’t depict words containing relevant sounds e.g. the digraph ‘sh’ as ‘s for snake’ plus ‘h for horse’, though neither the word ‘snake’ nor ‘horse’ contains the sound /sh/.

To work in a logical, sound-to-print way, it helps to have a visual for each sound. This clearly shows children that we have many more sounds than letters, and often combine letters to represent one sound. Once all the sounds are known, additional spellings for each one can be taught, as well as the ways sounds share spellings (e.g. out/soup/cousin/cough).

Sound walls make more sense to young children than word walls. US expert Dr Mary Dahlgren explains why here. She suggests including photos of children’s mouths saying the relevant sounds on sound walls, and has suitable photos and other word wall resources available here.

Big charts showing all the sounds and their main spellings can overwhelm beginners and strugglers. Embedded picture mnemonics can be used to develop your own charts with children’s involvement, in manageable steps. Example words can be refreshed, to keep them interesting and relevant. Find free wordlists to choose words from here.

Setting up the mnemonics

Laminate and store/display the mnemonics on a wall, noticeboard, window or room divider.

If working with absolute beginners, just start with a few, and add more over time as you teach them. If you don’t have enough space for the A4 version, print them two to a page (A5).

Voiced-voiceless consonant pairs should be kept together. These are:

‘p as in penguin’ and ‘b as in bug’ ‘th as in path’ and ‘th as in weather’
‘t as in tiger’ and ‘d as in dog’  ‘f as in flower’ and ‘v as in vase’
‘c as in cat’ and ‘g as in girl’ ‘s as in snake’ and ‘z as in zip’
‘sh as in shells’ and ‘si as in Asia’
‘ch as in cheese’ and ‘j as in jellyfish’

Knowing that these are pairs helps children understand why they sometimes use each other’s spellings, e.g. the /v/ in ‘of’ and ‘Stephen’, the /z/ in ‘is’, ‘as’, ‘please’ and ‘scissors’.

Organise consonants according to where they’re made in the mouth, e.g.
• Lip sounds at the top of the display,
• Tongue behind teeth sounds in the middle,
• Back-of-the-mouth sounds at the bottom.

Here’s how I’ve set up my consonants, ready for words to be written on them:

In displaying the vowels, I suggest putting the ‘short’ vowel sounds (which must be followed by a consonant) on the top row, ‘long’ vowels next, and the ‘r-controlled’ vowels and other two stressed vowels at the bottom. When you start teaching about extra and shared spellings, you can point out that the usual spellings for the sounds in the top row can also be used for the second row (e.g. ant/apron, hit/hi, not/no, flush/flu).

How to use the mnemonics

Words including the sound being taught should be written on the space around the relevant mnemonic using whiteboard marker. Children might first learn four sounds, and then add a couple more to quickly construct many words:

As new sounds are added so that new words are able to be spelt, the words children have consolidated and can spell independently can be erased, to make space for the new words.

Once students have learnt a spelling for each sound, they can start learning its other spellings systematically. For example, if studying the sound /f/, children might brainstorm the words ‘fun’, ‘film’, ‘defend’, ‘off’, ‘fluffy’, ‘cliff’, ‘Sophie’, ‘elephant’, ‘cough’ and ‘laugh’, and these can be grouped under the headings ‘f’, ‘ff’, ‘ph’ and ‘gh’.

Once there are too many words to write them all in whiteboard marker, lists in smaller print can be attached. Displaying lists of words, rather than a single example word, makes it clear that many spellings have typical locations and neighbours (e.g. ‘ay’ at word endings, ‘igh’ usually before ‘t’).

I hope you like these embedded picture mnemonics, and find them helpful in teaching children about English speech sounds and the complicated way we represent them with letters.


* Except the unstressed vowel, which is stressed when working through words slowly, syllable by syllable, so that it is pronounced a variety of ways based on how it is spelt.

