Why teaching phonics is not enough for English learners in California

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – As California launches a new literacy campaign, some advocates fear that for English learners, the emphasis on pronunciation of words comes at the expense of learning the meaning of words.

State Superintendent of Education Tony Thurmond on Tuesday announced a new statewide literacy campaign to help all third-graders in the state learn to read by 2026. For those learning English, this roadmap can be very different.

In recent years, there have been calls across the country to focus more on phonetics – learning to pronounce syllables in words – while teaching reading. However, many researchers and advocates for students who learn English as a second language argue that while phonetics is important, English learners also need to learn the meaning of the words they speak. They recommend that teachers give students experience with reading aloud, vocabulary lessons, and plenty of speaking practice, in addition to phonics.

“Our kids have become really good decoders – they can pronounce a word, but there’s no point in saying a word if you don’t know what it means,” said Kathy Escamilla, professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Escamilla is part of the National Committee for Effective Literacy Education for Emerging Bilinguals, which was formed this year. In California, several organizations and individuals from different school districts across the state have formed a state committee with similar goals.

Escamilla and others’ concern stems, in part, from the experience of a nationwide reading program known as Reading First, which began under the No Child Left Behind Act in the early 1970s. 2000s. Some evaluations of the program found that students learned to pronounce words well, but reading comprehension did not improve.

“At the time, we were concerned that this would contribute to the long-term problem of learning English, because when children entered fifth grade and did not understand what they were reading, it became very problematic,” said Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, a non-profit organization focused on improving the education of English learners.

A long-term English learner is a student who has been enrolled in school in the United States for six years or more but has not yet mastered English.

While students who are fluent in English already know the words they are speaking, students who are learning English can learn to pronounce words they do not understand.

“When you teach phonics in a decontextualized way, you teach them cat, but if you don’t bring a picture of a cat or a real cat, they can do it, but they have no idea what it is. as you we are talking, “said Escamilla.

Escamilla and other researchers say that students who learn English need a lot of oral language and vocabulary development. This is how children learn their mother tongue at home.

“Oral language development is what we do with our children at birth. We show the juice and we say, “Does baby want juice? “,” Said Escamilla.

In a classroom, oral language development can consist of children talking to each other, practicing new vocabulary. Teachers can also teach chants or songs that use new vocabulary and read them aloud with the class.

Anabolena DeGenna, deputy superintendent of education services for the Oxnard School District, said during recent trainings for teachers in her district, teachers have learned it is important to relate their speech instruction to the books they read at high levels. voice to students. For example, if a teacher is concentrating on learning the sound of “uck”, they might read a children’s book called “The Stuck Truck”.

“I’m reading an interesting book, a fun book for kids. I’m also very intentional about teaching phonics through reading, rather than just a stand-alone book,” DeGenna said.

The Oxnard School District pioneered a new approach to literacy a few years ago, after data showed their students were not doing as well as the district would have liked on tests.

“We really took a step back and said, ‘We can’t wait for students to master English writing or decoding so that they really start to develop the critical thinking elements that are part of literacy'”, DeGenna said. “In order for them to be critical thinkers in literacy, they must engage in content that is relevant and allows critical thinking to occur.

DeGenna said the district is also trying to ensure that students learning English as a second language receive rigorous instruction in other subjects, such as social studies and science. When she walks into a classroom, she says, she wants to see students learn and write about these topics, and read interesting texts and literature, in addition to teaching phonics.

“Students of color and English language learners tend not to have access to rigorous instruction because we believe we need to fill in the gaps first before giving students this information,” DeGenna said.

As students return to in-person teaching this fall, many teachers are also concerned about filling the learning gaps that may have resulted from distance education during the Covid pandemic. For example, Alicia Raygoza, a teacher on a special mission in the Mountain View School District in El Monte, Southern California, said some second-grade teachers told her that some of their students don’t know all of the letters of the alphabet, a skill they would normally have mastered in kindergarten and reinforced in grade one.

“There is a tendency to think, ‘Oh my God, kids don’t know that. Oh my God, they don’t know the letters. Oh no, I’m going to have to teach kindergarten, “” Raygoza said. “One thing I try to do is strengthen with the teachers I support, it’s not that they don’t know how to learn or that they aren’t able. They are still very capable of learning. We want to make sure that we accelerate their learning. “

Raygoza encourages the teachers she works with to continue the work that students are expected to do in grade two, while filling in the gaps. So instead of focusing only on the alphabet like you would in a kindergarten class, second-grade teachers should continue with second-grade work, but also reinforce letters.

Raygoza also encourages teachers to read aloud to their students because they can be an example of good reading and because it gives them the opportunity to supplement basic information and vocabulary. A teacher can stop reading and asking questions of the class, and help them understand words they don’t yet know.

“In the past, there were tests for English learners where they might be faced with a snow-related situation, and our children may never have been in a place with snow or experienced this. kind of time. It’s super important with reading- aloud to fill in the background information, ”Raygoza said.

In addition, said Raygoza, teachers should show students the connections between English and their mother tongue, showing them how letters may or may not sound the same in their mother tongue as English or how certain words may or may not sound like English. be related, which means they are spelled. similarly and have similar meanings in both languages. And it’s important to involve parents and other family members as much as possible.

“They have been at home with their parents for the whole year. They are rebuilding their stamina and they miss their parents,” said Raygoza. “It’s a great opportunity to make connections between home and school, to talk with parents, to interview their parents, so that parents are always involved in the learning.”

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