Why phonetic awareness comes more easily to some ELLS than others

I always thought that phonics was the secret to teaching children how to read. I believed that once they had memorized those sounds, reading would just click into place. I’ve always been a fairly adept reader and speller, so I was looking forward to teaching my own kids how to read. Actually, I was not just looking forward to it, gosh darn it, I was going to have them reading before Grade 1 started, and enjoying Harry Potter in Grade 2. So when a friend of mine told me that they had successfully used the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with their six year old son – and after only 60 lessons – I ordered it right away and impatiently waited for it to be shipped to China.

I even began telling people that my five year old daughter would be reading in less than four months. Just you wait. But, then I discovered, I had to wait, too. I think we made it to lesson 80, and this ended up being dragged out over the course of a year. Did my daughter improve in her reading? Yes. Did it come without any tears being shed as we persevered in our learning together? No. Was it fun? No. Is she reading at Grade 2 level? More or less, but she’s also in a Chinese school, so that’s not a biggy. Is she reading Harry Potter? No. Am I worried now? No.

My son was a different case. He hated the “learning book”, as he called it, about as much as his sister hated it. But with the hard-earned wisdom earned through his sister’s and father’s experiences, he wasn’t subjected to it for nearly as long. Is he reading in Senior Kindergarten? No. Is he meeting curriculum expectations, yes? Is he making progress? You bet he is. Now he can’t help but constantly make observations like this, “Daddy, do you know draw, drive, and drop all have dr at the front? And Daddy, do you know how to spell tree? It’s c-h-r-e-e! Tree!”

I might have been more concerned with my daughter if she had been like this, but with the benefit of teaching English in an elementary setting and becoming more knowledgeable about language learning processes and bilingualism, I’m actually thrilled with my son’s more natural acquisition. He’s got it. He’s making the sound letter phonetic connections which will provide a good foundation for his reading. Did our 40 or so lessons from the book help. Perhaps. Would he have learned with just the help of his patient and professionally trained kindergarten teacher? Yup. Am I now helping him by encouraging him and gently correcting him when he spells tree as c-h-r-e-e? You better believe it.

And in hindsight, I wasn’t the phonics wunderkind I believed I was. My mum taught me to read, but she said I was very slow to get the concept until we were driving one day and it suddenly clicked for me that the words I had seen on some billboard corresponded to sounds that can be read and understood. The rest was mere details. I picked up reading soon after that.

Now here’s the thing. The specific program to teach alphabet and phonetic awareness is not set. This should be reassuring news for those who bristle at the term phonics. But there is abundant evidence that strong phonetic awareness is a key trait found in strong readers. You can’t rely on whole word recognition or contextual clues beyond simple texts. Those of course are useful training wheels, at the very beginning, but they will not lead to independent riding. With students learning English as an additional language, it’s important to establish that sound word connection early on in the process.

Let me explain.

Recently I have started working with a Grade 3 English language learner. He was reading an early reader picture book which was at about a Grade 1 reading level. We came to a sentence which was written as follows:

The little boy sat on the toboggan. 

But the student read, “The small boy sat on the…(I helped with toboggan).”

It became clear to me that he primarily relied on word recognition and context to read. And his strategy was not working in this instance. When he sees the “little” he knows it means “small”. And the letters in “boy” could be confused with the letters in “dog”. Lower case b’s and d’s can take time to sort out. The g and the y are also very similar. But as there was a picture of a small dog on the page, it seems he may have been referring to that.

This was an isolated incident but it was more than just a slip of the tongue. I know that he skipped Grade 1,  his first language is Chinese, and together these have held him back through lack of exposure to English as well as reading instruction. Working with him, I know that he is able to sound out words consistently, but he has not developed the habit of mind to do that.

While I don’t have empirical evidence to show that language learners from a Chinese background may struggle more with developing phonetic awareness, I do have abundant classroom experience where this is demonstrated. Too much to purely account for a higher incidence of learning disabilities or dyslexia in this group.

