Alphabet Headaches - Literacy challenges for non-alphabetic English learners

Brain Science and Reading
Maryanne Wolf (2010). Proust and the Squid: The Story and the Science of the Reading Brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.
A very accessible, informative read, which begins, “We were never born to read”. Some history, some science, some education – about the magic that is reading. A top-selling science-oriented book. It would make a terrific present for anyone interested in human history, the mind and our struggles to read.
Margaret J. Snowling & Charles Hulme (2005). The Science of Reading: A Handbook. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Too many commentators on reading are inclined to say, “Research tells us …”. Well, this is the research that they should be quoting. With chapters by most of the world’s leading reading researchers and packed with meta-analyses of extensive work in the field, this very large book covers the science of reading superbly. Anyone writing about reading must start here. A must for any academic library.
Learning to Read English
Barbara M. Birch 2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Here is a book that takes other scripts and other languages into account in a bottom-up, ‘myth-busting’ look at the teaching of reading to learners from other writing systems. Practical, textbook-like, with thoughtful Discussion Questions in every chapter.
Keiko Koda & Annette M. Zehler (Eds.)(2008). Learning to Read Across Languages: Cross-linguistic Relationships in First- and Second-Language Literacy Development. New York: Routledge.
Languages and their writing systems – and what these bring to learning new languages and new scripts. There are three general chapters on scripts and reading, plus some specific chapters on Khmer, Korean, Hebrew, Chinese and Arabic learners of English.
Joanna Nijakowska (2010). Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Dyslexia explained and applied to new-language learning. This is a newly developing, and vitally important, field.
Some very practical suggestions make up about one-third of the book.
Writing English (Handwriting, not essays!)
Vivian Cook & Benedetta Bassetti (Eds.)(2005). Second Language Writing Systems. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
An edited collection of research, case-studies and the practical implications of teaching learners a new writing system. These two editors have recently started a new journal in this field, Writing Systems Research, which began in 2009.
Rosemary Sassoon (1995). The Acquisition of a Second Writing System. Oxford: Intellect.
This is the only practical handbook for teachers on the challenges and intricacies of teaching learners of English to write in the alphabetic script! Very readable and full of examples and classroom observations.
Rosemary Sassoon (1983). The Practical Guide to Children’s Handwriting. London: Thames and Hudson.
An oldie, but a goodie for teaching anyone to write by hand. It covers aspects of writing that secondary- and tertiary-level language teachers have probably never contemplated.
Practical Books for Phonemic Awareness and Phonics
Wiley Blevins (1998). Phonics from A to Z: A Practical Guide. NewYork: Scholastic Professional Books.
Wiley Blevins (2001). Teaching Phonics and Word Study in the Intermediate Grades: A Complete Sourcebook. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.
I have a mountain of books on phonemic awareness and phonics teaching, but I keep coming back to these two books for teachers by Wiley Blevins. They are so useful! The first is geared towards Grades K-3 (USA), and the second towards Grades 3-8 (USA), but they can be of great benefit to anyone teaching literate or non-literate learners of English at any level – i.e. parents, tutors, neighbours, siblings, teachers ...
Words Their Way
A series of books by Donald R. Bear and others. (Pearson)
This one book (back in 2000) has now grown into three books and an entire professional development enterprise!
Now, there is Words Their Way for younger learners, Vocabulary Their Way for Middle and Secondary students and Words Their Way With English Learners.
What I especially liked about the original book was the very practical use of “Word Sorts” – cards and cards and cards of words, which students could sort out into various piles according to different ‘sound’ and ‘word-building’ elements. Not only does this save the time taken on creating endless worksheets, it also allows far more words to be brought into play.
Unfortunately, most of these super-useful word cards are now placed behind a ‘Pearson publishing pay-wall’, but the following books are full of hundreds of photocopiable sets of word-cards that can do the same job.
* Copy the pages, laminate them, cut them up into card-sets, store them in pockets – and watch your students engage with them:
Sheron Brown (2000). All Sorts of Sorts: Word sorts that reinforce spelling and phonemic patterns. San Diego, CA: Teaching Resource Center.
Sheron Brown (2001). All Sorts of Sorts 2: Word sorts for complex spelling and phonetic pattern reinforcement. San Diego, CA: Teaching Resource Center.
Word Study: Games and Cards (Morphology-related)
Sheron Brown (2003). Intermediate Prefix, Suffix and Root Word Cards: Meeting standards for Greek and Latin roots. San Diego, CA: Teaching Resource Center.
From the same author as the word sorts, these cards have Latin and Greek roots, from which students can investigate many families of ‘big words’.
Two (very challenging) card games for advanced learners are available from the Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation in Australia ( or from their US publisher (Washington Reads at
     Caesar Pleaser cards (Latin roots)
     Socra Teaser cards (Greek roots)

[Washington Reads also has a number of other sound- and word-card games that may be of interest to teachers -- or to anyone who loves words.]
Rhyming Dictionaries
These are great fun!
Some are quite sophisticated (probably meant for serious poets), but this one is an absolute gem for teachers to use:
Sue Young (1994). The Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary. New York: Scholastic Reference.
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