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30 September 2010

Key Concepts in EFL Literacy: Phonics vs. Whole Language

Key Concepts in EFL Literacy: Phonics vs. Whole Language
Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan

The phonics vs. whole language distinction has at least two realities: (1) as a split in instructional philosophies for teaching the acquisition and development of beginning literacy and (2) as a rather heated political debate playing itself out in the English-speaking countries (no doubt most divisively in the United States). I will look at the concepts of phonics and whole language in relation to these two contexts and then attempt to show how these concepts might prove meaningful and useful to EFL literacy.

Phonics is a way of teaching reading and spelling that stresses symbol-sound relationships, used especially in beginning instruction (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 186). This definition, of course, refers specifically to beginning instruction of native language literacy. There is a large set of different phonics approaches to such instruction, including: analytic, cluster, deductive, explicit, extrinsic, implicit, inductive, intrinsic, letter, synthetic, and whole-word (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 186)

The need for phonics instruction is based on the fairly well accepted idea that phonemic awareness is a necessary pre-reading skill for literacy in an alphabetic written language. However, the writing system of English is neither phonetically nor phonemically so clear-cut,and this is where phonics approaches might prove useful. While the ability to break words down into syllables comes fairly natural to native language speakers, the skill of analyzing language further into the distinct units of sound known as phonemes is one that must be taught. The goal of phonics instruction is to clarify and reinforce the learning of phonemic awareness and then to relate it to the spelling conventions of written English. If done effectively, it might act as a cognitive bridge from phonemic awareness to decoding fluency of the writing system and actual beginning literacy.

Whole language is a much more wide-ranging but fuzzy concept than phonics. More than anything it is a broad, ambitious, humanistic, largely teacher-led movement that rejects overly deductive and analytic methodology and favors individualized, student-centered activities in beginning literacy instruction. Given whole language's considerable depth and sweep, it is easy to see how some of its advocates as both classroom practitioners and theorists might reject phonics. As Strickland (in Harris & Hodges, 1995) explains, the crux of the disagreement is this:

Issues surrounding phonics and the teaching of discrete skills evoke the most heated discussions about whole language. Because whole language teachers believe that all language systems are interwoven, they avoid the segmentation of language into component parts for specific skill instruction (p. 280).

Still, regardless of popular misconceptions, a whole language approach does not require the total rejection of phonics. Rather, "[t]he use of strategies taught in meaningful contexts is emphasized. Phonics is taught through writing by focusing on the patterns of language in reading..." (Strickland, in Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 280).

The 1980s saw a definite swing to the right in the politics of two of the most populous and influential English speaking countries, the USA and the UK. Part of this movement rightward was a call for a return to basics in education. Right-wing critiques of what was wrong with society, its schools, and education singled out theories and practices that were seen as too progressive and humanistic. This meant that whole language advocates found their often misunderstood and frequently poorly supported approach undergoing withering criticism. In California there was even an attempt to link whole language with everything that had been thought to have gone wrong in its education system. An article in Reading Today reports, "the perceived lack of phonics instruction in American schools has led some policy-makers to issue educational mandates that have affected classrooms throughout the state of California, as well as in a host of local school districts throughout the United States (April/May 1997, p. 1)."

Stripped of most of its conservative/reactionary vs. liberal/progressive political implications, the phonics vs. whole language debate still holds lessons for theorists and practitioners in ELT and in EFL Literacy. First, much of what literacy and language arts educators find attractive in the whole language movement has its parallels in recent ELT: meaningful/ communicative/real world language use, learner-and learning-centered activities, individualized instruction, and the classroom integration of all (rather than isolation of discrete) language skills. In other words, much of what we identify with modern, communicative ELT fits well with the whole language philosophy. But second, ELT is undergoing something of its own reactionary response to the communicative paradigm: Is it possible that there is a growing concern that communicative approaches result in poor language production because not enough care is given to discrete language building skills, such as pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary? And just as with whole language approaches, many school administrators and teachers may not be prepared for the sort of commitment to re-training and micro-management of the learning environment that communicative and task-based ELT requires.

