Look at words, look at sentences, read real books: a variety of techniques to match various learners’ intelligences

Written by: Ivanichka Nestorova, senior lecturer, South-West University, Blagoevgrad
Zarina Markova, ass. prof., South-West University, Blagoevgrad

Abstract: Are the initial literary strategies for native speakers applicable to the English language classroom in Bulgaria? Can H. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences be of help to the learners who are becoming acquainted with English words, sentences and books? This article suggests answers to the above questions and offers a range of activities about Winnie-the Pooh’s  adventures geared toward making the classroom experience more memorable and fun for both students and teachers.

The core of teaching initial reading both in L1 and L2 is providing the child with good reading strategies. Finding the optimum way of achieving literacy, on the other hand, implies the understanding of how reading works. The reading process itself is very hard to trace as reading is a silent mental activity: it is received through the eyes, but happens in the mind, and even the reader himself cannot drive an accurate account of what exactly is happening. Reading theory and research no longer view reading as a process of mere decoding, but rather as an integration of top-down processes that utilise the background knowledge and schema, as well as bottom-up processes that are primarily text or data driven (Fig. 1 from Gaspar and Brown, 1987 p. 23). It is also stressed that reading is both a perceptual and cognitive process, and that the reader is not a passive receiver, but an active participator, deeply involved in the process.

The most commonly used methods for the teaching or initial reading in English are based on the assumptions stated above. These are the Phonics method, the Look-and-Say “whole word” and “whole sentence” methods, and the Integrated Language Approach or Whole language or “real books” method.

Phonics is a literacy strategy based on the assumption that in an alphabetic system of writing no meaningful recognition of print is possible before the reader is able consciously to interpret letters in terms of phonemes. Thus the pupils are taught the sounds of the letters and encouraged to construct the overall sound of the word from the individual letter sounds. Print is viewed as encoded speech. Learning to decipher the code would give access to the sounds of the language and then, presumably by using the same mental processes that are used in understanding speech, the reader would arrive at the meaning of the coded text. The first step is the recoding, which is the “translation” from written to oral code, while the second step is the decoding proper, i.e. interpreting the oral code into meaning. The perceived written stimulus is provided with semantic value through this process. The diagram (Fig. 1) shows how the route from perception to cognition passes through three levels: the visual level: graphemes; the auditory level: phonemes; the semantic level: morphemes. It is argued (Gaspar and Brown 1987) that this phonically based method with its consideration of the minimal units working at each level is more relevant to literacy acquisition rather than developing reading. At the more advanced stages reading becomes a two-level process where there is a direct link between the visual stimulus and the semantic store in mind. Based on this claim is Marilyn Jager Adams’s (Adams 1990) argument that mastering the rules of Conventional English Orthography is a prerequisite for the development of “higher” reading skills, which leads to increasing the rate and power of comprehension.

The Look-and-say method is based on the assumption that the fluent reader receives printed words as wholes. A word is recognised by the “shape” presented by the outer contour of the whole group of letters of which it is composed, as well as by outstanding characteristics which initial and final letter sequence play an important role. With Look-and-say method a lot of pictures and flashcards are used. Each word is taught as a whole word starting with a set of basic and key words which occur over and over again in reading. From the very start students are encouraged to recognise whole words from their shape. Their attention is drawn to any visual clues, e.g. length of the word, its own shape and distinct letter shapes.

It is considered that this method implies a more direct relationship between the visual and the semantic levels. Readers are encouraged to avoid the perception of the words in terms of phonemes. It is supposed to develop a strategy which reduces inner speech (sub-vocalisations). The method also helps the reader to manage the “redundancy” of the code ignoring those features that are not absolutely necessary for its instant recognition. In this way it helps with the word specific strategy characteristic to skilled readers of English.

Whole Language or Integrated Language approach, popularly known as ”Real Books” presents a completely different philosophy of reading. Based on research in child psychology this method puts a major emphasis on the purpose of literacy: to elicit meaning from print and convey meaning in writing. That is to say the process of acquiring literacy is reversed and becomes a top-down process, starting with the Semantic Store in the mind and reaching down to the level of the graphemes to discover their meaning and interpret their phonetical value if necessary.

