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Teaching Reading to Speakers of
Non-Romanized Languages

 

Scott Alkire

 

 

 

Scott Alkire

Open Society Fund – Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

E-mail: s_alkire@hotmail.com

Teaching Reading to Speakers of Non-Romanized Languages

© 2004 Scott Alkire

 

 

 

Abstract

 

Speakers of non-Romanized languages face special challenges in learning to read English: a new alphabet, the left-to-right direction of English text (new to many of these learners), and, most significantly, the letter-sound correspondences of English, which are relatively complex among Romanized languages. Fortunately, strategies for overcoming these challenges are presented in a text by the famous linguist Leonard Bloomfield and the lexicographer Clarence Barnhart (Bloomfield & Barnhart, 1961). Though Bloomfield and Barnhart’s text was designed for teaching native-English-speaking children to read, with minor modifications it can be used to successfully teach speakers of non-Romanized languages to read as well.

 

This paper discusses Bloomfield and Barnhart’s approach to teaching reading, and then suggests modifications of their approach for the EFL learner.

 

Contents:

 

Introduction

 

EFL modifications

Link letters to sounds

 

Conclusion

Establish a single phonetic value for each letter

 

Notes

First 36 lessons: focusing on vowels

References

 

 

 

Introduction

 

EFL teachers who have taught in Asia or the Middle East (to give two examples) know that speakers of non-Romanized languages face special challenges in learning to read English: a new alphabet, the left-to-right direction of English text (new to many of these learners), and, most significantly, the letter-sound correspondences of English, which are relatively complex among Romanized languages. Fortunately, strategies for overcoming these challenges are presented in a text by the famous linguist Leonard Bloomfield and the lexicographer Clarence Barnhart (Bloomfield & Barnhart, 1961). Though Bloomfield and Barnhart’s text was designed for teaching native-English-speaking children to read, with minor modifications it can be used to successfully teach speakers of non-Romanized languages to read as well.

 

This paper discusses Bloomfield and Barnhart’s two preparatory steps to their lessons, their first 36 lessons, and suggests modifications of the lessons for the EFL learner. The preparatory steps and first 36 lessons were selected as a point of focus because they address the initial challenges faced by speakers of non-Romanized languages when learning to read English, and because Bloomfield (1961, p. 57) calls them “the foundation” of the learner’s reading.

 

 

Link letters to sounds

 

Bloomfield and Barnhart's first preparatory step is to introduce learners to the English letters and their alphabetic pronunciation. This step is straightforward and shouldn't pose many difficulties for learners: most probably already know how English letters are pronounced through worldwide use of British/American series of initials which denote organisations, countries, objects or other phenomena (e.g., BBC, CD, IBM, PC, TV, UK, USA, etc.).

 

The teacher should present the alphabet in uppercase letters, left-to-right, across the blackboard and model the pronunciation of each letter. After the learners have recited the alphabet and have a grasp of each letter, the teacher should write common series of initials on the board. The initials will illustrate that the left-to-right order of symbols corresponds to the sooner-to-later order of spoken sounds in words. The learners should be encouraged to offer initials of their own. To reinforce the acquisition of the letters and their sounds, the teacher can present various dictations such as the alphabet, other initials, or random series of letters.

 

After the students have learned the uppercase forms of the alphabet, the teacher should teach the lowercase forms. Again, various dictations should be given.

 

The relative ease of this step can serve as an early confidence builder--important to second language learning success.

 

 

Establish a single phonetic value for each letter

 

The second preparatory step is to teach each letter as having a single phonetic value. These values are different from the letters’ alphabetic values (with the exception of x). Bloomfield and Barnhart (1961) recommend the following values, which Bloomfield calls “regular” (1961, p. 57) and “the best” (1961, p. 40) for the first materials for reading.

 

a as in hat

b as in big

c as in cat [1]

d as in dog

e as in pet

f as in fan

g as in get

h as in hen

i as in pin

j as in jet

k as in kid [1]

l as in let

m as in man

n as in net

o as in hot

p as in pen

q as in quit [2]

r as in red

s as in sad

t as in tan

u as in cut

v as in van

w as in wet

x as in exit [2]

y as in yes

z as in zip

 

The teacher should lead the learners in the pronunciation of these words to reinforce the acquisition of the phonetic values they represent. The teacher should also give word dictations to reinforce the sound-spelling correlations of the words.

 

 

First 36 lessons: focusing on vowels

 

Bloomfield and Barnhart’s first 36 lessons (“Part I: First Reading”) consist of two- and three-letter words using the phonetic values given above (save q and x). Since the vowels a, e, i, o, u are the letters which, later on, will present the greatest difficulty to learners, Bloomfield and Barnhart divide the 36 lessons into five groups according to them.

 

Lessons 1-8                a as in hat

Lessons 9-16              i as in pin

Lessons 17-24            u as in cut

Lessons 25-30            e as in pet

Lessons 31-36            o as in hot

 

Within each of these five groups, it is possible to form groups by final consonant (e.g., bat, cat, fat, etc.) or by initial consonant (e.g., bad, bag, bat, etc.). Bloomfield and Barnhart (1961, p. 41) begin with the former because “it is easier to watch the first letter than the last, and because rhyme is familiar to the student.” [3]

 

Bloomfield and Barnhart suggest the following for Lesson 1:

 

The teacher writes the word

 

can

 

on the blackboard and tells the learners to read off the letters in order: /see/ /aye/ /en/. The teacher then tells the learners to say can.

 

The teacher writes another word with the same vowel and final consonant, but with a different initial consonant, for instance

 

Dan

 

The teacher asks the learners to read off the letters in order: /dee/ /aye/ /en/. The teacher then tells the learners to say Dan.

