Literacy challenges for non-alphabetic English learners
There has been a bit of a surge of interest in Cued Articulation lately. While this methodology might be helpful in speech therapy situations with first-language speakers of English, and with younger learners, I feel that it is only a gimmick in teaching English to learners of English as an additional language.
In my view, it adds an extra layer to the learning burden, as students need to:
1. watch both the speaker's mouth and the hand-signals
2. concentrate on the sounds being produced
3. memorise the sounds, the mouth movements, the written script and the hand-signals.
English sound production is hard enough already!
My neighbour's four-year old is learning Jolly Phonics at his school. This programme uses cued articulation hand signals. While it's fun to play syllable-counting games with him, he's certainly spending a lot of energy touching his head, tummy and knees for every word we provide. The word, "Toyota" brought about a flurry of head-tummy-knee touching for "toy", "oh" and "ta". Even then, he wasn't able to tell me "how many syllables?". His learning was still in the physical dimension. There was no doubt, however, that he was tuned right into the 'beats' of the syllables in every word. Great fun for young learners, but probably not suitable for older (or adult) learners.
I've just finished a semesters' work with a class of "phonemically challenged" Intermediate-level adolescent students. Most came from China and Vietnam, with some from Burma/Thailand (Chin and Karen speakers) and one Arabic speaker. The time was not there for a full treatment of phonemic awareness and phonics, but the students' final essays made good use of "invented spellings" for unknown words. All of these attempts approximated the sounds of the words.
While other teachers might castigate these students for their spelling errors, I am thrilled that they are now using their rudimentary sound-spelling strategies to write the words that they have in their spoken vocabulary. Full competency in English spelling takes a long time, and a lot of exposure to the printed word. These students are on their way.
SSSR Conference, Hong Kong, July 2013
What is coming through very clearly at the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading's conference are the findings that morphological awareness is 'up there' with phonological awareness in its importance in learning to read. Morphological awareness refers to the reader's knowledge of word-building: prefixes, suffixes, root words, grammatical adjustments to words. In my research in Hong Kong schools, I was quite shocked to learn that learners of English had not had their attention drawn to even the simplest of prefixes, such as de-, re-, un-, pre-, post- or under-.
SSSR Conference, Hong Kong, poster session, July 2013
I had a lot of visitors to my poster (see the link to it on my Publications page).
Its title clearly stated: Hong Kong's English learners are missing the Alphabetic Principle.
I was disappointed that a representative from Hong Kong's main teacher-training institute asked me to explain the alphabetic principle.
It would seem that phonological skills and phonics teaching are still not core components of HK's English teachers' training.
I have just come across this mainland Chinese expression, which describes a similar situation to what I have called "alphabet headaches" in Hong Kong. Far too many Chinese-background learners of English engage in the alphabetic script without the benefit of sound. The letter-combinations just do not "speak" to these learners. To them, written English words are visual puzzles, not sound-encoded puzzles. "Mute" learners are quite capable of reading and writing in English, but are unsure how to add the element of sound. The literature suggests that greater interaction with native-speakers of English is needed, but I see the phenomenon as a major short-coming in their instructional experiences. These learners do not have the phonological skills needed to unlock all those written words and provide a "soundtrack" to the reading experience. Mere exposure to "foreigners" will not provide those insights - reading needs to be explicitly taught.
During a recent discussion with some teachers from an online-English teaching team, I was asked about the role of "phonetics" (the IPA) in the instruction of adult students based in China. This teacher said that his students found them very useful. No doubt - they are a reliable way into pronunciation. But, at what cost? By the time a new word is looked up in a dictionary and the pronunciation unravelled via the IPA, the learner has left the original text way behind. The IPA is an analytical tool for teachers and linguists.
*When did we, the teachers and fluent readers of English, discover the IPA? Probably at university, long after we'd learned to read.
