Literacy challenges for non-alphabetic English learners
Oh, the assumptions we make ...
We should never assume that all learners understand the "alphabetic principle".
A learner can never really be a fully fledged reader unless he/she can deal with new words. Unfortunately, many of our learners have memorised vocabularies. A new word will "throw them", as the word cot did to my Hong Kong students. (This tiny word set off my entire research endeavour!) Yes, they knew hot, cat, hat, pot, but they told me that they "didn't know cot". They had no "word attack" skills. None. They could not "sound it out". They told me that it was my job to tell them the word, and their job to memorise it. My attempts to slowly sound it out with them - /c/ /o/ /t/ - were howled down with laughter.
Try your students out with non-words. Ask them to spell and/or read aloud a handful of invented words: fid, mog, spet, craddle, piltich ... make up your own. An efficient reader of an alphabetic script can do this - and enjoy the "Dr Seuss" fun of it. A learner who has memorised most of their vocabulary will hate it.
The Chinese script operates at the level of the syllable, so these students will need to be led down the sound-bite scale to the level of the phoneme. They will need oral/aural practice in phonemic awareness, followed by a phonics-type programme. They must be able to hear and separate a string of discrete sounds before they can be expected to encode (spell) or to decode (read) them.
How will they ever deal with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and the masses of new words that they will meet in senior secondary and university studies? They may well encounter thousands of new words every year!
Which phonics programmes?
* it should be based on the 44 sounds of English.
* we should avoid the ABC (26-letters, over-simplified methods) and the bucket-and-spade approaches to phonics (these use pictures that assume the wide vocabulary and extensive cultural knowledge of first-language learners)
* older learners need more mature materials
* sadly, very few such programmes exist
* materals for non-literate adults have a more mature approach to sound work, but they assume the vocabulary and cultural experience of first-language users
* adapt, trial, adapt - and be prepared to develop your own materials
I suggest internet searching using keywords such as 'articulation' or 'speech sounds'. This will take you to speech therapy websites which often have useful videos of sound-production and useful word lists, e.g. minimal pairs, initial sounds, medial sounds, final sounds, blends, rimes etc.
I also prefer to stay away from teaching materials that use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols. These are useful to me, and to very advanced learners, but they are really confusing to any learners who are already struggling with a new alphabet.
IPA use in Hong Kong schools is misguided, in my opinion. The IPA is a tool for the teachers - not the students. [One of my Hong Kong students called these symbols phoenix!]
I wouldn't recommend using Cued Articulation (or Jolly Phonics hand symbols), as all the hand-signing takes the learner's vision and memory-making away from the speaker's mouth. The most important factors are the
sounds themselves and the mouth movements that the speaker makes.
My Word Wizards programme
I designed and taught a Summer School programme in word-awareness skills with some very able Chinese-background students in Hong Kong. These students (from Band One schools) were highly articulate, many were reading the Harry Potter series of books and they all loved English. Several of them were prize-winners in Hong Kong’s highly competitive examinations. They were the city’s high flyers.
Unfortunately, as is the case with so many Hong Kong students, the phonological skills of this group were rather weak. They could hardly decode or encode “new words” - for they had memorised their entire vocabulary!
We started with the very idea of what constituted a “word”, and the notion that words were like people – that they have ancestors and they have personalities.
The formal programme began with some etymology. I described the English language as a “soup” which had ingredients from many different languages. We examined some words with Greek, Latin, Persian and Chinese connections. The students had never known that English words had ancestors in other languages. As they explored, they began to show English words a little more respect. Just like Chinese characters, there are many stories behind English words.
Instead of starting with sounds, I started with whole words and their meanings. Then, we gradually dug down deeper and deeper into words, eventually reaching the level of the phoneme. As Chinese languages operate at the level of the syllable-morpheme, the phonemic level of English is a considerable challenge for Chinese-background learners.
The “Word Wizards” programme progressed in this sequence, with several lessons on each topic:
1. Words – what are words?
2. Exploring different dictionaries – types of thesaurus, several thematic dictionaries (e.g. a Dictionary of Mathematics, a Dictionary of Science, a Dictionary of Art)
3. Greek and Latin Roots
4. Prefixes and Suffixes
5. Syllables and Rhymes
6. Syllable-stress, onsets and rimes (phonograms)
7. Phonemes and Graphemes
8. Consonants – voiced and unvoiced
9. Vowels – short, long, diphthongs
10. Word analysis – becoming “word detectives”, and taking apart big words like anthropomorphism – meaningful parts of the word, and sounding-it-out.
The absolute key to success with this high level of learners was starting with etymology and working our way down to the 44 individual sounds. By the time we reached phonemes, the students had become fascinated and even “hooked” on words. They were amazed at what they didn’t know about the English language. They saw connections that they had not seen before.
If I had started the programme with “phonics” of some sort, I fear that these highly capable students would have laughed it off as mere “noise-making”. This is a big challenge for teachers of older learners who have missed out on the alphabetic principle. The students do not want to participate in classroom activities that appear to be “babyish”. Once they have come to appreciate the “magic” of the sound-system, however, they will participate willingly – as long as the learning resources themselves are not “babyish”.
The challenge still remains when it comes to working on the phonological awareness skills of less-proficient, less motivated Chinese-background learners of English who may be in large classes with limited resources. I had it easy!
[Full details of the Word Wizards teaching programme are available in my Doctoral Thesis. Follow the links on the Chinese Learner page.]
More recent thoughts (2014) on a teaching sequence can be found on the Teaching Sequence page of this website.