Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why Teach Phonics to ESOL Students/ ELLs?

Why begin teaching phonics to ESOL students/ ELLs? Following are some quotes from experts in the field of second language reading and literacy that promote the teaching of phonics—or bottom-up, decoding strategies—to non-native English speakers learning to read in English. Please note that the individuals and quotations cited within this text are in no way comprehensive. Collectively, however, they serve the purpose of adequately providing foundational impetus for teaching phonics to ESOL students/ELLs.

The following are terms that surface when addressing second language reading and teaching ESL phonics, some of which are used in context in the quotes that follow:

Phonics: putting the phonemes (sounds) with the graphemes (letters) that represent them; learning the different letter/sound combinations to decode words.

Phonemic awareness: the ability to identify and manipulate phonemes; the consciousness that words are composed of separate sounds; the strategies used to segment strings of sounds and discriminate between these sounds.

Phonological awareness: all levels of awareness of the sound structure of words: rhyme, syllables, etc.

Decoding: reading; breaking a whole word down into parts; a receptive skill.

Encoding: spelling; placing letters/sounds together to form words; a productive skill.

Bottom-up processing: the process used when a reader builds meaning from the smallest units of meaning to achieve comprehension.

Top-down processing: the process used when a reader generates meaning by employing background knowledge, expectations, assumptions, and questions, and reads to confirm these expectations.

Interactive reading approach: the process used when a reader uses both bottom-up and top-down strategies simultaneously or alternately to comprehend the text.

Barbara Birch:
“…Phonics in [second language] reading instruction…has…a bad connotation for many reading practitioners. This bad connotation stems, I think, from the way some phonics instruction was done in the past or people’s somewhat muddled ideas about the way that phonics instruction takes place at present. The prevailing idea for many seems to be that phonics instruction is useless (because English writing is so chaotic), pointless (because readers are just guessing anyway), a waste of time (because readers will automatically learn grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences), and boring (because it involves memorizing rules that don’t work or reading sentences that don’t make any sense)…Phonics is not about memorizing rules that don’t work. It is not about reading sentences that are meaningless…Phonics can be taught in an efficient way if we understand how readers read, and it can be embedded as one element within a whole language reading program” (92, 94).

Fred Genesee:
“Difficulty with small-unit skills (decoding) impedes mastery of big-unit skills (text comprehension) [in the following ways]: 1) poor knowledge of letter-sound relationships impedes acquisition of word decoding skills; 2) poor decoding skills impede sentence processing skills and extraction of meaning from sentences; and 3) poor word, sentence-level, and oral language skills, and lack of relevant background knowledge, impede text comprehension.”

“ELLs with word reading difficulties have the same profile as English L1 students with difficulties—poor phonological awareness, letter-sound knowledge, vocabulary, etc.”
“[Regarding] comprehension difficulties, poor foundation skills and poor academic oral language skills are probably a source of difficulty.”

David Eskey:
“Despite the emergence of interactive models, I am concerned that much of the second language reading literature continues to exhibit a strongly top-down bias… This research has resulted in many useful insights, but the lack of attention to decoding problems has, I think, produced a somewhat distorted picture of the true range of problems second language readers face” (95).

“In practical terms, my concern is thus to keep the language in the teaching of second language reading. That may not sound very controversial, but I think that in promoting higher-level strategies—like predicting from context or the use of schemata and other kinds of background knowledge—some researchers have been sending a message to teachers that the teaching of reading to second language readers is mostly just a matter of providing them with the right background knowledge for any texts they must read, and encouraging them to make full use of that knowledge in decoding those texts…

“Though that is certainly important, it is also, I think, potentially misleading as a total approach…We must not, I believe, lose sight of the fact that language is a major problem in second language reading, and that even educated guessing at meaning is not a substitute for accurate decoding” (97).

“[The introduction of top-down processing] has had such a profound impact [on second language reading] that there has been a tendency to view the introduction of a strong top-down processing perspective as a substitute for the bottom-up, decoding view of reading, rather than its complement” (3-4).

“The reader must be competent in both bottom-up and top-down processing.”

Neil Anderson:
“The approach [to teaching second language reading] that is accepted as the most comprehensive description of the reading process is an interactive approach. This…combines elements of both bottom-up and top-down approaches. The best readers in any language are those who combine elements of both. For example, most readers begin reading by using top-down reading strategies until there is a problem, and then they shift to bottom-up strategies. Have you ever read something quickly and suddenly come to several new words? You are required to slow down your reading to decode the new words. When you do this, you are using bottom-up strategies to understand the words” (p. 7).

