Strategy 2

2. Teachers use systematic and explicit instruction to develop students' phonemic awareness.

In order to learn to read and write English, a learner must be able to perceive the small units of sound called phonemes that make up spoken words. For example, it is apparent to those of us who can already read and write English that a word like boat has three component sounds, or phonemes: /b/ /o/ /t/. However, there is evidence that the ability to perceive a spoken word as a sequence of phonemes varies from individual to individual.

In addition to individual differences, phonemic segmentation of English words is particularly difficult for those with little prior experience listening to English speech sounds. Phonemic segmentation of English words is also particularly difficult for those with little experience in English rhyme, alliteration, or other word play.

ELLs may find it difficult to differentiate certain phonemes of English. For example, /v/ and /b/ may sound alike to some Spanish speakers, and /l/ and /r/ may be indistinguishable to some Japanese speakers. Similarly, while English speakers would identify pot and spot as both containing the phoneme /p/, Hindi speakers might perceive the /p/ in pot and the /p/ in spot as two distinct phonemes differentiated by the presence or absence of an initial puff of air (aspiration). ELLs who experience difficulties with the sounds of English do not require referral to a speech language pathologist. That is only appropriate for students who have language difficulties in their native language as well.

ELLs can develop phonemic awareness through listening to read-alouds, songs, poems, and chants. Listening to the sounds, rhymes, and rhythms of English provides ELLs with the auditory experiences they need to pronounce and read English. It is important for teachers to understand that listening to well-chosen, engaging language creates the necessary foundation for reading.

Effective teachers explicitly model phonemic segmentation (how to divide words into individual phonemes). They illustrate concepts, such as onset (the beginning of a syllable) and rime (the ending of a syllable), which enable us to rhyme words like cat, mat, pat, and bat or low, toe, and go. To further clarify these concepts, teachers often use visual aids and props, such as colored blocks or rods, which can physically represent phonological units.

Teachers who familiarize themselves with the similarities and differences between the students' primary languages and English will be able to anticipate and address areas of potential confusion. For example, if teachers are aware that the consonant sounds /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/, /m/, /n/, /f/, /s/ and /l/ are found at the beginnings of words in both English and Spanish, teachers may expect Spanish-speaking students to be successful in recognizing and distinguishing them. Knowing that most Spanish words end with a vowel, not a consonant, teachers can provide extra practice to help Spanish speakers distinguish and pronounce consonants at the ends of words. Similarly, knowing that in Korean /p/ and /f/ are not distinct phonemes, teachers can provide extra practice distinguishing between words such as pat/fat and pill/fill.

Aware that some English phonemes such as the sounds represented by /th/ in either and ether are present in few other languages, teachers can demonstrate how the /th/ sounds are formed (with the tongue and front teeth) and can help their students practice pronouncing words that feature these sounds.

To obtain information about students' primary languages, teachers can consult reference materials, ask bilingual adults, and listen carefully to sound patterns of English and other languages.

Effective teachers say things like:

Watch how my lips press together when I say the /b/ sound in ban and berry. Watch how my top teeth touch my bottom lip when I say the /v/ sound in van and very. Now don't watch my lips, just listen. I'm going to say two words. Tell me if the two words are the same or different:

  ban/ban
  ban/van
  van/van
  van/ban
  very/very
  berry/very
  very/berry
  berry/berry

Now listen to the sound you hear at the beginning of the word. If you hear /b/, hold up the card that says B. If you hear the /v/ sound, hold up the card that says V.

  ban
  boy
  van
  very
  bell
  velvet
  village
  bunny

We've been talking about words that start with the /m/ sound like mom and money and mine. Can you tell me some words in Spanish or Polish that start with the /m/ sound that we hear in mom and mine?