Promoting Phonemic Development in English Learners

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Would you like to know how to help your English Learners when they cannot recognize phonemes? This lesson gives you a few practical approaches to help your students develop phonemic awareness.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

Karla, a Spanish speaker, is an English learner. One day, Karla asks her teacher 'Can I have an extra shit?' Some students laugh really hard. This situation is intimidating for someone who cannot properly pronounce the word 'sheet'. However, Karla's teacher of English language understands where the problem comes from.

The issue is with Karla's aural comprehension, which is the listening skill that allows learners to repeat the sounds they hear and to understand what they hear. This skill has close relation with phonemic awareness. This is the ability to recognize phonemes (ph, gh, lk). For English language learners (ELLs), pronunciation problems are common because the phonemes we have in English are not necessarily the same as those in other languages. Thus, ELLs cannot pronounce them properly.

Listening and Using Phonemes

Your ELLs often listen to others before they begin to pronounce certain phonemes they are not familiar with. Karla, for example, is a Spanish speaker and the sound 'ee' does not sound in Spanish the same as in English. When she hears her peers say words like 'sheep,' to Karla, it sounds like they are saying, 'ship.'

Many ELLs cannot hear all the vowel combinations English has. To them, those combinations simply sound different. Thus, their aural or listening comprehension affects the way they pronounce. Let's explore what can you do as a teacher to help ELLs with phonemic development.

Strategies to Promote Phonemic Development

The first language our learners speak can certainly have an influence on the phonemic development of students in English. It helps to be aware about the characteristics of your ELLs' first language in order to understand where certain pronunciation and comprehension issues with phonemes are coming from.

This doesn't mean you have to learn your students' first language. You can do minimal research about the features of their language in comparison with English. With the Internet within reach, you have a great resource. Now, let's explore some specific strategies that promote phonemic development in ELLs.

Explicit Instruction

When you give your students a straightforward explanation of a language feature, you provide students with explicit instruction. This is a strategy that promotes phonemic development because your students specifically receive instructions to learn phonemes. This way, the students realize their mistakes and work to correct them.

For example, Karla's teacher sees her struggle with a number of phonemes. Thus, the teacher works with Karla on the 'ee' sound by getting her to repeat the vowel combination aloud and, then, uses words that include such phoneme to have Karla pronounce them. Here, we have a list of the most common phonemes ELLs need to learn about:

  • Digraphs: two consonants or vowels that represent one sound ('ee' as in 'free,' 'oo' as in 'foot,' 'th' as in 'thin,' 'ph' as in 'photo')
  • Diphthongs: when there is a double vowel sound in a phoneme ('aI' (long i) as in 'kind,' 'eI' (long a) as in 'rain')
  • Schwa: the reduced vowel sound in an unstressed syllable of a multisyllable word (('i' in 'animal,' 'e' in 'answer,') or the reduced vowel sound in a function word ('o' in reduced form in 'to')
  • Initial, medial, and final consonant clusters - the combination of two or more consonants either at the beginning, middle, or end of a word often mean that ELLs might mispronounce them or not pronounce one of the letters. Since each student is different, you would help them each with their own difficulty (Karla says things like 'estudent;' she needs to work in the 'st' sound. Similarly, the word 'extra' sounds like 'estra;' she needs to work on the 'xt' sound. Finally, Karla sometimes says 'aks' instead of 'ask;' she needs to practice the 'sk' sound.)

Practice Reading Aloud

When you read aloud to your students while they follow on their own text, they match what you say with the print they see. Thus, this practice promotes phonemic development because your students learn directly from you how to pronounce different phonemes.

To illustrate, when Karla listens to her teacher read words like 'phoneme, phone, photo' and they all have the sound 'f' for the 'ph', Karla learns immediately how to read those words aloud when it is her turn.

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