The A-E-I thing (English as a Second Language Acquisition)


I despair. Have been teaching English for nigh on 15 years. Taught in UK, HK (ran a non-profit there)... was a DOS in Ecuador, write materials and have my own business here.

Taught the wee ones.

Taught the teeny boppers, the housewives, the businessmen and the CEOs.

They all make the same mistake, no matter the country, no matter the age. They all mix up A, E and I.

Confession time: I started off teaching children and I somehow never came up with a different way to teach the difference.

I, um, still say:

A's for apple

E's for egg (sometimes I say elephant LOL)

I's for ice-cream.

I draw pictures. I raise my eyebrows when they use one for the other.

I mime biting the apple, cracking the egg or licking the ice-cream. I just say egg if they write an i or apple when they look at me with fear in their eyes.

But even after a gazillion corrections, they still get it wrong: time and time and time and time again.


What do you/did you do to undo this particular fossilized mistake?

Useful links related to this posting:
Dealing with Fossilized Errors
The role of pride in the Business English language classroom


11 Responses to “The A-E-I thing (English as a Second Language Acquisition)”

  • Melissa says:
    September 07, 2009

    This technique works with my German students, who are used to English (and quasi-English) terms invading the language.

    I go through the alphabet with them, noting major mistakes. You're right, I can predict the mistakes before they make them and A, E and I always feature.

    I start by srawing their attention to instances of the letter in their own language: "E for E-mail" is very easy to remember. I: Sometimes iPod is a good solution, sometimes I draw their attention to the easy sentence "I am German". Y is memorised by the song "YMCA", which is scarily well-known in my classes. After doing the first few for them, we go through the entire alphabet as a group, with me pronouncing the letters and them thinking of ways to remember them. The length of this exercise depends on the level of difficulty the group has with the English alphabet. When they then misprononounce a letter in a later class, I just need to mime the YMCA song or ask "Is that G for GI, of J for James Bond" to help them remember their list.

    If the group need the alphabet (it is indispensable for students who telephone in English), I then practise regularly by getting them to spell words to me, where I write on the board exactly what they say. Sometimes Iask for an e-mail address to spell, sometimes I get a student to spell out an answer to a vocabulary quiz. It seems to work!

  • Alex Case says:
    September 07, 2009

    Move to Japan or Korea, then you only have to worry about B and V

    More seriously:
    - Do that thing where you get them to put the alphabet into columns by the vowel sound of each letter
    - Teach the magic E rule (an E after one consonant makes a short vowel sound like the name of its letter) as a way of reinforcing what that is and teaching a useful spelling rule
    - Lots of telephoning practice as a good excuse to practice spelling
    - Pairwork dictations
    - Get them to ask you for the spelling and give it orally before writing it every time
    - Spelling games, e.g.

  • jos says:
    September 07, 2009

    Are the a-pple,e-gg etc sounds useful? I help my Italian students to remember the vowels i and e (those which cause most confusion with Italian) with the internationally known ..i as in i-pod and e as in e-mail. Seems helpful in spelling when required for names, email addresses and so on.

    September 07, 2009

    OMG - you guys are so right: a -pple e-gg duh!! duh!! of course, that's why it's not been working.

    i for i-pod, e for e-mail ;-) I love it, this will be so much more useful for my businessmen too.

    And brilliant exercises, Alex - thank you so much!

    G and J - forgot about those ones... Y, I usually mime the question mark, that's always funny.

    Still need a tip for what to do with the letter a ;-)


  • The TEFL Tradesman says:
    September 07, 2009

    Just hit them when they make a mistake. They'll soon imoprove.

    September 07, 2009

    Sandy, Sandy, Sandy. You better watch out, you know. I've been known to hit teachers...

    (Not seriously for those of you who don't know that Sandy is actually nuts and we have running joke). LOL

  • Gavin Dudeney says:
    September 07, 2009


    Can I just point out that I have copyright both on the Violent Way and Arse-Based Learning.

    So, hands off!


  • Anonymous says:
    September 08, 2009

    Hi Karenne,

    My newest trick is: A is for Alice
    E is for e-mail
    I is for IPOD.

    OK, you can't use the first one, but for today's electronic freaks, the other two work really well!

    ;-) Alice

  • Anonymous says:
    September 08, 2009

    I haven't run into spelling trouble with the adults I teach, but everyone pronounces the letter "i" as an "e", like it is in their own language. When that happens, I draw a circle around a small "i" on the board and maybe add some eyelashes. That reminds them of how to pronounce the darned thing.

  • Anne Hodgson says:
    September 13, 2009

    I: "iTunes" for the younger ones, and for the older ones I motion with my hands, pointing to myself and making a heart and then point at them for "I love you". (Awwww.)

    E: "e-learning" (etc.) for the younger ones. For the older generation: Point finger, connect to theirs, go "bing" and say in a pipsqueak voice "E.T. nachhause telefonieren!" Do that once and they'll be doing it forever.

    A: I break into song and dance: "YMCA, it's always fun down at the YMCA" They decide I'm nuts and decide to get the learning done to get me out of the house.

    October 30, 2009

    Well, it's not perfect... but as students seem to all have learned the A- is for Apple as kids, I thought I'd do a mash-up of your great suggestions, i.e.

    You can send Emails with Apple's I-touch.



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