Phonics is an important component of teaching students how to read and write. Phonics connects sounds with letters and combinations of letters. In the English language, there are 26 letters and 44 sounds (called phonemes). A grapheme is how to spell each sound with either a single letter or letter combinations. It is part of both structured literacy programs and balanced literacy programs. Teaching a newcomer phonics has many similarities to teaching a native English speaking student phonics. Use a sequential scope and sequence that builds in difficulty. Explicitly teach how to spell the various spelling patterns found in the English language.
There are some differences in teaching phonics to newcomer ELLs compared to students that have a stronger knowledge of English.
- Teach Vocabulary- This can be as simple as including pictures for words that students are reading and spelling. Use every opportunity to visually show students the new words that they are practicing.
- Use natural sounding language- At the beginning levels of phonics instruction, some materials will go out of their way to avoid using words that are not decodable. This sometimes results in sentences like “Pad did get in the van.”
- Avoid nonsense words. Newcomer ELLs are still learning basic English vocabulary. Do not waste time having them decode words that have no meaning.
For older ELLs think critically if phonics instruction is necessary and, if so how much of a focus it should be. Newcomers have a wide range of literacy experiences.
- For students literate in their native language AND this is a language that uses the Latin alphabet, very little focus on phonics instruction is typically needed. Focus on areas of language that are different.
- For students literate in their native language AND this is a language that does NOT use the Latin alphabet, explicit instruction of the letters and sounds of the English is necessary. That can often be accomplished at an accelerated pace, especially once you have introduced basic letter sound combinations. Focus on building basic vocabulary and teaching phonics at the same time. Check that the materials that you are using are respectful of the age of the student. Nonfiction is a great category to use.
- Older students that are not literate in their native language are often also Students with an Interrupted Formal Education (SIFEs). This group needs explicit instruction in phonics at a slower pace. Focus on building basic vocabulary and teaching phonics at the same time. Check that the materials that you are using are respectful of the age of the student. Nonfiction is a great category to use. These students may require much more repetition than newcomers that are literate in another language.
The BIG question is, what materials are the best to teach phonics to newcomer ELLs? Here are some recommendations.
Phonics & Vocabulary Activities
Picture Word Sorts– Integrate teaching vocabulary and phonics skills. It can be as simple as including pictures of the words that students are reading and spelling. Integrate content material when possible. If you are introducing older students to the sounds of the English alphabet use pictures of science and social studies topics and sort them by beginning sounds. Do the same thing with everyday objects. Technically this is phonemic awareness since students might not be able to decode many of these words. I go ahead and write the word for students to see the spelling and begin to connect it to the letter sounds.
Lip Formation– Show students how to pronounce English sounds. Especially for older newcomers, it can be challenging to learn how to make new sounds, especially if that sound is not part of their native language. Model for students how to form their lips. If necessary, also have them feel if the sound is a voiced or unvoiced sound. You can give students mirrors to practice. You can also use pictures of mouths for students to reference.
Read Words and Sentences– Most of what students read should be high quality books. Sometimes students require practice reading simple words and sentences, especially when learning new phonics patterns. These should be short lessons. For newcomers, include pictures to help show the meaning of new vocabulary words.
The majority of words in a decodable text are decodable based on the phonics skills a student has already been taught. Different publishers use different scope and sequences to create their books. It is not necessary for books to be 100% decodable (this results in very awkward language as the author would have to avoid using very common words at first such as the, my, on.) They are one tool in teaching reading.
Junior Learning/Beanstalk Nonfiction Decodable books, there are science sets and general nonfiction sets available. The levels start with letter sounds, then blends, long vowels, and suffixes. The books all have brightly colored photographs.
The Beanies Hi-Lo Diversity Decodable set by Beanstalk has five levels that follow the sequence of letter sounds (two sets), blends, long vowels, and suffixes. Each set also focuses on a different setting, including a neighborhood, on the moon, fantasy, biomes, and job locations.