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Developing a Strong Foundation: In Defense of Phonics and Reading

Parents of English as a Second Language (ESL) students around the world have one thing in common — they want to see results. Although similar to other parents in this way, parents in China are in a unique position. They see their children grow quickly in grammar, reading, and writing, but slowly in listening and even more so in speaking. Chinese public schools favor rote memorization, standardized testing, and repetition.  This is not usually a good recipe for developing strong oral communication skills. ESL teachers of Chinese students see a problem that should be corrected but… how?

PhonicsWhy Reading?
All languages have four major categories: speaking, listening, reading, and writing (composition). To become fluent in a foreign language, the student must master each of these four categories.

Just like a table that’s missing a leg, students of English who skip or delay their reading and writing development have a weak, unstable foundation. The majority of ESL textbooks and courses begin with basic reading skills. Students lacking in this area will continually fall behind their classmates and peers. An 8-year old child with advanced speaking and listening skills will struggle to find a suitable program for their age group and, most likely, will continue to struggle to read and spell until they address the problem as an adult or give up.

How to improve reading?

Fabulous Phonics
The best way to learn to read in English is through phonics. Think about the English alphabet as a big, 26 letter puzzle. Only people who know the “code,” or the sound that each letter makes, can complete this puzzle. Students grow from learning the sound for each letter to combining sounds to form simple consonant-vowel-consonant words. A strong phonics foundation also affects other aspects of language learning such as spelling and composition.

Chinese students only spend a small percentage of their school time studying English, and an even smaller portion during those classes, studying phonics. It is important to help Chinese students go back to the phonics foundation and to make sure students have mastered it.

Reading vs. Reading Comprehension
For many children, reading skills will come faster than reading comprehension. This means that, in a good program, the student should be able to read words but not necessarily understand the meaning of each word. This is normal. Reading comprehension is like the paint or the flowers in the front yard; they're beautiful to observe, but not immediately necessary.

As an ESL teacher for Chinese students, finding engaging material is one of the steps to get the student to participate and speak in class, which can in turn get the student to participate, discuss on the given topic, and enhance reading comprehension.

It Doesn’t Have to be Fast to be Right
One way to know that your student is using phonics to read words is the process. Children should approach a new word by “sounding out” the word, or breaking it down into its original parts. Many Chinese parents have the expectation that, if their child can read, they should be able to read quickly. To the contrary, a child who takes the time to break down a word into individual sounds is not only setting themselves up for success in reading and writing, but also developing their critical thinking and process skills.

As a teacher, encourage your Chinese students to take their time and sound out words completely. Explain to their parents that this is the right pace for the language learning process, especially when it comes to speaking.

Memorizing is NOT Reading
Many poorly designed programs encourage students to memorize reading passages. This is usually to impress parents who believe that, if their child can’t read the material quickly, they do not understand or have not mastered that material.

Some students might feel forced to memorize passages or answers because this is what Chinese schools force in other subjects, but discourage this behavior in the class and encourage discussions with your student. Explain that this is the best way to truly understand a reading passage.

See an example of one of our students learning with VIPKID:

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Conclusion
Building a good foundation will allow these Chinese students to become better speakers. As potential teachers of Chinese students, it is important to understand the reason Chinese students lack some skills and how you can adapt to them.

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About Our Sponsor
Article by VIPKID, an ed-tech Chinese startup that provides online English language classes and the American Elementary school curriculum to young Chinese students via its virtual platform.