English Additional Language/Dialect  |  English Second Language  |  English Language Learners

Using Stand-Alone Phonics to Teach Literacy

The introduction of synthetic phonics as a shortcut to literacy achievement in a language not yet spoken/in the early stages of learning the language, is not effective beyond the immediate context. It ignores the essential teaching of syntax and the semantics of cross-cultural knowledge.

Recognising the graphic shapes of English sounds, makes up just a small part of learning literacy. Literacy competence requires an established level of spoken language and comprehension of English utterances to contextualise the isolated sounds represented through visual shapes.

In English, this is especially so as the English grapho-phonic system is not consistent between spelling patterns and sound representation much of the time. Knowing what and how to use graphophonics - the visual forms of the sounds of English - is but one part of LEARNING TO READ.

This skill is inconsequential to LEARNING TO HEAR AND SPEAK A NEW LANGUAGE. Babies, toddlers, children do not learn their home language by being taught the visual (alphabetical) representations of words. They learn language as an iterative (aural/oral) process between themsleves and family/caregivers (mentors).

Acquisition of a new language occurs through learning spoken language in contexts where authentic communication goals are embedded in the purposes for using language, with the additional support of EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION about the language.

Explicit instruction is not the same as Direct Instruction. The Active Teaching-Learning Triangle outlines the features of explicit instruction.

Where children are members of ACADEMIC LITERATE CULTURES, they are taught literacy based on an age-expected level of SPOKEN ENGLISH. These children bring the syntax of English and the semantics of the culturally embedded words and utterances to the skill of recognising the words (that they can already say and understand) in graphic form.

Where children are members of ACADEMIC ORAL CULTURES, literacy is not a culturally familiar or required activity. A solid base of spoken English must be developed PRIOR to the introduction of literacy learning. At the very least, Spoken English genres and functions must be taught in parallel.

It is ineffective to focus on grapho-phonics at the expense of language learning. Students who are learning literacy though a language they are in the process of beginning to learn, cannot activate the skills of linguistic and semantic prediction without a solid base of spoken English.

Learning the sounds of English - THE SOUND CHUNKS OR PHONEMES (not phonics)- is a necessary aspect of learning an additional language. Even so, this aspect of learning an additional language cannot be isolated from learning essential functional and communicative uses of the additional language.

This requires the learning of a range of spoken genres, associated sentence structures, and a broad and relevant vocabulary base to:

- establish knowledge of the context of phonics within words (subsequently taught within a comprehensive EAL/D literacy approach)

- apply meaning to the words and the longer utterances/sentences.

The approach was not created for the teaching of EAL/D.

docxThis article by Jim Cummins argues that the use of approaches such as Direct Instruction, as adopted by the 'No Child Left Behind' program in the USA, does not reflect the science (research) of literacy learning, let alone the science of learning an additional language. They reflect the idealogies (acquired beliefs) about, in this case, learning to read. Beliefs often held by the broader population, not by many specialists in the field.

Direct Instruction focuses on a 'bottom up' approach through teaching graphophonics in an intensive and restricted manner (DISTAR) and was originally developed in the USA  in the 1960s for students who needed remedial reading support. In Australia, it was redeveloped by Macquarie University's Special Education Unit and aligned with a set of readers.

Students learning EAL/D do not have reading disabilities. They are learning a new language with a range of new skills, some of which will be literacy related.

Teaching Graphophonics is but one (small) part of EAL/D teaching.

Direct Instruction is not an English-as-an-Additional Language/Dialect teaching pedagogy.