Bridging the Gap: A Study in Phonological Consistency

Christine Krieser and Mindy Kalchman describe how they use students' knowledge of the sounds in their first language to build vocabulary in English. See Debbie Zacarian's Communities of Practice column, "Displaying Word Walls Is More Than Displaying Words," Essential Teacher, June 2009.

Some theories of second language (L2) learning suggest that children should spend most of their time at school immersed in the language to be learned (e.g., Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2000). Others suggest that children should spend most of their day learning content area skills in their first language (L1) and the rest learning L2 in a separate or complementary setting (e.g., Cummins, 1981). Although most approaches to L2 learning are rigorously researched, there is no definitive answer with respect to which approach is the right one for any given student (for an overview of L2 theories and practices, see Reed & Railsbach, 2003).

Thus, as we puzzled over how best to engage Mimi, a Korean-speaking beginning-level English language learner (ELL), we decided not to rely on one approach. Rather, we decided to explore Mimi's English learning capabilities based on her prior knowledge of Korean. Specifically, we considered the role that common phonologies found in Korean and English might play in her learning of English.

Mimi's Story

Mimi moved to the United States from South Korea 3 months after the school year began. She was placed in an inclusive fifth-grade classroom in a school that had no Korean-speaking teachers. Mimi's teacher admitted that she was "at a real loss for how to communicate with and differentiate instruction" for this student. Mimi's English language capabilities, as determined by her ACCESS test scores, showed that she was at the lowest level on all four aspects of proficiency: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. The ACCESS test, which is graded on a 5-point scale, is given to all ELLs in the district to determine their eligibility for ELL services.

The first author of this article (CK), who was part of the school's resource team at the time, was assigned to work with Mimi. Although the school's official policy on ELLs was to immerse them in English, CK's teammates were supportive of our creative approach to Mimi's learning. We hoped that using phonology found in both English and Korean would be a successful strategy that might also help other students and teachers who were struggling with similar language issues, Korean or otherwise.

Comparing Korean and English

Although both Korean and English are alphabetic languages with respect to their phonologies, there are some fundamental differences. For example, Korean has 19 consonant sounds and 10 vowel sounds, whereas English has 24 and 15, respectively. Moreover, the ways in which some sounds are produced in Korean versus English are markedly different. For example, Korean does not have any sounds such as th in this that are produced dentally (with the tongue positioned between the teeth) or sounds that are produced labiodentally (when teeth contact the lips) such as f in and fist.

Another example of a difference between Korean and English phonology is that in Korean, there are three different ways to produce the stops p, t, and k. (A stop is produced when the flow of air through the mouth is blocked.) The different ways of producing these sounds has to do with how much air is released and how much tension is in the mouth and tongue when producing the sounds. To demonstrate the differences, consider the letter p. The first way that p is produced in Korean is similar to English words such as pit. If one puts a finger up to the mouth and says the word pit, a puff of air is felt. However, when one says the word spit, the puff of air released is not as strong. In English, distinct letters or characters are not used to represent the different ways to produce stops, whereas in Korean there are three different characters for each stop.

In addition, we were intrigued to discover that English and Korean share the sounds made by the letters p, t, k, l, ch, h, s, m, and n. However, it is important to note that allophones remain problematic for native Korean speakers. This is because of how native Korean speakers hear and use the l and r sounds within their own alphabet's phonemes. Consequently, Korean speakers do not pronounce an l sound differently from an r sound when speaking English.

Building on Mimi's Prior Knowledge

After identifying differences and similarities between Korean and English phonology, we set out to use our findings to help Mimi learn English. Our premise was that although she would be greatly hindered by the phonological differences between English and Korean, we believed that she would be able to learn new vocabulary more easily using English words that reflect Korean phonology. Our hope was that if Mimi could better learn and remember individual vocabulary words using this approach, then a greater portion of her working memory could be allocated for comprehending what she reads and less would be needed for decoding.

We recognized that we could not prove that immersion would be a slower approach to learning how to communicate in English given the limited time we had to work with Mimi. However, we could attempt to show the impact of introducing English words that were matched phonologically to Korean in order to facilitate her listening speaking, reading, and writing of English.

Because of CK's limited time with this school's resource team, our work with Mimi lasted only 8 weeks. It consisted of six tasks involving a list of 20 words:

Random Words

Phonologically Consistent Words





















Ten of the words were consistent with Korean phonology, and the other 10 were random words that featured diagraphs, blends, and English sounds not found in the Korean language. All of the words were taken from fifth-grade spelling and social studies sources and can be spelled phonetically. Each task was assigned to a particular aspect of language development: listening, speaking, writing, and reading. The following is a summary of the tasks.






