Tip for Tuesday: Why phonics and reading are so important to an ESL learner.
When spending a fair amount of time doing something, working on it consistently, it is only fair to want to see noticeable results. The same applies when learning a new language. You have to consistently work at it and invest hours in order for you to become proficient.
As we work with mostly younger students, whose parents are paying for all their extra effort into learning a second language, it is understandable that these parents want to see the results for their hard earned money. Although most ESL students are exposed to English in their public schools, parents see their children making substantial growth in their grammar, reading, and writing but slow progress in their listening, understanding and even more so in their speaking. This is due to public schools in various different countries favouring constant memorization, standardized testing, and repetition instead of comprehension of the language. With learning a second language, this is not usually a good way of developing strong oral communication skills. It is so important to start with a good base and build from there.
So why is reading so important for an ESL learner? All languages have 4 major components to it: Reading, writing, listening and speaking. To become fluent in a new language one must be proficient in all these components. It is impossible to be fluent and have a good understanding of the new language without making sure you have mastered these four very important categories.
Students of English who miss or put their reading and writing development on hold will have a weak, unstable foundation. Most of the ESL resources begin with basic reading abilities. IQBAR has just introduced its new course called the “Phonics Course”. This aims to help students who have no prior English experience to understand, learn and read basics sounds, letters and words. This, in turn, helps to create a stable foundation for them to build off of. Students who do not have a solid foundation in reading and writing will not be able to master the other components of the English language.
Most ESL students have not been able to master all 4 components of the English language. Therefore many of them are able to speak a few words but do not have the comprehension, reading and writing skills that need to accompany it.
Developing reading skills is so important for an ESL student. Reading comprehension can help students far more than just reading. It will actually help them build on their other essential skills like speaking, listening and writing.
When you encourage your students to read and to read for understanding, it will allow your students to build their vocabulary, practice pronunciation and help to develop grammar and punctuation knowledge. Once students become more advanced in their reading comprehension, they will most defiantly turn to reading for entertainment and educational purposes. I have had so many students, advanced readers, and beginners that love to show me their favourite English books to read, not only are they able to summarise the books but they learn new words, ask questions such as “what does this word mean?” or “have I read this book before?”. It just opens up a whole new world to language learning.
So a few known ways on how to improve reading and how to encourage it are as follows:
- Always start with Phonics
The best way to learn to read in English is through phonics. Think about the English alphabet… it can be very daunting as a beginner. It has 26 letters which all have their own sounds and can be pared and combined which intern changes the whole sound altogether, crazy! This is why it is important for beginner students and advanced students to have a solid Phonics foundation. Students progress from learning the sound for each letter to combining sounds to form simple consonant-vowel-consonant words (as in the IQBAR phonics course). A strong phonics foundation will ensure success in all the other components as the students learn the skills.
ESL students only spend a small amount of their school time studying English, and an even smaller amount during those classes, studying phonics. It is important to help these students go back to the phonics foundation and to make sure students have a good foundation to work from.
- Reading words VS Reading for understanding
For most children, especially those learning a foreign language, reading comprehension will take the back seat. Most times reading skills will develop faster than reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is not immediately necessary and will most defiantly develop later, with the help of a good reading program.
It is so important to use good reading materials (ones that allow the learners to engage, discuss, participate) provide them with the feeling of success and enhance their reading comprehension. Always make sure to know the students reading level and interest when choosing reading material.
- Faster does not always mean better
One way to know the learners are using phonics to read is by the process and the steps that go along with it. Children should be breaking words up, sounding them out and pronouncing words correctly with the use of syllables and letter/sound knowledge.
It is completely understandable that parents have the mindset of, ‘If my child can read, they should read quickly.’ This is defiantly not true, when a child takes their time reading, figuring out words/sounds and breaking everything up, they are setting themselves up for success. Not only will they improve their reading and writing skills but they will gain beneficial knowledge about how phonics works as well as develop other skills such as critical thinking and processing.
Always encourage your students to slow down and take their time. Encourage them to focus on the words at hand and allow them the opportunity to try!
- Be patient
Letting your students know that it is ok to take their time is key. Every person learns differently and at their own pace. Comparing each child to one-another is a common mistake in today’s education systems. Reading is a very complex process especially for a student learning a foreign language. Reinforce that this process takes time. Allow them to know that it is ok to find it difficult but with practice and help, they will get it in no time. Create an environment of comfort and relaxation where your student feels confident in their abilities. Aim to have fun and encourage them to keep on trying!
It is so important that we as foreign language teachers understand the challenges that our students face. By identifying these areas we can aim to make the process easier and less stressful for our students. Building a good foundation which allows them to start from the beginning and gain the necessary knowledge while moving through the different stages of reading is key!
Not only will our students be able to read fluently and with understanding but they will be improving their critical thinking, processing skills as well as their speaking and listening. Teaching a new language can be a difficult task. Always remember to put yourself in your student’s shoes, encourage them and help to flourish in their abilities to learn to read.
Words by Rose Lombard