16 thoughts on “Budget embedded picture mnemonics

  1. Louise

    Hi There, thanks for this resource. As a preschool/ kinder teacher in Victoria, I have used abc charts at the post office table, for children who want to write real words, or initials. We use abc jigsaws and alphabet books, we play with magnetic letters etc and I usually introduce them to letters through the year starting with the letters beginning their Names. Is it appropriate to display your whole chart just as I would have done with the abc chart. I thought I might add it for the ones who do notice that the written letters are not quite as straightforward as the chart suggests?

    1. alison Post author

      Dear Louise, great to hear that you’ve been teaching preschoolers about letters for years. I think you could display my mnemonics in the same way as you’ve used an alphabet chart in the past, though there are a lot more of them so you’d probably want to introduce them in stages. This might help you with teaching children about the sounds and letters in their names, because children with names like ‘Charlotte’ and “Phoebe” and “Thomas” can get very confused by the fact that the sound that goes with the first letter of their names is not the sound they hear in their names. My brother is called Leigh, and I wish I could turn back time and give the small him an ‘ee as in bee’ mnemonic with his name written on it, and tell him his name has an unusual spelling of ‘ee’, with four letters. I like to underline graphemes too, to help kids understand that graphemes are what represent phonemes, and many of them contain more than one letter. I’d love to hear how you go. All the best, Alison

  2. Louise

    Alison, this is not a comment but a query. I would like to purchase the posters but I have to put an order in first to my admin – so would you be able to send me an invoice with your ABN and name, address, fax number if you have one, etc? Sorry about this, I know it’s unnecessary admin from your end.

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Louise,
      Yes, I can send you an invoice with an ABN and things that bursars like. What is the organisation’s name?
      Thanks, Alison

  3. lisa4

    Do you have these available as part of the download on an A4 sheet – back to back – in the layout you have demonstrated? Just thinking this would be a good visual for children to have on their desks as well when writing. Very keen to use.

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Lisa, I don’t have these in other formats yet, sorry, but I am certainly thinking about this, thanks for the suggestion, as soon as I have the dozen other pressing tasks on my list done I’ll look at what might be possible. All the best, Alison

  4. Stephanie Hatton

    Thank you so much! I have been looking for something like this for a long time (that weren’t Read, Write Inc). If i purchase, can I download rather than send the hard copies?

    Thank you

    1. alison Post author

      Yes, all the things in my website shop are pdfs that you download and print yourself. I would never be able to print, store and post them so cheaply. I’m assuming that teachers have access to colour printing.

  5. Ann-Louise Clark

    These are fabulous and I love her illustrations. Can I ask one thing though…we are starved for brilliant resources like these using the fonts we teach in each state. As I would like to use these as a lesson resource as well as room decoration, it would’ve SO exciting to have the letters in Foundation font (NSW teacher)! Please consider this if ever doing a revision.

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Karen, Sorry to take ages to get back to you, I have been snowed under. You ordered using the yahoo address, so to download the embedded picture mnemonics you go to my site, click on My Account, put in your yahoo email address and the password you created when you bought the materials (you can reset it if you’ve forgotten it) and then go to the Downloads area and download them. Email me on spelfabet@gmail.com if you can’t work it out and tomorrow I will send you the file. Sorry again I didn’t see this message earlier. Alison

  6. Lynne

    Hi Louise

    This is a question – what are your thoughts on SSP? I am at a school that has adopted this program whole heartedly. I am not sure I am a fan as it goes against the idea of teaching the most common sound and decodable texts. Was interested in your thoughts. Thanks

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Lynne, SSP can mean Systematic Synthetic Phonics, which I am wholeheartedly in favour of, or it can mean a program from someone in Qld called Speech Sound Pictures, which I don’t use, and about which I can have a conversation with you offline if you like, just email me. Alison

  7. Jo

    These look so good Alison. Can’t wait to use them. Did you have a video explaining them? I thought I saw one previously but now can’t find it.


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