A while ago I was watching an English teacher teach new words to some beginning English students. These students had a vocabulary of about 25 English words and had just mastered writing the alphabet a week earlier. Now, they were repeating after the teacher and looking at various phrases in the book, Good morning, Nice to meet you, and Are you from America? They were also studying additional individual words like, Canada, I’m, and not.
The students were looking at the phrases or words and repeating after the teacher as they attempted to learn to read these words. Three weeks later, most of them still couldn’t read (much less understand) the simple phrase, I’m not from Canada. Why? They had worked so hard! They had reviewed and repeated and completed about 18 workbook pages involving those very words! What could be wrong?
First, the students had no knowledge of phonics. They had learned to write the alphabet, say the ABCs, and they had learned one word which correlated to each letter, for example, A/Ant, C/Car, or I/ Ink. As far as I’ve seen, the teachers don’t even mention th, ch, and sh.
Second, the students were never (and have never to this date in any classroom I’ve observed) been asked to read something on their own. They ALWAYS listen to the teacher pronounce it before they are asked to “read” it.
Finally, they were exposed to very little actual English. An entire class period might revolve around learning only four new words. Another class period might involve only a minute grammar point. The language of the classroom is 95% Japanese. There were no stories, songs, picture books, etc. to expose the students to more English.
The problems with this style of learning are clear. The letter/word correlation is not all that helpful. In their first unit, they learn A makes the sound for Ant….then they learn that A makes a completely different sound for the words in Are you from America? The I in Nice to meet you, isn’t pronounced like the one in Ink, the C isn’t pronounced like the C in Car. Furthermore, the ABCs is a pretty outdated and detrimental way of teaching letter-sound correspondence. Although the letter D does make the d sound, the letter Y rarely makes a Y (why) sound. How can students be expected to figure out that H generally doesn’t make an ech sound, or that Window isn’t pronounced double u-indo-double u?
Another problem is that students are never asked to actually read a new passage without first hearing it pronounced. Therefore, they never build the ability to actually read something on their own. Even students in their third year of studying English struggle to read familiar vocabulary rearranged into a new sentence. The students are never asked to, “sound it out,” a phrase most western adults remember from their elementary school days. In fact, the idea of trying to read a new word through guessing at each letter’s sound is completely foreign. Students never learn phonics rules like, tion is pronounced shun, that a C followed by E makes the S sound, and they never see lists of words, like cat, mat, hat, pat, to drill the at sound.
Now, some teachers (who teach English to native English speakers) nowadays are actually doing much less phonics in the classroom to teach students to read. They believe that there are too many exceptions to the rule when it comes to English language spelling. It’s true, for every rule you can teach about phonics, there are a dozen words that are exceptions to the rule. It’s very confusing. So these teachers instead expose the student to LOTS of written media and expect the students to just figure it out. The students are read massive amounts of books, they listen to books on tape, they practice reading new text aloud in groups, they are encouraged to try to write prodigiously, even if the spelling is wrong, etc etc etc. This method has some very promising results. However, you may have noticed that the English Language Learners I work with are not exposed to all that much English. They cover two pages a week in their text book and three or four pages in their workbook. A page opened at random in the middle of the first year textbook has 18 English words on it. The workbook is about the same. That is simply not enough exposure to English to help the students learn to read.
So WHY? Why are the teachers teaching it this way? Didn’t THEY have to learn to read? Don’t they know how ineffective this all is?
Then…then…then it all came together one day when I saw the students copying kanji (Japanese characters) in their notebooks for Japanese class. The English teachers here are teaching English reading the same way they learned Japanese reading. In Japanese they do have an alphabet, but starting in first grade they begin learning the characters that make up the bulk of written text. A Japanese high school graduate knows about 2,000 kanji. Each character has to have its pronunciation memorized. You can’t “sound out” a character as you can a word written with an alphabet. You have to learn the kanji through rote memorization. ..much like the teachers are teaching each new English word as something that needs to be learned through rote memorization.
They are limiting their students’ English potential by inferring that new English words are learned the same way a kanji is! Their students are left thinking that if they don’t recognize the word from sight, they don’t know it. Period.