Integrated Language Approach is based on attempts to study literacy from the child’s point of view, on evidence of how children construct their own knowledge of reading and writing through experimentation and exploration with language. It is argued that children’s literate acts emerge from their wealth of experience with oral language and their attempts to enter the rewarding world of print (Gibson, 1989). According to the French psychologist and pedagogue Rachel Cohen (Коен, 1989) literacy is a graduate process that develops naturally after or even together with oral language acquisition and is successfully encouraged by “submerging” the child in a “literacy bath”, i.e. allowing children to experience print and discover it for themselves. Literacy development starts early, it is ongoing and on a continuum of increasing competence, therefore according to the Integrated Language Approach linguistic awareness is not necessarily a precondition to reading and writing and the best way to acquire it is not necessarily through direct instruction. In real life settings when children are engaged in activities that are purposeful like countless demonstrations of story reading and experimentation with writing, children themselves, on their own, develop the knowledge of the way print works through experience. In print–rich early learning environments, reading and writing are incorporated into every aspect of the day. Children are encouraged to explore print materials in the same enthusiastic manner that they approach sand, blocks and outdoor games. The Integrated Approach implies that when the skills of written language are imbedded in the very culture of the learning environment, reading and writing develop in much the same manner as oral language. In these settings, the skills are taught and attended to in the way that children learn best. Direct instruction on spelling-to-sound correspondences comes naturally, at a later stage, and is recognised only as a part of the integrated approach to teaching initial literacy.

Not all constructs of the Integrated Language Approach, however, are supported by new research on literacy. For example, the work of Charles Perfetti ( www.pitt.edu/-perfetti.htm) argues that written language is not just another form of language and the use of the writing system is parasitic on speech for both alphabetic and non-alphabetic orthographies, as well as that learning to read is very little like learning to speak.

It is common sense that alphabetic writing provides a code for phonological units of speech. Children are not born knowing the code and do not always develop the ability to decipher it through informal experience; therefore they arguably need some degree of explicit systematic assistance provided by a combination of Phonics and Look-and-say. Moreover, as it was pointed above, psychologically reading is viewed as a combination of both top-down and bottom-up processes, consequently, a combination of strategies should be preferred rather than rely on a single one. This was the reason why a change in the educational policy concerning literacy acquisition was implemented in both Britain and the United States calling for an integration of the three basic strategies and using them in synergy as well as mandatory use to a certain degree of Phonics in the British Educational system. (www.NCATE.comnews.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education )

Is such a balanced approach applicable for the literacy acquisition classroom of Bulgarian learners of English?

The application of the Phonics method will only be ideal for teaching reading in a language with purely phonemic orthography. After establishing a limited amount of simple derivational rules, the phonics method is used successfully with languages that show high degree of consistency in grapheme – phoneme correspondence such as Bulgarian.

A purely “Look-and-Say” method will be successful with true ideography, such as an educated Chinese might use, where a grapheme represents the semantic meaning of the whole word.

The writing system of English is none of these. Although it is based on the alphabetic principle, the relationship between phonemes and graphemes and the derivational rules that govern it are so complex that it is sometimes referred to as semi-ideography (Gaspar and Brown, 1987). The configuration of any English word as a whole, however, does not in itself provide any clue to meaning. The reader has to look for the relationship in a graphemic sequence through Phonics and Look-and-Say strategies before giving any response in auditory terms. To avoid “delay” and cope with the phonologically deep orthography a skilled reader, helped by Look-and-Say, may develop a word-specific (lexical) recognition strategy, similar to that used to read ideography. Through such a strategy a high rate and power of comprehension are achieved at the fluency level.

Bulgarian, like English, is an alphabetic language, but it has maintained close correspondence between written and spoken form. Bulgarian orthography, using the Cyrillic alphabet transcribes the sounds of the language in a direct and consistent manner. There are only few derivational rules that are very simple. Bulgarian children, when acquiring literacy in their mother tongue, develop phonologically analytic strategy and keep it in the fluency stage because with the phonologically shallow orthography it is highly productive.

Another point that should be made is that there is a major difference in the process of literacy learning in the child’s mother tongue and learning to read in a foreign language. It was mentioned earlier that when reading, the signals from the visual and phonological encoding systems go to the “semantic store” (Fig. 1) where they are translated into ideas and images. The semantic store is a sort of dictionary in the mind including all the meanings of the words within a cognitive system. The meanings are “loaded” there when the child acquires speech, learning that everything has a name. If the child does not speak the foreign language, this semantic store is missing or includes only very few items. As the spoken form provides the link between the semantic store and the visual percepts, a child can learn to read and write in a language he or she already speaks much more easily than in a foreign language. However, there are hardly any reasons for children first to learn to read and write in one language than the other, if they already speak both. As this is extremely rarely the case with English in Bulgaria it is assumed that the child should be at least at the early reading stage in Bulgarian before any formal literacy instruction in English begins.