“The best readers in any language are those who use interactive reading, which integrates elements of both bottom-up and top-down reading. In the development of a reading syllabus, it is important to consider the balance that you will give to these processes.

“Beginning level readers should be exposed to a strong bottom-up component. This is perhaps the greatest weakness in the development of many reading syllabi. Little or no attention is given to the explicit instruction of bottom-up reading. A guideline that you could follow in preparing a syllabus for beginning level readers is allocating 50 percent of your syllabus to teaching bottom-up skills, 30 percent to top-down skills, and 20 percent to interactive skills. With a strong foundation in bottom-up skills, beginning level readers will become more proficient readers more quickly.

“Systematic phonics instruction is a bottom-up approach to reading that should be integrated into reading materials for beginning proficiency level readers. However, the reality is that most textbooks do not deal with phonics instruction” (p. 28).

Robin Schwarz:
“…Recently, researchers studying native English-speaking students who were having trouble learning a foreign language found that these students have problems similar to those of poor readers and spellers in that they do not perceive and manipulate the sound system and its corresponding written code effectively…

“…Researchers found that when the struggling foreign language students were explicitly taught the phonology of the foreign language, they were able to learn the target language fairly successfully, and also improve their phonological skills…

“Although there is not much research on teaching phonology to ESL students who are at risk, my students' experiences clearly demonstrated the benefits of this instruction. Of course, their spelling improved dramatically, and a few needed more sustained review and practice to maintain their gains. A more pervasive benefit was that they could perceive individual words in spoken sentences far more accurately than before. This resulted in significantly more accurate dictations and, so the students reported, a noticeably improved ability to follow conversations and proceedings in other classes. In addition to my observations of the students' increased confidence in many domains, their other teachers reported similar improvements.

“Another important benefit of the phonology instruction, though less directly documented outside of our class, was that the students' decoding skills increased significantly. They amazed themselves by reading multisyllabic words with ease. Finally, overall, these students were able to do much better in their classes than students with similar problems in our program who had not had such intervention.”

See also the posts on phonics for ELLs and phonics research.

Anderson, N. J. (2008). Practical English language teaching: Reading. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Birch, B. M, (2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Carrell, P. (1993). Introduction: Interactive approaches to second language reading. In P. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Eskey, D. (1993). Holding in the bottom: An interactive approach to the language problems of second language readers. In P. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Genesee, F. (2008, April). Learning to read a second language: What does the research say & what do we do about it? Presentation presented at the international TESOL convention, New York.
Nunes, T. (1999). Learning to read: An integrated view from research and practice. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.
Schwarz, R. (1998). Using Phonemic Awareness with ESL Students. Washington, DC: National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center.


  1. The article does not specifically address teaching phonics to "older" ELLs (i.e., middle or high school). It does state that there should be a systematic approach to teaching phonics. Should the instruction in phonics then be an introductory portion of a class or dispersed throughout the traditional school year?

  2. Denise, you asked an excellent question about whether phonics should be incorporated at the front end of the school year curriculum or interspersed throughout the school year. My response to that is that both options are reasonable, but which option is best depends on the needs of the students. For beginning readers or really low-level readers, providing phonics training at the beginning of a school year curriculum as a pre-cursor to other curriculum that will require application of those phonics skills will prove to be beneficial. Struggling readers who have a firm grasp of phonemic awareness, however, may get bored with a curriculum that predominantly consists of explicit phonics unless it is taught systematically in "chunks" and recycled throughout the school year. As for your comment regarding middle/high school-aged students, please note that although the quotes do not specifically mention students of this age range, the quotes are appropriately applicable to this population.

  3. I am Arabic. I have been taught english for about 14 years. yet it is just the last year that i became able to read, listen, and speak in a good manner. That was after i had a phonetic course and got the chance to have the phonics and phonemic awareness.

    my question is that it is of great benefit to FLLs to have this, but here in my country (Syria) they seem far away from realizing such things..Can this "phonics and phonemic awareness" be a thesis' subject and academically addressed and at the end give recommendations?

  4. i have just made a "comment" and forgot to attach my email

  5. I find your comment fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

    There is certainly a need for research in this area. Is this research you suggested something you'd like to conduct, or are you inquiring whether this could be done by a third party? I know of one research study being conducted now using phonics for ESL learners in the US, but it isn't quite getting at what you're suggesting. I'll email you directly to discuss this further.

    Thanks again!