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5 Ways Phonics Is Different for English Learners

Chalkbeat Philadelphia recently published a great article about the difficulties young English learners (ELs) in the Philadelphia School District were facing during the pandemic. What spoke to me in the story was a quote from EL teacher Shuxin Chen. She described the “double burden” young ELs always face during phonics lessons, not just during the pandemic. Phonics is a foundational skill for learning to read. All students need it. ELs, however, need some additional considerations.

I talked with Ms. Chen about what she’d like teachers of ELs to understand about the phonics challenges their students face when learning to read.

What English Learners Need

1. Patience
All students need patience, but ELs especially so. We English language teachers must keep reminding our general education colleagues (and ourselves!) that ELs need time. Ms. Chen points out that young ELs have to process phonemes as new sounds if the sounds aren’t in their mother tongue. Then they must process the grapheme associated with the sound and also learn the vocabulary associated with the word. That’s a big cognitive load—the “double burden” she was referring to in the Chalkbeat article. Ms. Chen’s school offers specific small group instruction for young ELs in kindergarten but many schools don’t. At one time. my district didn’t either, claiming kindergarten was a “language-rich environment.” It is—but only if you understand the language.

2. Oral Vocabulary
Ms. Chen noted it’s important to develop oral language because general education teachers often assume oral language development. Native English speakers with large oral vocabularies can more easily make connections. ELs need the opportunity to talk about everything! The rhyming games, the poems, and the singing offered in lower elementary classrooms all help develop phonemic awareness, the auditory part. That helps ELs learn phonics, the visual part where sounds get connected to print.

What Teachers of English Learners Should Do

3. Take a Fresh Look at Teaching Phonics
Ms. Chen, a former EL herself, suggests it might be time to reassess when and for how long to teach phonics. Phonics instruction, including the study of letter patterns and morphology, can be appropriate for older ELs, too. It’s especially useful for students from language backgrounds quite different from English. As a high school newcomer, Ms. Chen diligently set about learning English words “as a whole piece.” In hindsight, she realizes that made things needlessly difficult for her. Lack of specific phonics instruction made her feel as if she were missing out on a “secret.” For your students, “Tell them the secret!”, she advises.

4. Teach to the Need
All students need phonics, but students who have mastered the skills won’t need the same support as students who are beginning. It’s easy for teachers to think something is wrong with ELs just starting out. What ELs need, however, is a bridge from what they know in their language to what they need in English. What if students don’t know the word for apple when the teacher is using it to represent the sound for a? Worse, what if the teacher assumes the student knows the word for apple and misinterprets hesitancy for lack of phonemic awareness? If necessary, gather evidence of progress to convince doubters. That was what I was doing when I filmed this short video of an EL making words with moveable letters. His concerned teacher wanted him to repeat first grade. She thought he lacked phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Watching even thirty seconds of this video shows otherwise.

5. Keep Going
As Ms. Chen points out, “Reading is so much more than just learning the letter sounds and names. It’s learning the language.” Decoding, or learning to sound out words, is an important start, but ELs also need to know the meaning of those words. Teachers of young ELs shouldn’t assume their students are reading well based only on their mastery of phonics skills. We English language teachers have a more holistic view of reading as part of language development. We know learning about phonemic awareness and phonics is important. It’s the foundation for learning to read, but it’s just the first step in our students’ long, fruitful reading journeys!

About the author

Barbara Gottschalk

Barbara Gottschalk is a veteran educator. She has taught English language learners from first graders to graduate students in five states in three very different parts of the United States plus Japan. Gottschalk has written many successful grants and served as a grant reviewer for TESOL, the National Education Association, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition. She is the author of "Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas That Work" and "Dispelling Misconceptions About English Language Learners: Research-Based Ways to Improve Instruction."

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