Teaching Phonics to Chinese L1 EFL Pupils: Pathway to the Future

Teaching Phonics to Chinese L1 EFL Pupils: Pathway to the Future

Yu-Lin Cheng (National Dong Hwa University, Taiwan)
DOI: 10.4018/ijcallt.2012070105
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Despite that converging evidence has led to the mandate of phonics instruction in primary education in the UK, U.S. and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) China and Taiwan, teachers across the board (native or EFL, experienced or novice alike) have been found to lack the knowledge required for delivering high-quality synthetic phonics. While reforms to improve current practices are underway, it is vital that teachers are supported with well-designed educational technology (e.g., interactive synthetic phonics software) to maintain teaching standards and boost learning outcomes. Although well-designed interactive synthetic phonics software is available, it is not suitable for Chinese L1 EFL teachers and pupils. The current article introduces Easy Phonics (interactive synthetic phonics software designed specifically for Chinese L1 EFL teachers and pupils), presents preliminary findings using the software in classroom teaching, and confirms its potential to assist ‘phonics-untrained’ teachers in maintaining teaching standards and boosting learning outcomes. The current article, while supporting the use of educational technology in phonics teaching, does not suggest that educational technology can ‘replace’ teachers in phonics instruction.
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Studies by Marshall and Newcombe (1966, 1973) have revealed that there are two routes to reading alphabetic languages: the phonological route and the lexical route. Subsequent research has theorised that reading via the lexical route comes only after years of reading via the phonological route (Ehri, 1995; Frith, 1985). This claim has been supported by brain imaging research (e.g., Gaillard, Balsamo, Ibrahim, Sachs, & Xu, 2003; Shaywitz et al., 2002). The phonological reading route means reading phonically, and reading phonically requires one to use their phonic knowledge (a.k.a. letter-sound knowledge; in the paper the two terms are used interchangeably) to first segment a word into graphemes (single letter or letter group), attach phonemes (sounds) to these graphemes, synthesise the phonemes to read aloud as a word, and finally reach word meaning. Lexical reading, on the other hand, is achieved by direct access to word meanings.

Comparisons carried out across age-matched children of 13 European languages at the end of first grade prove the orthographic complexity of a language has a major impact on learning (Seymour, Aro, & Erskine, 2003). German children, after only a few months of schooling, can read practically any word, because German spelling is almost perfectly regular. Once the children know how to pronounce each letter of the alphabet, they can read and write any speech sound. Conversely, British and American children need years of schooling before they become fluent decoders. This is because the English orthography is ‘neither transparent nor one-to-one’ (Wydell & Butterworth, 1999).

Following the publication of the National Reading Panel report (U.S., 2000) and the Rose report (UK, 2006) that extensively reviewed all evidence-based reading research, both governments finally concluded that phonic knowledge is essential to kick start reading development, and that since English orthography is prone to incidence of reading difficulty and is extremely complex, synthetic phonics is the solution to reducing the incidence of reading failure and speeding up the acquisition of phonic knowledge. Synthetic phonics has since been delivered in some states through the aegis of the federally-funded Reading First (in the U.S.), and is mandatory for primary school children in the UK. Synthetic phonics teaches children grapheme-phoneme (letter-sound) correspondence rules in a clearly defined, incremental sequence so that they can: (a) segment words into their constituent phonemes and (b) blend (synthesise) phonemes, in order, all through a word to read it. However, the reading performance in the US and UK continues to decline as documented in the PISA 2009 report (Bradshaw, Ager, Burge, & Wheater, 2010). This leads to the scrutiny of the practice of synthetic phonics instruction. High-quality synthetic phonics instruction is teacher-directed (Justice, Chow, Capellini, Flanigan, & Colton, 2003), and research has suggested that to deliver high-quality synthetic phonics, teachers must have the following two types of knowledge:

  • Good phonic knowledge to enable them to correctly relate letters to sounds for word reading, and vice versa for spelling, and to be able to deliver high-quality phonics (McCutchen et al., 2009).

  • Good pedagogical knowledge to enable them to teach explicitly and systematically to “reveal the logic of the alphabetic system” (Adams, 2002, p. 74).

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