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.
The research on these aspects of second-language literacy learning is limited. However, the work that has been done indicates that English learners benefit from explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics for English reading (Shanahan & Beck, 2006).
That shouldn’t be surprising. No matter what your background, if you are trying to learn to read English, you will have to learn to decode. You’ll need to learn to perceive English phonemes in oral language, the relationships between letters and sounds and spelling patterns and pronunciations. (If we are speaking of non-readers, this need would be true at any age level).
However, such instruction tends to have a smaller impact on overall reading achievement (e.g., reading comprehension) than is the case with first-language learners. Phonics instruction helps one to translate from print to pronunciation. If you don’t know the meaning of the word you have translated, then pronouncing it properly won’t increase comprehension. Native English-speaking children are likely to know the meanings of more English words than will their English Learner classmates, so phonics has a bigger positive impact for them (phonics 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 helpful because I can often apply my knowledge of English to French. Take a word like, “danse.” Except for the medial vowel, all the sound-symbol relations are the same as in English… and the replacement of the /ah/ sound for the “short a” sound is not jarring or foreign to my English ears. Reading a word like “danse” is easy for me because I can still make use of my knowledge of English 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 French, I would read a word like “ecoutent” as AY-COO-TAHNT… what I assumed to be the French pronunciation of those letter combinations. However, that isn’t actually how the French pronounce that combination of letters. What they say is more like, “AY-COOT.” In English, we pronounce those last letters, but in French, not so much. I had to learn to swallow most final consonants in my approximation of French pronunciation. Generalizing from my home language boosts my decoding ability in some cases, and it misleads me in others. Fortunately, it has been more of a help than a hindrance.
The same is true with students who speak 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 much English decoding to French, and I’ll do reasonably well. That kind of transfer would not be possible with Arabic or Russian (since their scripts are not the same as in English). The greater the differences between the languages, the more the learner will have to deal with to learn to read the second language.
You write that 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 suggests that can be helpful, though not 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 some sounds may 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’re 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 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 are unfamiliar).
Finally, second-language students in U.S. schools often underperform in reading. That means they may need some kind of intervention to provide additional support. Many schools rightfully provide special interventions that target skills like phonemic awareness and phonics.
However, just because a young 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:
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