When learners leap from reading the Chinese script in their first language straight into utilising the IPA for English, they have left out phonics completely. Far better for our students to "sound out" the new word right there, on the page that they are reading. Chinese learners tend to prioritise meaning, so their dictionaries are never far away. We need to keep them on the page for a much longer time. We need to prioritise sounding-out from the original word. Meaning can often be worked out from context or morphological clues (introduce students to affixes and roots).
*Those of us who are teachers of secondary and tertiary students need to learn more about the absolute fundamentals of learning to read ... about the ways in which print and sound are directly connected. Even though our students may be older, they still need to learn the alphabetic principle - that the letters right there on the page capture sound quite adequately.
Letters and fonts
English uses 26 letters and knowing the names of these letters is essential if we are going to talk about them. But, there is a whole lot more to know about letters than just their names. (We all have a name as well, but our roles are even more important.)
Letter names are not sounds.
There are 44 sounds in English: 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonants. We open our mouths for vowel sounds and we constrict the airflow in different ways when we make consonant sounds.
Chinese-background learners need to know that the 26 letters can be written in different forms - in upper and lower case, in printed and cursive form. The letters, 'a' and 'g' take different forms in different fonts. There is a recommended stroke order for printing the letters, and there are conventions for joining them in cursive writing.
Yes, it's important to teach students to read and write capital letters for the completion of forms, but texts written in all-caps are quite hard to read for learners who are new to the alphabetic script. (The same applies to English-speaking youngsters.)
'Teacher-cursive' in hand-written feedback comments and on the whiteboard can also present a challenge to students who are still learning a new writing system.
Always check your students' skills
A West African student of mine, who speaks a dialectal version of English, has recently come to light as a visual reader of English. He can speak about almost any topic and he can write pages of (rambling but thoughtful) English. His listening and reading comprehension scores were very low, however, so I asked him to read aloud to me. With his extensive vocabulary, he was able to smoothly substitute words that he didn't know with words of similar meaning. His reading was dyslexia-like, but I doubt that he is dyslexic. His schooling has been interrupted and chaotic, and he has had to "catch up" so often that he has missed out on the fundamentals of reading in his haste to keep up with his age-group. No doubt, he's also been in huge classes where his 'gaps' have not been noticed. At his age (18), it's hard to re-learn to read a language that he's been using with reasonable success throughout his school life. His problems run deep, however. Even his knowledge of consonant sounds and blends is minimal. He had never thought that /s/ and /sh/ might be different sounds. "Near enough" had been "good enough" in the large, noisy classrooms in which he'd been learning. It will not be good enough in upper-secondary subjects, however, where the flood of new vocabulary is a big challenge - even for native-speakers.
Maths is full of English
A highly educated and mathematically able Vietnamese student who brings her scientific calculator to class and zooms through anything that is written numerically recently came to a complete halt when faced with this simple problem: A pizza had 12 slices. I ate 4 slices and my friend ate 3 slices. What fraction of the pizza was left? [Answer: 5/12]. It doesn't matter how easy the Maths might be - the wording of problems like this will remain a massive barrier (and potential embarrassment) to students who are still learning to read in English. We must be continually alert to the language challenges involved, and not be blinded by the simplicity of the mathematics.
Handwriting - a good thing to discuss
We had some good discussions about the importance of handwriting at a professional development gathering today. Of course, there is the whole debate about whether writing by hand is important in today's digital world - but, there is also a need to teach our biscriptal students to write efficiently in an alphabetic script. Old habits die hard, and many have settled into 'inefficient' ways of writing letters and numbers. One thing is certain - handwriting (and formal calligraphy) would have been highly valued in our students' previous education. If we can place some value on it, and give time to it, our students will at least see that it has some importance in their new culture. We can try to look for opportunities to "do our best writing" - quotations for the wall, letters to students in other classes, filling in forms, students writing their answers on the board etc. If our handwriting is to become public, we usually try a bit harder. [Do students know the recommended 'stroke order' for forming the letters and numbers that we use? They may never have had this pointed out to them. Many have just learned to copy the shapes in the order of their familiar script.]
