New English Speakers Need Phonics, Syntax

Published February 9, 2013

After teaching Spanish for many years, I was asked by my school district to teach English as a Second Language. Teaching Spanish, I was told, meant teaching a second language, so the process should be similar. It wasn’t.

I didn’t realize the demographics of the learners would present such a profound teaching challenge. My new challenge was a middle school with students who were born here, students arriving from Spanish-speaking countries, plus some from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The biggest surprise was the 10 percent, or more, of new arrivals, mostly from Mexico and Central America, who had never been in a classroom. They were placed in regular ESL classes that presumed some literacy in their own language, which they did not have.

It was soon evident my students faced a variety of inhibitors to learning English. The curriculum materials on hand did not address the deficiencies of students with low primary literacy, which most of my students were. I began to investigate the problems on my own. It resulted in years of classroom research, a return to graduate school, and a degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages/Applied Linguistics.

New Language vs. Second Language
My field research took me into how people acquire language. This included phonics, phonetics, and various aspects of vocabulary and syntax.

Syntax was an especially interesting area. To the grammarian it refers to proper word forms and word sequence. It also means internalizing syntax, or “thinking in the language.” Current instructional materials do not offer specific instruction in this area, yet the research generally makes it clear the ESL teacher would benefit from understanding basic linguistics regarding language acquisition.

English presents different problems for native speakers of Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and so forth. Teachers with an understanding of language acquisition and a methodical rationale for instruction quickly discover these inhibitors and can then work to remove them. My classroom research became the basis for my thesis, (see accompanying figure) which can guide lesson plans, units of instruction, and curriculum for a semester.

As I moved on from K-12 public schools, this visual structure also provided a basis for instruction in graduate-level teacher training courses I have taught at four southern California universities.

The graph represents how students learn basic elements of languages. It targets syntax for second language learners. Standard textbooks do not directly address this area, but it is the key to “thinking in English,” which is the gateway to literacy.

Phonics Instruction Essential
Phonics skills are sometimes referred to as “alphabetics.” These skills create the cognitive link between the sounds a person hears and their written counterparts on a page. Converting words on a page to speech is the skill of “decoding” that is so familiar to teachers.

Decoding, however, is often mistaken for reading. It does not ensure comprehension; it just means a person knows how the letters in words sound together. As the figure indicates, people then need to learn what words mean, or vocabulary, a controversial topic among researchers.

One point of agreement is the need to learn vocabulary in context. Even the simplest words change meanings and connotations in different contexts. Linking a single meaning to a word will cause comprehension problems later. Lists of random vocabulary hardly help students.

This is where the challenge of syntax comes in. The order in which a listener receives cues that convey meaning in a sentence is different from language to language.

For example, sentences in English use subject nouns or pronouns in all sentences: The “he” in “He walked to the store.” Spanish omits subject nouns and pronouns most of the time: The “he” is implied, but not stated, in “Camina para la tienda.” Also, the pronoun “it” is very common in English, but doesn’t exist in Spanish. There are many such differences between English and other languages. To digest these requires understanding the syntax of the new language, rather than learning rules and applying them individually.

Two other elements in the figure show speaking follows listening. Listening is the basis for reading, and speaking is the foundation for writing. But none of these works well when new English learners have not received explicit instruction in the largely missing ingredient: Syntax.

Patrick Herrera ([email protected]) is an adjunct faculty member of Chapman University and founder of ESL Phonics to Literacy.

Image by Robert Simpson.