Speaking: Listening, Repetition

  • Mimi repeated words that CK said aloud.
  • Mimi was prevented from seeing CK's lips.
  • CK was able to observe Mimi pronouncing the words.
    • To give us information about Mimi's initial abilities to hear and reproduce English sounds that are phonologically consistent with Korean


Listening: Vocabulary

  • Mimi was asked to listen to 10 words and then learn their definitions using a Korean-to-English dictionary.
  • The day after learning the 10 words, she was asked to provide the words' meanings.
  • She was asked to listen to the second set of 10 words and learn their meanings.
    • To tell us whether Mimi more easily remembered phonologically consistent words


Writing: Spelling

  • CK read the 20 words to Mimi, and Mimi was asked to write them down.
    • To give us information about the impact of phonological consistency between first and second language on Mimi's knowledge of English orthography
    • To show us the connection between what Mimi hears and how she interprets those sounds as letters


Writing: Sentences

  • Mimi was asked to write any five sentences, not necessarily containing the words from the list.
    • To show us whether Mimi would spontaneously use the phonologically consistent words from the list


Reading: Decoding

  • Mimi was asked to read aloud the 20 words on the list.
    • To show us whether Mimi would be better able to decode the phonologically consistent words


Reading: Vocabulary

  • Mimi was asked to define the words as she read them off the page.
    • To give us information about how seeing rather than hearing the words affects how Mimi remembers the definition


Although Mimi did better with the matched words on all tasks, 8 weeks is not enough time to learn a new language or to definitively test hypotheses such as ours. However, several of the results and observations from our work with her created starting points for understanding how L1 phonology can be used to help ELLs communicate in English.


One of the most striking differences between the random words and the matched words was found in Task 1a, the repetition task, for which Mimi needed to repeat the words uttered by CK. Mimi correctly pronounced only 10% of the random words, whereas she correctly pronounced 90% of the phonologically consistent words. Not surprising, of particular difficulty for Mimi were words that included the dentally (th) and labiodentally (f, v) produced sounds founds in the words fathom and thriving.

One day later, when completing Task 1b, learning vocabulary by having the words and meanings read to her, Mimi correctly defined 67% of the random words and 89% of the phonologically consistent words. This result suggests that learning English vocabulary may have been easier for Mimi when the words reflected shared phonology. Again, our hope was that by having a growing cadre of easily retrieved vocabulary words, more of her working memory could be applied to learning the written and spoken structure of English, thus transferring to improved fluency with her reading and writing in English.

On the first writing task, Mimi spelled 40% of the random words correctly and 80% of the phonologically consistent words correctly. However, her errors were not without merit. For example, she wrote the word frantic as "parantic," replacing the f with a p because of what we assume she heard. She also placed an a after the p, possibly indicating that she heard the p with an extra release of air, which is unnoticeable to native English speakers. Although she spelled many of the words incorrectly, her errors suggest that she was beginning to understand English orthography, or how written symbols represent sounds.

For Task 2b, writing her own sentences, Mimi only included one random and one phonologically consistent word from the list: bench and jolt. This does not support what we expected, which was that Mimi would choose more words from among the consistent ones to form her sentences. More time and exploration are necessary to tease out the results of this task.

On Task 3a, reading the 20 words aloud, Mimi read 30% of the random words correctly and 40% of the phonologically consistent words correctly. This suggests that even though she was slightly more successful at pronouncing the matched words in the reading task, decoding English orthography was still a challenge.

Results for Task 3b, which required Mimi to give definitions for words while reading them, were the same as those for the listening task (1b). She got 67% of the random words correct and 89% of the consistent words correct. This result supports the idea that learning vocabulary may be easier when the words are closer to Korean phonology.

Summary and Reflection

After examining Mimi's success on our tasks, it seemed that it was easier for her to understand, repeat, and spell English words that were closer to Korean phonology than those words that were not. However, reading English words with phonology comparable to Korean was only slightly easier, and Mimi did not demonstrate any preference for either the random or phonologically consistent words when writing sentences of her own. These last two findings do not discourage us, though. The time we had with Mimi was relatively short, and the success we did have with respect to introducing her to English words that were phonologically consistent with Korean was a promising segue into designing a more comprehensive approach to helping ELLs communicate inside and outside of the mainstream classroom.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we learned from this experience is the importance of investing time into learning about the sound system of an ELL's native language. Once we started to understand why Mimi was struggling with some features of English more than others, we were better able to help her learn how to hear, speak, read, and write in English. Implicitly, we know that as teachers we should try to learn as much as we can about our students in order to better differentiate learning for them and help them overcome any impediments to their learning. But this experience demonstrated clearly that going the extra mile to learn the details about what may be considered superfluous prior knowledge may in fact make a bigger difference to students' learning than we ever imagined.


Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (pp. 3–49). Los Angeles: California State University, Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2000). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP model. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Reed, B., & Railsback, J. (2003). Strategies and resources for mainstream teachers of English language learners. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Library.

Christine Krieser ( is a graduate student in the School of Education at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States.

Mindy Kalchman ( is an assistant professor in the School of Education at DePaul University, in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States.