Another point in favour of the latter argument is the fact that Bulgarian orthography is far more lawfully alphabetic than English so after learning the sounds of the letters, and after very little instruction how to connect them in words, an average Bulgarian child is able to sound any written text and provided the words in it are in his or her semantic store, to understand it. This gives confidence and independence to the young reader while the difficulties that Conventional English Orthography presents are very likely to act as a demotivating factor if the child receives formal literacy instruction in English prior to Bulgarian. Nevertheless, informal experience with print in natural environments or in the English language classroom throughout the oral EFL course is likely to be productive in terms that it will facilitate formal instruction.

Bearing all this in mind, it is clear that there are two major objectives concerning initial reading for the teacher of EFL in Bulgaria: to target Bulgarian interference at the literacy level and encourage his or her pupils to read and write English. A balanced combination of the three basic initial-reading strategies will facilitate meeting these objectives and enable teachers:

  • To make sure that their pupils shift successfully to Roman script and bridge the gap between the names of English letters and the phonemes they stand for (through Phonics and Look-and-Say)
  • To prevent learners from transferring mechanically the phonetic rules they already know from Bulgarian orthography to phonetically irregular English words. (through Look-and-Say)
  • To preserve their pupil’s motivation to learn (as it is always very high at the beginning) and try to increase their motivation to read and write in English. (through Integrated Language Approach)

A case study is presented that incorporates all three strategies. The reference is to two classes of learners at a primary school. They are second-year students aged 7 or 8. During their first year at school they had an oral course in English (3 lessons per week); they got acquainted with the Latin alphabet by the help of the Phonics method; they learned to associate letters with English words but they did not read or write. During the second year they began to learn how to read and write in English. They had four lessons a week, a lesson being 35 minutes long. The students had two teachers of English, one of them taught them 2 lessons per week following a course book ( ‘Blue skies’, Longman); the other one did not follow a prescriptive syllabus during her lessons. The case study deals with the latter teaching situation.

A course was designed, based on A. Milne’s book ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ , providing a variety of activities addressing students’ multiple intelligences. Here is a short description of the course:

Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents

Subject: English
Level: 2nd class
Age: 7-8 years
Aims:

  • Language:
    • By the end of the course pupils will have:
    • talked about food, presents, birthday parties,nature;
    • used “There is / are”, “Have / haven’t got”, “I can see; hear; smell;feel…;
    • asked for permission “Can I give it too?”;
    • commented on suggestions “This is / isn’t a very good idea”;
    • made difference between nouns, verbs and adjectives;
    • used opposite adjectives: good / bad, happy / sad, empty / full, hungry / full;
    • read sentences from the story; recognized familiar words in unfamiliar texts;
    • rearranged mixed letters in familiar words;
    • rearranged mixed words in familiar sentences;
    • acted out conversations and situated them in corresponding places.
  • Others:
    • Pupils will have developed their:
    • eye-hand co-ordination;
    • singing skills;
    • drawing skills;
    • co-operation with mates

    Time: 18 weeks, 36 lessons
    Description:

    Step 1 (1 lesson)

    The teacher tells the story of Eeyore’s birthday using toys, lots of gestures, mimes and animal sounds (translation may also help at certain points. Some of the pupils are familiar with the story, though). The teacher reinforces the learners’ previous knowledge of vocabulary connected with animals and food. The pupils get the feel for the story and a general  picture of what it is about. Then she teaches the names of the characters in the story: Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl.

    Step 2 ( 5 lessons at 5 different stages of the course)

    The pupils are given papers with texts from the story. They underline the words they can recognize. Variations of this activity is repeated throughout the course: the pupils colour the familiar words with their favourite colours; or they associate the familiar words with the corresponding animal and colour them in the appropriate colour; or they colour the words they find easy orange and the ones they find difficult blue. At the end of the course the pupils colour the familiar words according to the following scheme: nouns – red; verbs – blue; adjectives – yellow.

