Alphabet Headaches - Literacy challenges for non-alphabetic English learners
The expression, "Alphabet Headaches", was brought to my attention by a Chinese teaching colleague in Hong Kong. He used it to describe the frustration that he had felt on a recent holiday in the UK, when he hired a car and found himself totally surrounded by road signs and directions that he could not read. All of those new words gave him a headache.

I felt the same way in Hong Kong, with all the advertising signs looming overhead, shouting at me in a script that I couldn't read.

Since then, I have heard English learners in Hong Kong refer to written English as looking like "ugly worms" or "chicken guts".

The Reading Process


Reading is not a natural human activity. 

We need to be taught to read, and this process takes time and effort.

Today, an increasing number of English language learners come from non-alphabetic backgrounds, yet we instructors often don't realise what an enormous cognitive challenge this can pose.

Here are a few examples of written scripts:

Some have directional differences (Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Dari etc.), some use a different notation system to indicate vowels (Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Dari etc.), some combine different writing systems (Japanese) and some use diacritics (Vietnamese, Khymer).

Chinese uses detailed characters in a logographic script.

*There is no ready teaching resource that can easily be utilised for students from different scriptal backgrounds.

English language "phonics" materials assume a large English vocabulary - and are designed for very young learners. Even English-speaking youngsters take three or four years to develop their reading skills.

Older English learners, and those already literate in another script, may want to move quickly in their English learning - sometimes too quickly to fully grasp the complete set of 44 sounds in English and the myriad ways in which thay can be written.

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