The question for ELT practitioners is: Is either a phonics or whole language approach adaptable to beginning literacy in EFL? Or, perhaps, what elements of each are appropriate? True, many of the progressive and humanistic elements of the whole language philosophy may seem appealing to teachers trained in the communicative paradigm; but, as anyone who has had to teach EFL beginners knows, such students don't have a whole lot of language skills to draw on. Of course it would be detrimental to deny the fact that our students are literate, native speakers of another language. However, the real danger is probably going too far the other way and bogging down in cross-linguistic approaches that attempt to map out the whole target language in terms of the native one.

The issues concerning what needs to be taught and how it might be best presented to EFL beginners are not simple ones. Written English uses a complex, somewhat inconsistent writing system that is confusing for many learners (both FL and native ones). Basically what has happened is this: 26 roman letters are used to represent 40-50 categorical sounds to create hundreds of spelling patterns, and there are many common sight words that don't fit any patterns. And if phonemic awareness is generally considered to be necessary for mastering an alphabetic writing system, what of EFL learners whose only internalized phonology is that of their mother tongue? How are, for example, Japanese learners to gain fluency in decoding the jungle of written English with only the sounds of spoken Japanese and an ability to analyze language that stops at the syllable (for the most part, written Japanese subsists at the word/morpheme and syllabic level)?

A pro-phonics and whole word approach might be justified along these lines: if the lower-level, bottom-up decoding and reading skills are not there, beginning EFL readers will simply not have the reading "energy" to work on word- and sentence-level meaning in a foreign code, let alone critical reading and appreciation skills. Inability with the phonology and writing system of English sand how the two relate in the minds of fluent readers will create insurmountable bottlenecks in information processing, bottlenecks that top-down and cross-linguistic approaches to language instruction can do little to remediate. However, since phonics (indeed, FL Literacy as a whole) is not really part of the ELT mainstream and approaches based on bottom-up linguistics are not much understood or appreciated by teachers in the communicative paradigm, its advocates will have their work cut out for them.

Appendix I: Three Phonics, Spelling and Whole Word Activities for EFL Learners

Activity One: Pronunciation and Phonics Crambo (an adaptation of a traditional spelling game)

1. Preparation: Go through student word lists (e.g., the lexical part of the syllabus of a course book) and select words that fit major and minor spelling patterns. Also, choose key sight words (which are also a major part of a beginner's vocabulary). Think of other rhyming words that students may not know, but that fit the patterns that the course vocabulary illustrate.

2. Preteaching: Explain/show what an English rhyme is, as Japanese students may have difficulty with the concept. Young learners especially may be quite open to language play, but their linguistic sense of it will be geared to the characteristics of Japanese, not English. Rhyme is one of these characteristics on which English and Japanese (but also Romance languages like Spanish and Italian) differ greatly. Show them how words can rhyme and have the same spelling pattern: e.g., time, lime, dime, etc. Also show them how words can rhyme but have totally different spellings: e.g., time, rhyme, climb. You can also show them how common sight words complicate matters still further: two, you, who.

3. Divide the class into teams. I have used this activity a lot for classes that could be divided into two teams, but more teams than that are possible. Two players from each team can come to the board. One will write for their team, while the other can relay information from the rest of the team members. This activity can be run having students rely solely on memory, or they can be encouraged to use textbooks, glossaries and dictionaries for the words they will need. Begin play by announcing a key word and writing it top, center on the board. Repeat the word several times. The first team to write a correct rhyme wins a point. Continue play with different team members rotating for each round. Emphasize that this is a team effort, so the members who are at their seats should give assistance to the two at the board.

4. Variations: Practice words that have the same vowel sound but do not rhyme. Or words that begin or end with the same target sound, such as problem sounds like /r/ or /l/ (in this case you will want only to say the key word several times and not write anything on the board).