    Step 3

    The whole story about Eeyore’s birthday is divided into 6 parts:

    1. Winnie-the-Pooh meets Eeyore and understands about his birthday.
    2. Winnie-the-Pooh meets Piglet and tells him about Eeyore’s birthday. They discuss the presents.
    3. Winnie-the-Pooh  starts for Eerore’s place but gets hungry and eats the honey.
    4. Winnie-the-Pooh meets Owl and they write ‘Happy birthday’ on the empty pot.
    5. Piglet bursts the balloon.
    6. Eeyore receives his presents.

    Step 4 ( 6 lessons at 6 different stages of the course)

    The teacher tells the first part of the story again, this time using flashcards with what the characters say. Helped by the teacher, the pupils read the sentences on the flashcards. They practise the dialogue chorally, then sing it as a chant and finally act it in pairs. This procedure is followed when introducing the other parts of the story (see step 3).

    Step 5 ( 6 lessons at 6 different stages of the course)

    The pupils practise reading by playing a board game in groups of 3-4.  The board game consists of squares with written sentences from the dialogues or pictures of the characters involved. The students throw a dice and move a counter along the track. When they step on a picture, they have to name it. When they step on a sentence, they have  to read it. If they cannot do that, they are helped by their partners but they miss a turn. When the pupils finish the game, they write the words or sentences they stepped on. This activity with different contents is repeated throughout the course for practising the latest part of the story.

    Step 6 ( 5 lessons at 5 different stages of the course)

    To practise the pupils’ spelling the teacher provides them with activities in which they have to rearrange mixed letters and form familiar words or rearrange mixed words and form familiar sentences. In other activities the pupils have to decipher coded words and messages using a code given by the teacher. At a later stage they themselves cipher sentences from the story and their friends have to guess them.

    To reinforce the familiar vocabulary the class, divided in 2 teams, play the game ‘noughts and crosses”. The numbers of letters in the words are given together with their first and last letters. When a team guess the word and spell it correctly, they put their sign (a nought or cross) in the corresponding square ( Since the pupils got over-excited during this game, they played it at the end of the lessons).

    Step 7 (2 lessons)

    Maps of the woods where the animals live are distributed among the pupils who have to find each animal’s house (this map is taken from the original book containing ‘Winnie-the Pooh’ and ‘The House at Pooh Corner’). When the pupils find all the houses, they colour them. They may colour the rest of the map as well. Then they write (the less advanced learners copy them from the board) different sentences from the story on different pieces of paper and put them on those places on the map where the corresponding conversations take place. More and more sentences are given until the pupils construct the complete dialogues and situate them in their appropriate places.

    Step 8 (2 lessons)

    The pupils make figures of the animals from the story using plasticine. They decorate the maps with different natural materials. This decoration is preceded by a discussion of what you can see in a wood; what you can smell, hear, feel. Some new useful vocabulary is presented.

    Step 9 (1 lesson)

    Using their plasticine figures as toy animals and the map as woods, the pupils act out the dialogues from the story. Most of them have learned the dialogues by heart so far. Those who have not find support reading the sentences they have written on the pieces of paper.

    Comments:

    Throughout the course the pupils were asked to consider what words or sentences they found easy and what – difficult; what activities they found entertaining; boring; easy or difficult. They were not made to take part in activities they felt anxious about. However, when they saw that the others were having a good time and were advancing, they joined in.

    All the pupils were thrilled when the maps were presented to them. They enjoyed colouring and decorating the maps and making animals of plasticine.

    The pupils particularly liked the board games. In fact, one of the classes wanted to play each lesson, which, of course, was impossible.

    Although some of the pupils had already heard the story, all of them enjoyed listening to it in English and prompting the teacher what to say. They were fascinated by the book, wanted to hold it, turn its pages, look at the illustrations. They felt extremely proud that they were able to recognize words and even read some sentences in a real English book. As the course was advancing, more and more students were coming to their English lessons bringing different editions of A. Milne’s book translated in Bulgarian. They were reading them at home, looking for Bulgarian equivalents of the sentences they learned, comparing the illustrations. This interest of theirs, together with the language they acquired, was found extremely rewarding by their teacher.

    References:

    • Adams, M.J. (1990) Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press
    • Gaspar, R and David Brown (1987) Perceptual Processes in Reading. Hutchinson
    • Gibson, L. (1989) Through Children’s Eyes. Literacy Learning in the Early Years. CASSELL
    • Коен, Р. (1989) „На шест години не е ли късно” С.
    • www.pitt.edu/-perfetti.htmwww.NCATE.comnews.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education

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