Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Learning to Read English in the EFL environment

By Rachael Orbach

How do students learn to read?  There are lots of variables that have to come together in order to read and understand printed text.

First of all, the student needs to know that the letters on the page hold meaning.  Usually, in an English as a Foreign language classroom, the students already know a first language pretty well, so this first hurdle is easily jumped. 

The second factor is that the English letters correspond to certain sounds.  The sound letter correspondence in English can be perceived as completely arbitrary.  There is   no inherent reason that the sound /p/ corresponds to the letter that we make when we say the first sound in the word "puppy." 

The third factor is not all the letters of the English language always have the same sound.  Many times the letter " a"  has different sounds depending upon what word it is in.  The same can be said for all the vowels, and many letters. This makes it very difficult for learners of English to get a handle on English spelling and pronunciation.  For Hebrew speakers, all the letters of Hebrew have only one sound, all the time.  The orthographic system of Hebrew is also, most of the time, what you see is what you say.   That the letters of English can have different sounds, is a hurdle that is one of the hardest for Hebrew speakers have to jump.

According to the research presented in the book :  "Beginning to Read- Thinking and Learning about Print" by Marilyn Jager Adams, there are three "processors" involved in reading: Orthographic, Context, and Meaning processors.  Proficient readers do not anymore think in these terms, but the research on college students and beginning readers shows that each processor looks at the text on the page, interprets and sends that interpretation to the other processors.  The process is so fast for proficient readers,  that it takes no time and not much "computer" power.  For beginner and non proficient readers however, the time is much longer, and if the process takes too long, the memory cannot remember the first part of a word by the time the end has been decoded all meaning is lost.  The first processor is the orthographic processor. The letters are decoded:  In the word bat, the b, then a and then t are recognized. Then the phonological encoding takes place.  The reader says in the mind the b, the a, and the t.  Then, the context processor takes over,  "In what context is this sequence of letters?" Then the meaning processor takes over and assigns a meaning to the sequence of letters.  In the fluent reader, the whole process takes only seconds.  The research shows that the every fluent reader goes through the whole process every time a word is read.  When pseudo words are presented or poorly printed text is read, the whole process slows down. The fluent reader can still make out what is the text, but a poor reader cannot. The amount of time that it takes from the beginning to the end takes too long, and the beginning is lost by the time the end of the word is read.

The goal of teaching reading is to find a way to teach all the variables of English reading so that the student is interested, learns well and, knows how to read enough that reading is not a chore but becomes a pleasure.  A very tall order indeed. 

There are two main approaches.  One is the "Whole language" theory.  This theory says that people learn how to read the way we learn how to speak. When a child is born, he copies his parents' speech.  Eventually after 2 or so years, the child can speak a native language.  This theory was brought over to the reading field and the way we teach a child to read is to just read to him.  Most words are taught by  "sight."  The shape of the word is what is most important.  The word "ohio" is an example.  The child is taught that the letter h is higher. And the hi is in the middle of the word and the letter o's are on each side.  Enough exposure to the word "ohio" and the student will "read" the word.  The major problem is that there are so many words in use even in a student's English book that the student has to do lots of memorization.  This is not enjoyable at all. 

The other sometimes competing theory is the Phonics theory.  This theory says that the student has to learn each letter, every sound that the letter makes, and then after all the sounds have been learned, blend them together to get words.  This theory seems alright on the surface, but there are so many different sounds that the English letters make that to learn them all before the student gets to meaningful reading takes a long time.  This theory seems to coincide with the process theory presented in Adam's book. Readers actually do read every letter in turn, and apply three different processors to each word.  Why not teach students to read each and every letter? In fact we do teach that way, but the proficient reader decodes so fast that the process seems effortless.  

The next question is that how do we teach phonics?    A survey was taken of 8 major phonics textbook programs.  Lists of words were complied from each textbook.  The lists differed from program to program!  One would think that there would be agreement which words to teach!! 

New research from the Linguistics field says that children learn best by rimes and onsets.  Children can identify the beginning of words and ends of words.  Rimes are the ends of the words. These have also been called phonograms.  The syllable  "on" is an onsest, the beginning of a word, "wards" is a rime.  When the two are joined, a word is formed: "onwards."   After basic phonics work, the next step is to teach onsets and rimes.   These can help with the realization of the different sounds that the vowels make and it helps to make sense of when a vowel will have one pronunciation and when it will have a different one. According to Wylie and Durrell, children have a much easier time learning to read if they are exposed to rhyming words.  The words then form a pattern, both in spelling and in pronunciation.    

What does this mean for the Foreign Language Classroom?  It means that teachers need to be aware of the main differences between the mother tongue and the English classroom,, how the two languages are printed and pronounced.  Letter awareness needs to be "overlearned", that is that the student has to know the English letters so well that he doesn't have to think about which letter he is seeing, and what the sound it makes.  Then, the student has to know how to blend the letters into words.  More attention has to be paid to the meanings of the words.  Most people have only a certain amount of "RAM" memory.  That is" verbatim" memory.   Those who find reading hard, are spending their memory on recognizing the letters and matching the sounds to the letters.  Proficient readers have "overlearned"  the letters and the sounds so when they read, they are attending to the actual meaning of the words and how the words make sentences.  After a word is read, it is held in verbatim memory until a break, that is a sentence or a clause is read, then meaning is assigned to the whole section. The poor readers' memory cannot hold all these variables at one time.  He gets tired and the effort is not worth the outcome, random letters with no meaning.   

If one looks at most of the phonics programs, there are lots of fun texts, and there are many words that are not actually sounded out, but are called "sight words." The student has to learn the word by heart by the way it looks.  If you look at whole language programs, there are also texts that the students have to sound out.  It seems to me that both sides of the argument are using the same types of exercises, but the argument is about the amount of "sight words," and the amount of phonics.  This can vary by the program, but more often varies by class, and even by student.  Each teacher has to know the class, which students need more phonics work and plan lessons accordingly. 

Getting meaning out of a text is the only reason that people read, and the alphabet and phonics are the building blocks to get there.  Only working on phonics can be quite boring if it is not tied into the actual reading of relevant texts.  The challenge of the ESL classroom is to interest the students while lifting their level by just a little each lesson. Stephen Krashen, although he did not originate the concept, put it quite succinctly with his i +1, the student is at level i, and stretch him only so much that the material learned will be incorporated.  Each student learns at his own pace and what is relevant to him at that time.  By introducing the material in easily digestible units, in an interesting way, we as teachers hope that English learning, reading and writing will succeed. 


Adams, M.J. (1990)  Beginning to Read, Thinking and Learning about Print Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Education, United States of America  The MIT Press, Cambridge,Massachusetts London, England

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