 

Now the teacher must work with the learners until they can distinguish between can and Dan--that is, until the learners can read each correctly when it is shown by itself and with the other.

 

After this has been achieved, the teacher adds two or three more words of the same group, for example

 

fan, man, Nan

 

The drill should continue until the learners can correctly read any one of the words when the teacher points to it. Then the words should be shown in various orders, and separately, until the learners can easily read all of them.

 

The teacher presents the other words of the group in the same way as the first five:

 

pan, ran, tan, an, ban, van

 

Then, the teacher presents the words with articles, for example:

 

a can  a fan  a pan  a man  a van  a tan van  a tan fan

 

And then short sentences:

 

Dan ran.  Nan ran.  Van ran.  A man ran.

 

Once the “-an” group of words has been learned, both in isolation and in short sentences, the teacher proceeds to another final consonant group, e.g., the “-at” group (Lesson 2), and follows the same procedure as in Lesson 1, except this time at the end of the lesson he/she presents pairs such as

 

bat ban, cat can, fat fan, mat man, Nat Nan, pat pan

 

These pairs are important for attuning the learners’ ears to the subtle sound-meaning correlations of English.

 

* * *

 

In this fashion Bloomfield and Barnhart present their first 36 lessons, the last several of which consist of complete sentences such as “Dad got on a bus” and “Don had a nap on a cot” and “A man had a bed in a van.” The lessons avoid orthographic or phonetic exceptions: none have words with silent letters (e.g., knit, gnat) or double letters, either in the pronunciation of single sounds (as in add, bell) or in special values (as in see, too). No lessons have words with combinations of letters having a special value (as th in thin or ea in bean). This is essential to Bloomfield’s ideal of getting learners to a plateau of phonetic understanding of written English from which all future reading can extend.

 

Completion of these lessons is enough to launch learners into reading. Bloomfield (1961, p. 57) calls the mastery of the initial 36 lessons “perhaps the most important part of his [the child’s] entire formal education.” [4]

 

 

EFL modifications

 

The following modifications make Bloomfield and Barnhart’s text especially useful in an EFL context.

 

1. On the first line of each of Bloomfield and Barnhart’s lessons there is a list of phonetically similar words to be studied and read. Bloomfield (1961, p. 57) calls these words “well-known” and “part of the spoken vocabulary of almost every preschool child.” Unfortunately, it is not clear how he came to this conclusion. In the first seven lessons alone there are words such as “gap,” “sap,” “gag,” “nag,” “sag,” “dam,” “dab,” “jab,” and “nab,” not widely known by pre-school children or beginning learners of English. It is recommended that these and other low frequency words be eliminated from the text for EFL use, as learners may not be able to “tolerate incomprehensible vocabulary items.” (Ur, 1996, p. 148) Indeed, learners may stop “to look every one up in a dictionary” and/or “feel discouraged from trying to comprehend the text as a whole.” (Ur, 1996, p. 148)

 

2. Bloomfield and Barnhart use nonsense words in each lesson for their phonemic value. It is recommended that the EFL teacher omit them, for the reasons given above. (Bloomfield and Barnhart allow that they are not essential to the lessons.)

 

3. Dictations can and should be used with Bloomfield and Barnhart’s lessons; they reinforce the letter-sound correspondences of English, essential for learners to master according to Bloomfield and Barnhart’s theory of reading.

 

4. Phonics flashcards are ideal for engaging the interest of EFL students in the principles behind the lessons. Students can test one another in pairs or in small groups with these cards. Frank Schaffer Publications offers boxes of cards in categories such as “Easy Vowels,” “Easy Consonants,” “Easy Blends,” etc. that use many of the words in Bloomfield and Barnhart’s lessons. Alternatively, teachers can use the “Create-Your-Own Flash Cards” by Carson-Dellosa Publishing.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Over 100 years ago, Henry Sweet (1899, p. 35), the leading British philologist of his day, wrote that “the greatest help in learning a (foreign) alphabet is to establish definite associations between the symbol and its sound.” His claim has never been seriously challenged, and Bloomfield and Barnhart’s text, still in print after 43 years, establishes those definite associations--associations which happen to be the major obstacle faced by reading students whose L1 is a non-Romanized language. With the minor modifications suggested above, teachers can use Bloomfield and Barnhart’s two preparatory steps and first 36 lessons (at least) to successfully teach reading to these learners.

 

 

Notes

 

1.               c and k both designate the same English phoneme. This may be an obstacle later, when the student learns to write, but is not a problem now.

 

2.               q and x should not be used in initial lessons--q because it occurs in connection with an unusual value of the letter u (for w), and x because it represents two phonemes (ks or gz).

 

3.               It is curious that rhyme is a common linguistic feature in readers for children but is only rarely used in EFL readers. Bloomfield and Barnhart’s use of rhyme helps EFL learners master and distinguish English phonemic values, a particularly difficult task for adult learners.

 

4.               Bloomfield and Barnhart’s text consists of five more parts, comprising 245 lessons: Part II, “Easy Reading;” “Part III, “More Easy Reading;” “Part IV, “The Commonest Irregular Words;” Part V, “The Commonest Irregular Spelling of Vowel Sounds;” Part VI, “The Commonest Irregular Spellings of Consonant Sounds.”

 

 

References

 

Bloomfield, L. & Barnhart, C. L. (1961) Let’s read: A linguistic approach. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

 

Sweet, H. (1899) The practical study of languages. London: Oxford University Press.

 

Ur, P. (1996) A course in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

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