Friday, June 27, 2008

The Effects of Teaching Phonics to ESL Students

I participated in an online presentation this morning for an adult education facility where adult non-readers and ESL students are served. Because of my background in ESL teaching and literacy, I was asked to participate in a portion of the presentation to specifically discuss implications of phonics for ESL students learning to read and speak English. Following are a few of the thoughts I shared:

1) When ESL students learn the meaning of the word along with the sound of the word simultaneously, it “sticks” better. Students are able to remember the word more effectively when they associate the meaning and the sound with the written word.
2) How many times do our ESL students ask, “Teacher, how do you say this word?” We tell our students how to say the word, but we don’t often know why we say it that way. We need to help our students develop autonomy by teaching them strategies to learn how to pronounce words on their own. This approach better prepares them for “real-world” experiences.
3) An extra bonus of incorporating phonics instruction in ESL students' classrooms is that their pronunciation improves. I incorporate phonics training in both my ESL reading classes and my ESL speaking classes since phonics incorporates both skills. In addition, since phonics helps with spelling, phonics instruction has a place in an ESL writing class as well.
4) ESL students’ confidence increases when they are empowered with skills that help them successfully read and pronounce and spell English independently.

One of my students who I had taught in a previous semester approached me one day in the hallway of the school and was very excited to report that he could decode and pronounce vocabulary better than his friend who was in a higher-level English class who had not had phonics training. His confidence empowered him. To witness this first-hand helps me realize that although this was simply anecdotal feedback, the effects of teaching phonics to ESL students is not only effective, but powerful.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why the English Language? Why Literacy? Why India?

In my last post, I wrote about my experience conducting English language instruction and literacy training to volunteers who were teaching students who come from the leprosy colonies. Related to this, I came across an article in Deseret News on Friday that shares information about the Bindu art school in one of the colonies served by Rising Star Outreach. As I contemplate the different education programs instigated in India to help these individuals come closer to reaching their potential and developing talents and skills, the sociologist may ask, "Why education?" "Why English?" "Why literacy?" "Why India?"
India has the largest pool of scientists and technologists after the US, but almost half of the population is illiterate. That's significant. The current caste system in India is based moreso on an individual's education level than their family background as previously perceived. In other words, education is the key to unlock opportunities for students. It's the key empower students.
What is involved in teaching English? Many skills are involved: reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. What is most important? This is not an easy question to answer; however, a huge part of education is knowing how to read. Reading is needed in every subject. In addition, a huge part of learning English is increasing English vocabulary. If students can’t read, their English vocabulary level plateaus. It’s through reading that students increase their vocabulary. Further, it’s through reading that students unlock the world of education.
Whenever an opportunity to educate in a context where education is not an integral part of a culture surfaces, I invite you to think about this quote attributed to an Australian aborigine: "If you've come to help me, you can go home again. But if my problems become a matter of your own survival, then perhaps we can work together."

Monday, June 9, 2008

English Language Instruction and Teaching in India

I am continually impressed with the universal response to learning the English language. I recently returned from India where I had the opportunity to work with children from the leprosy colonies who leave their families for the school year to attend school. These children would otherwise not have access to an education if it weren't for the sponsorship of generous donors to the Rising Star Outreach organization. I watched these children as they eagerly learned the sounds of the alphabet, read words made up of these newly-acquired letters, and responded to vocabulary instruction. I also had the opportunity to visit their classrooms and teach some lessons in social studies with a focus on English languge instruction.

The main purpose of my visit to Rising Star Outreach in India was to train the summer volunteers from the U.S. in how to teach English and literacy to these students from the leprosy colonies. The objective of this training was to magnify the volunteers' effectiveness in helping the students improve their English. The volunteers needed training in how to teach English using a systematic approach that was easy to learn and easy to teach. After carefully considering the students' needs at RSO, I selected a methodology in which the volunteers were trained. I was very impressed with the volunteers' enthusiasm to put into practice the methodology and strategies they had learned. The volunteers sat on mats in the shade of the trees of the mango grove next to the school and worked with the students one-on-one. I loved the sight of reciprocal enthusiasm evidenced by both the volunteers and the students they served.

I also had the opportunity to associate with the children's teachers as I gave them English language instruction. They, too, were so eager to learn, even though the English classes were held at the end of their long day of teaching in the sweltering Indian heat. They were always early to class and sitting in their seats patiently with smiles on their faces as I entered the room. They were very receptive to what they learned and were so appreciative of the opportunity to improve their English. The objective of improving the teachers' English so that they can be effective English models for their students is important: if the teachers' English improves, then the students' English likewise improves.

I had the opportunity to visit a couple of the leprosy colonies with Dr. Kumar and the two nurses Naomeni and Pushpa. While at the small Poot village, I met three children who came with their families to where we had set up camp under the shade of a tree in preparation for wrapping bandages of the leprosy-infected patients. One of the children, Jennifer, responded to me in English while the other children stared at me silently with their curious eyes as I spoke to them. Jennifer's beautiful, black hair and healthy skin displayed her good health and nutrition, in contrast to brown colored hair--an indication of malnutrition--that is noticeable throughout rural areas in India. I learned that Jennifer is a student at Rising Star Outreach where she receives English language instruction and three meals a day. This explained why she was able to understand my English and why she had such a healthy glow. I felt grateful to have seen first-hand the effects of nourishment and an education that includes English language instruction in comparison to children who are not blessed with such.

As I reflect on my experiences in India, I feel a sense of gratitute for good people in this world. Everyone has something to offer and contribute, and education is the key to unlocking these opportunities to contribute--these opportunities to serve--if they choose to do so. I'm grateful for the roles that English and literacy play in assisting individuals to reach their full potential to serve and contribute.

NOTE: To learn about the methodology that volunteers are using at Rising Star Outreach, visit