Activity Two: Spelling Concentration (an EFL adaptation of Concentration)

1. Construct a set of word cards from large pieces of cardboard (I have used A4 and B4 sizes). On one side of each card print a key word. The words on the cards should be organized so that there are matching pairs of rhyming words or words that share the same internal vowel sounds (e.g., same soundsame spelling, same sounddifferent spelling, selected sight words). For example, in one set of cards I matched in non-rhymes, five pairs of short vowels (bad-cat, bed-pet, sit-tip, not-top, cut-cup), five pairs of 'long' vowels (ate-day, feet-heat, kite-sight, note-boat, room-tune), and three pairs with other vowels (out-town, loop-soon, boy-oil) for a total of 26 cards (see Figure 1 for a list of vowel spelling patterns). After you have written all the key words on the cards, shuffle the deck thoroughly, then number the cards at random on their reverse sides, from 1 to 26. Tape or magnetically fix the word cards to the blackboard with the numbered sides showing.

2. This game works best if played between two teams, but team sizes should be kept down to groups that are small enough for all to participate. If you team teach, you might want to split up a large class and run two different games. There is not a lot of preteaching required for this game if the previous activity has already been done (teaching what words rhyme, how they might share an internal vowel, how they might begin or end with the same sound, etc.). You might want to run a demonstration round to show how the Concentration game will go.

3. One of the two teams must begin play; this can be decided at random since going first does not increase the odds of winning. The side that starts picks any two cards by calling out their numbers (this also gives beginners a chance to say the numerals in English out loud in real communication). The teacher (or appointed M.C.) turns the cards over so that they display their key words. The teacher says the words out loud several times so that the whole class can hear. If the two words on the cards match according to the teaching point of the game (e.g., rhymes, internal vowel sounds, initial sounds, final sounds, etc.), the two cards are taken down and given to the side that chose them. If cards are won, play continues with the same side getting the chance to call out two more numbers. The turn changes if two cards are turned over but the words do not match. Keep playing until all the cards have been matched and given to a side.

4. Hint on making this game work: point out to the teams that they need to split up memorization duties among their members; however, do not let them keep any written notes.

Activity Three: Phonics Snap (an EFL adaptation of the card game, Snap!)

1. Prepare a list of words from student vocabulary. Select these words on the basis of the spelling patterns they illustrate (for example, the most basic patterns of the five short vowels and the five long vowels). Think of words that both rhyme and illustrate the same spelling patterns and add them to the list (they may be from previously studied vocabulary, or they can be new words that should be decodable if phonics skills are used). Using the words you have collected, construct a set of 72 cards, one word on each card. The object of this game depends on randomly matching rhyming words, so be sure to include a large number of only a few rhymes (for example, a deck that is limited to the major patterns for the five long vowels). In short, this game does not work if there aren't enough examples of each rhyme. Because of the complexity of English spelling, it is possible to construct games to emphasize many different points. Some possibilities might include: rhymes with the same spelling, rhymes with different spellings, or rhymes with various spellings along with an occasional sight word, which should always come from known vocabulary (for example, eye might be matched with pie, my and buy).

2. This game is best played in pairs. Decks for an entire class could be used while the teacher checks how students are doing. Also, the teacher could play this game with a student who needs extra practice with English spelling and pronunciation. Team teaching would allow for this game to be used with a larger class. The two teachers could demonstrate it better, and they could cover more of the classroom when helping students learn to play it.

3. Have students form pairs. Distribute one deck of cards to each pair. After shuffling and dealing the cards (face down), one player begins play by placing their top card face up on the desk and pronouncing the word (e.g. light). The other player then lays a card on top of the previous one and pronounces it (e.g. late). Play continues in turn until a rhyming card has been laid on top of the previous one (e.g., seen then bean). At that instant, the first player to recognize the rhyme and say 'Snap!' wins all the cards that have been laid. Players should not cheat by looking at their cards before they lay them, a point that should be stressed when the game is demonstrated and monitored. Players keep doing this until one player has won all the cards.

Appendix II: Graphic of Vowel Spellings/Spelling Patterns in Written English 

These examples can be used in the 
activities described in Appendix I (above).


Harris, T.L., & Hodges, R.E. (Eds.) (1995). The literacy dictionary: The vocabulary of reading 
   and writing.
Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

IRA takes stand on phonics. (1997, April/May). Reading Today, p. 1, 4.

Sutherland, D. (1995). Whole language. In Harris, T. L.,& Hodges, R. E. (Eds.), The literacy    
(pp. 279-281). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

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