It’s not uncommon for me to have a mixed class of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese students. It’s clear that the different groups contain the full range of extroversion and introversion, rule following ability (!), and intelligence. Any stereotypes that may seem to be initially true are quickly rendered unhelpful when the wrong individual or the wrong group exhibits the wrong stereotype! But…when it comes to reading, it is my Chinese students, in general, who struggle to demonstrate phonetic awareness.

For a beginner student, the number of new words is small enough, that a precocious student can memorize the spelling of hundreds of words. It gets trickier as the students move into intermediate level territory. A memorization strategy falls apart, because there are so many new and unfamiliar words. Students that have been reading phonetically up until this point, even with lower overall English ability in speaking and writing, can blast through. (For more on my vocabulary awareness strategy, you can read this article here.

I love demonstrating this by putting a long, but phonetically straightforward word on the board. Like “crestfallen” or “infatuation”. I will then call on a student, preferably one that is not known for being the best at speaking English, and ask them to read the word out loud. It’s generally doable, even if they might initially gasp at the word’s length. It’s not uncommon for me to have Korean and Japanese students, who struggle to string a sentence together with a capital and a period or participate effectively in a discussion, read most unfamiliar Grade level words out loud. Of course they don’t know what they mean, but they’re already on the right track to learning them. What percentage of the words in our first language have we looked up? Most of our own first language vocabulary acquisition comes through reading.

Why is this? Why is it that my Chinese students, as opposed to my Japanese and Korean students, seem to struggle a little more with reading phonetically? The main reason, I suspect, has to do with the phonetic basis of the Korean and Japanese scripts. Modern Korean script, called Hangul in South Korea and Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea, was developed in the 15th century, eventually replacing the Chinese ideographic characters previously used. Two of the three Japanese scripts – Hiragana and Katakana. The third Japanese script uses Kanji, which is made up of the same ideographs used in Chinese. When Japanese kids are devouring their comic books, it’s usually written in Hiragana. Foreign words are written in the second phonetic script, Katakana.

Chinese does have the romanized pinyin system, which renders Chinese characters into English letters, so that 普通話 becomes Putonghua when written in English. The pinyin system has become an important starting point for kids learning to read Chinese and type using Chinese characters. But ultimately, Chinese characters have to be manually learned and practiced. You need knowledge of at least 3000 characters, just to be able to comfortably read a newspaper. If you come to an unfamiliar character, you may be able to infer a little what it means, or guess by filling in the gaps. But ultimately you’ll have to look it up in the dictionary and then read the romanized pinyin form in order to figure out how to say it.

Many of my Chinese students will not persist in sounding-out or chunking unfamiliar words because they instinctively feel it’s a lost cause. And so it’s off to the electronic dictionary or Google Translate, which will provide the meaning and an audio reading out of the word.

So why keep this system? Well, apart from the aesthetic beauty of Chinese characters and the various calligraphers that have elevated writing to an art form, another interesting upshot to this system, unique in the world, is that the government can communicate with the entire country because there is only one script used for all the dialects. It’s the same reason that Mainland Chinese can read books written in Hong Kong, even if they are unable to speak the first language of most Hong Kongese, Cantonese.

English isn’t like this. If I were to read a sentence written in Jamaican Creole, a language based off of English, I would not be able to decipher it easily, even if I could read all the words outloud.

And even though English spelling is quite often inconsistent – with “f” coming out of “ph” in phone, “gh” in tough, and “ff” in off, the training wheels for a young reader do need to be phonetically based. Later on their brains will fill in the gaps through trial and error and exposure. It’s been fascinating seeing my daughter do just that. I will see her approach an unfamiliar word, pluck out sounds that she knows, and then use contextual clues to infer what the word is, especially for the phonetic rule breaking words like “enough”.

Am I anti-phonics? Not at all. Am I against a pure phonics program? Generally, yes. And of course some children do have learning disabilities, specifically dyslexia, which have neuro-biological explanations for why their brains have such great difficulty associating sounds with letters. Get a specialist, but you would be surprised at the progress that can be made through developing phonetic awareness. Especially with those beginner ELLs.

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