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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Phonics for English Learners?

July 24, 2017

Teacher question:

I am interested in understanding how phonemic awareness and phonics can support students who do not have a structure for learning the English language. For example, English Language Learners who have no structure for language in their home language or in English. If you can suggest resources that address this matter I would be so grateful.  

Shanahan's response:

The research on these aspects of second-language literacy learning is limited. However, the research that has been done indicates that English learners clearly benefit from explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics for English reading (Shanahan & Beck, 2006).

That shouldn’t be too surprising. No matter what your background, if you are trying to learn to read English, you will have to learn to decode. That means that you will need to be able to perceive English phonemes in oral language and that you will need to learn the relationships between the letters and spelling patterns and those sounds or pronunciations. (And, that would be true at any age of development, if we’re talking non-readers).

However, it is also notable that such instruction tends to have a smaller impact on overall reading achievement (e.g., reading comprehension) than has been reported for first-language learners. Phonics instruction helps you to translate from print to pronunciation. If you don’t know the meaning of the word that you have translated then pronouncing the word won’t help you to understand the text. Native English speaking children are likely to know the meanings of more English words than will their ELL classmates, so phonics has a bigger positive impact for them than for the ELLs (it helps, just not as much).

Second-language learners, like all learners, bring knowledge with them. I’ve written before about my experiences in teaching myself to read French. My knowledge of the sound-symbol relationships in English is very helpful because I can often apply my knowledge of English to French. Take a word like, “danse.” Except for the medial vowel, all of the sound-symbol relations are the same as in English… and the replacement of the /ah/ sound for the “short a” sound is not particularly jarring or foreign to my English ears. Reading a word like “danse” is pretty easy for me because I get to apply my English knowledge of phonemic principles and sound-symbol relations.

What you know in your home language can be helpful. It can also be misleading. When I was first learning, I would read a word like “ecoutent” as AY-COO-TAHNT… the French pronunciation, however, is more like AY-COOT. In English, we’d pronounce those last letters, but in French, not so much. I had to learn to simply eat those final letters when it came to my pronunciation. Generalizing from my home language helps me to decode in some cases, and it misleads me in others. Fortunately, it has been much more helpful than a hindrance.

The same is true with children and with other languages. The more similar a home language is to the one you are trying to learn, the more transference that is possible. I can translate a lot of English decoding to French and I’ll do pretty well. If I were trying to read Arabic, I would have a lot more to learn.

You say these students have no “structure for language.” I suspect that you mean they come to school not being literate either in their home language or in English. If a Mexican youngster can’t read Spanish, then he won’t be able to transfer those common sound-symbol relations from Spanish to English. But that doesn’t mean that he or she couldn’t learn to hear the English sounds or to decode with them. (That’s why some authorities argue for teaching children to read in their home language: it should be easier to learn the language that you speak and then to transition from that written language to written English. Research does suggest that can be helpful, though it is not absolutely necessary).

Even when students aren’t literate in their home language they may have relevant knowledge to bring to the task. For example, phonemic awareness is the most transferable aspect of language. If youngsters can hear the sounds within words in their home language, they should be able to hear those sounds within English words. Of course, there are languages that lack some of the English phonemes (Japanese doesn’t have “l” or “r”), or particular sounds might be combined with other phonemes in ways that we don’t combine sounds in English. Those instances can benefit from direct instruction.

What does all this mean?

    1.    Teach phonemic awareness and phonics to beginning English readers no matter what their language background or how much literacy they have. (If you are teaching kids to read in their home language first, then teach the decoding for that language, and provide additional instruction as needed when the transition takes place).

    2.    If students can already read in the home language, you should be able to reduce the amount of phonics that is needed to the extent that there is overlap between the two languages.

    3.    If students are phonemically aware in their home language, you shouldn’t have to do as much with that (though there can be a benefit from focusing on those English sounds that may be unfamiliar).

Finally, second-language students in U.S. schools often underperform in reading. That means they may require some kind of intervention to give them extra targeted teaching. Many schools rightfully provide special interventions that target skills like phonemic awareness and phonics.

However, just because a reader is struggling doesn’t automatically mean the problem is with decoding. That is especially true for these second language learners. They, too often, are assigned to extra decoding work even when their decoding skills are adequate. For them, the extra focus should be on developing their English language.

Here are a couple of relevant resources that you should find helpful:

    •    Reading 101 for English Language Learners

    •    What Does Research Tell Us About Teaching Reading to English Language Learners?

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"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you'll go." — Dr. Seuss