Phonic Instruction in ESL
English, in comparison to many other languages, possesses a simple grammatical system. Beginning English language learners can successfully construct sentences after they master basic sentence structure rules. This level of mastery is much harder to accomplish in other world languages where nouns and verbs appear in many different forms and cause additional comprehension issues. As a result, the ability to send across a comprehensive, as well as grammatically correct English message is not that difficult. Interestingly, grammar rules enjoy a lot of attention in the first chapters of language course books and beginning language classes.
The one area that is widely overlooked in ESL instruction is the phonic system in English. The English sounds usually take up only one page of a course book and teachers explain them in one lesson. In addition, the lesson about sounds is often taught together with a drill of the English alphabet. After this, a learner is supposedly equipped with everything he/she needs to know about phonics and is ready to move onto other language rules. Unfortunately, many learners struggle with pronunciation and are afraid to speak up and take risks with their second language. Why does this happen?
In most languages, the sounds of letters in the alphabet are identical with the sounds of the pronounced words. Many English learners try to apply this rule to English and it doesn’t work. In addition, their knowledge from the one lesson about the English phonics system gets mixed with the drill of the English alphabet. As a result, learners get frustrated and confused. They pronounce English words incorrectly and their peers or teachers do not understand what they are trying to say. Their frustration rises until they stop trying.
There is a way to escape this cycle. Teachers have to give more attention to phonics instruction. They have to teach phonic rules systematically and to refer to it throughout the whole process of learning the language. In my school, we have adopted the program called THRASS or Teaching Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Skills. THRASS is a philosophy to teaching phonics that was developed in Australia. The authors of the THRASS adapted the IPA phonic system for English so that it can be taught at elementary and secondary school levels. They provide a variety of teaching resources, including charts, raps, and instruction manuals. In my school, all elementary school teachers have received training in teaching phonics. Our students work with THRASS regularly. They will be also doing THRASS activities and applying their knowledge of the English phonetic system with their homeroom teachers in higher grade levels.
Why is it important to teach phonics in ESL? There are many advantages to teaching phonics in second language instruction. Students get a deeper understanding of how English works and how it is different from their own language. They grasp a logical system, which many learners prefer because it offers more reward by learning pieces that they can apply further in their writing or oral output. As a result they become more confident speakers and are willing to take more risks in using the second language.