Non-specific academic vocabulary
Every academic discipline has its own body of terms that students will need to learn. There are also several hundred academic words that are common to all subjects, which teachers might assume that their English-learners already know. Words like acquire, comprise, decline, flexible, notion, sector and via. An alphabetical list of 570 such words and their derivatives can be found at:
The same words, arranged in order of frequency, can also be found at:
Well worth incorporating into academic preparatory courses.
Handwriting - is also hard to read
Not only is handwriting an important skill for the biscriptal learner - the reading of others' handwriting is also a major challenge for the biscriptal student. Yesterday, I presented my biscriptal Year 12 students with a 'sample exam answer' written by an unknown exam candidate and annotated by the examiners. They simply could not read it. I read it aloud to them, while they followed along on paper. The handwriting was not particularly difficult to read, but it was something they had not previously been required to do. I have heard them complain about their "teachers' writing" on their assignments, but it would now seem that this is a wider problem. Admittedly, it is not often that any of us need to read lengthy handwritten texts, but our biscriptal students may regularly struggle with teachers' "blackboard writing" and feedback comments. Their alphabetic reading skills are still fragile and still dependent on predictable, type-written text.
[A few days later - my students were struggling with a handout from another teacher. When I had a look at it, I found that it had been typed entirely in capital letters! I also found it odd, reading an entire page of paragraphs typed in caps. Not a good idea for any readers, methinks.]
Just two letters
One of my young students was "mortally embarrassed" today. She referred to a pie graph as a "pee graph". So easily done! The digraph 'ie' can be pronounced as a long /ee/ as in piece, chief and field and as a long /i/ as in pie, tie and fried. I quickly pointed this out to the group and added the word, relief, which they didn't know - to the relief of the first student (and her teacher).
Everything that uses a bullet is called a "gun" by my students. As they progress in their learning, we need to continually add refinement to all such broad terms, so today we learned about "rifles" and "pistols". We also went up a level and made a classification of "weapons". [I must add that this was not a war-torn class of refugees. I'd be loathe to use this particular topic with them.] Categories and classifications are important aspects of vocabulary learning. They can be really interesting, especially when students' first languages might classify things differently. In Malay, for example, a whale is a "fish". "Sheep" and "goat" may be interchangeable in Cantonese.
Learners don't always make the necessary connections between synonyms that refer to the same "big idea". Important words and concepts need to be connected to others in "word webs" and "word families", whenever possible. It's well worth stopping and exploring the range of vocabulary associated with important concepts. One of my students was asked about "volunteering" in an oral exam. She was shown a picture of elderly volunteers. Sadly, she hadn't embraced the wider notion of "volunteering". All she knew was something called "service" and "service learning" that happened at her school, and this was something that young people did for the elderly. (There may also have been cultural factors at play here. In her culture, it is probably unusual for the elderly to be the ones doing the volunteering.)
On a holiday visit to a bookshop in Hong Kong, I saw that a book entitled "Osama" had been shelved directly above the shelf's sign - which read "Drama".
"buffalo" - "battle"
A new student from China in my Australian school recently confused these two (previously unknown) words. I had shown her class the viral YouTube video called "Battle at Kruger", in which a herd of buffalos outwits a small group of lions. All that I had written on the whiteboard was the name of the video. Throughout her written account of the tussle, she referred to the buffalo as "the battles". Again - this may be the lookalike factor at work.
"bend" or "break"?
Some exchange students from China are spending two weeks at my Australian school. One of them showed us a video that she had made, in which she provides instruction in baseball pitching. The students were required to sub-title their videos in both English and Mandarin Chinese. Unfortunately, the instruction to "bend" an arm was translated as "break your arm"! Herein lies the danger of direct translation.
These visiting students have been over-writing most of their English-language handouts with Chinese characters - a practice which usually results in the obliteration of the original text. (I often saw this practice in Hong Kong schools.) One girl has even translated an entire e-book on a science topic.
This may 'work' for the students in terms of gaining knowledge via their first language, but it does not push them into 'making meaning' via the English text. Translation, especially using Google Translate, is all too easy.