Teaching ESL Phonology & Morphology in California

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.

Phonology and morphology are key aspects English learners need to succeed with the language. This lesson refers to the strategies teachers can apply in California classrooms to comply with ELD standards.

Why Phonology and Morphology?

If you are working with English learners who are struggling, you may make the wrong assumptions about a student if you forget to consider English phonology and morphology. For example, you could think students have a learning disability or that they were not taught well in their primary language.

Let's take two examples to understand the importance of phonology and morphology. An Arabic speaker sees the word 'park' but pronounces it as 'bark.' This is because the letter 'p' is not part of the Arabic alphabet. Similarly, a Spanish speaker gets ready to write the words the teacher says. When the learner hears the word 'space,' the writer may write 'espeis.'

These examples demonstrate why phonology (the system of sounds in a language) and morphology (the form of words in a language) are important for English learners. If you teach phonology to students you can prevent them from feeling confused by English sounds that do not necessarily exist in their primary language. Similarly, if you teach morphology you prevent learners from confusion due to the fact that sounds do not always exactly match what is written in their primary language.

In California, the success of students in English language development (ELD) and English Language Arts (ELA) depends quite a lot on awareness of phonology and morphology. Let's look at strategies for teaching these topics to help their English learners.

Strategies for Teaching Phonology and Morphology

Martin is a California teacher of English learners. As the California student population is very diverse, Martin applies different strategies in the classroom to raise student awareness of phonology and morphology patters. Let's see how Martin does this.

First Language Reference

Martin has a Russian speaker in his class. Martin notices the student tends to switch the 'w' for a 'v'. For instance, the student says 'vine' instead of 'wine' or 'Wesley' becomes 'Vesley'. Martin's years of experience make him suspect that this phonology issue has to do with an interference from the student's first language. However, rather than looking at this as a problem, Martin uses it as a reference to correct the sound pattern. Martin asks the student about the sound of the 'w' in Russian. The student says this letter is not part of the Cyrillic alphabet. This helps Martin realize the sound does not even exist in Russian. Thus, Martin can specifically work with the student in practicing the sounds of 'wa,' 'we,' 'wo,' etc.

This example illustrates the importance of applying the principles of cross-linguistic reference. This is a teaching approach in which the instructor works with the student's primary language to establish differences with English and, then, raise awareness of English patterns.

Let's clarify: no teacher of English learners (and California is no exception) needs to speak the primary language of their students. What teachers need to keep in mind is the possibility of interference of the primary language with English and work with the students to raise phonology awareness.

Student's Prior Knowledge

Martin realizes his French student struggles to understand the reason why the verbs 'to eat, to write, to clean' don't continue to have the 'to' when using them in a tense. To help the student, Martin asks him how he says 'to eat' in French. The student says 'manger.' Now, Martin asks how to say in French that Lisa eats. The student replies 'Lisa mange.' Martin then asks why not 'Lisa manger.' When the student says it is because the verb is conjugated, then Martin uses this knowledge of conjugation the student already has to explain why 'to' is not needed when verbs are conjugated in English.

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