Happy October Teachers of Emergent Bilinguals! We just got done with our September series on how to teach morphology. In some ways, morphology is more important than phonics for students above Grade 2 because of its ability to boost vocabulary and reading comprehension at the same time. However, there’s just no way around phonics: here’s what every emergent bilingual needs to know.
What is phonics instruction?
Phonics is the explicit instruction of the English written code. When I say code, I’m referring to the sounds of the English language that make up spoken words, and how we represent those sounds alphabetically in print.
For example, the word ship has three sounds /sh/ /i/ /p/, but is represented by four letters. Sh in English is a two-letter written symbol, or digraph, that makes one sound.
English is a language with roots going back to Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek, and has multiple ways of spelling the same sounds, especially vowels. This is what makes it a particularly challenging language to learn how to read.
By the second grade, all students should have received this instruction and be well on their way to decoding fluency (see my video, What is decoding?)
Challenges to effective phonics instruction
First of all, phonics instruction alone does not create a reader. It’s one piece of the puzzle, along with rich content instruction that builds background knowledge and vocabulary around various topics, opportunities to develop phonological awareness and oral language proficiency in English, and culturally sustaining classroom practices that build students’ identity – and instill pride in themselves – as readers.
However, without the ability to ‘crack’ the written code of English, all students – not just emergent bilinguals – will struggle. Here are some of the major challenges when it comes to effective phonics instruction:
Emergent bilinguals in kindergarten and first grade often miss out on phonics instruction because they are still developing oral English proficiency – you can’t learn to read before you learn to talk! After Grade 1, they often never get phonics instruction in ELA or stand-alone ENL again. Because they’ve never received that solid instructional foundation, they fall further and further behind. This is especially true for students who arrive in the later elementary grades.
There is no established curriculum for phonics instruction in the upper grades. Besides training, teachers need resources that offer a scope and sequence for instruction, and resources that target older learners.
Students who are ready for phonics instruction don’t get stand-alone ENL classes anymore. Under CR 154 regulations in NY State, once a student develops a transitioning level of oral English proficiency, that student no longer receives stand-alone instruction. This is problematic because there is little to no time in an integrated ELA classroom to teach phonics in the later grades. The ENL teacher may be the only one able at that point to offer phonics.
With all this in mind, there’s just no way around phonics: here’s what every emergent bilingual needs to know.
- The difference between a vowel and a consonant (a vowel is an uninterrupted flow of air; a consonant is a flow of air that is interrupted by different parts of the mouth);
- Every word has a ‘beat’ or syllable, containing a vowel;
- Words are made up of individual sounds; in order to read in English, we have to take apart words sound by sound.
- A sound can have more than one symbol, or spelling, e.g., sale, mail, bay, gist; judge
- English has 6 syllable types with predictable spelling patters that form multisyllabic words;
- Multisyllabic words can be divided using syllable division patterns (more on that in the upcoming weeks!)
- Sounds in English can sound the same or different from sounds in the student’s Home Language! Students should develop phonological awareness around this! For example, the sound /m/ sounds the same in English and Spanish, mother and madre. But ‘th’ in mother doesn’t have a natural equivalent, it’s different and students need to practice how to pronounce it.
Teachers, if you want to know more about how to teach phonics, see readingrocket.org’s FREE course!
In the coming weeks, I will take you through a model ENL/phonics lesson for older students that you can teach in 10-20 minutes during an ELA block, or in Stand-Alone ENL. Remember, before we can teach phonics, our students need to have a minimum of oral English proficiency. Don’t teach phonics to newcomers!
Stay tuned because there’s just no way around phonics: here’s what every emergent bilingual needs to know.
Teachers, comment below with your questions!