“Sight Words” and Phonics-Based EFL

As I’ve been reading and researching online (something I do almost constantly when I’m not writing lesson plans or preparing materials!) I’ve been finding a lot of articles bashing the sight word lists (both the Dolch sight word list and the Fry instant word list).  Now, here’s the thing.  From the point of view of those articles, I agree completely.  You see, what the articles were arguing against was not so much the existence of the lists, but rather the idea of teaching words as whole units (rather than teaching kids to sound them out phonetically).  The articles argue that the human brain is finite, that it’s better to teach 100 phonemes which a child can then combine into thousands of words, rather than 100 words which he must then remember.  And I am completely on board with that.

But, see, here’s the thing.  The Dolch sight word list and the Fry instant list contain common words.  That means that these are words which children are going to read, write, speak, hear, in every sentence, every story, every article, for the rest of their lives.  These are important words.  And that’s what makes these lists, I feel, so incredibly invaluable for EFL students.  If a child can learn these words – learn to read them (phonetically, if possible!) and understand them and translate them – then he or she is halfway there.  Halfway there!  Can you imagine it?  Halfway to understanding, speaking, reading, writing English!

The numbers vary, depending on which list you’re looking at; some say that the Dolch and Fry lists make up 50% of all written English; others 60%, others 75%.  Some lists have 100 words, some 220, some a thousand.  To me, specific numbers aren’t as important as that tangible, enticing promise: learn these, and you will be learning the Most Important Words.  Learn these, and you will be making Real Progress.

You see, that’s what frustrates me so much about the way I’ve been teaching.  (And it’s the strategy I’ve developed for working with our curriculum in an EFL setting; it’s at least halfway “my fault”.)   I’ve taken our readers and focused on teaching the meaning of every word in them, so that when students read, they’ll be able to understand what they’re reading.  That means that I’ve been teaching a lot of words that aren’t really “useful”.  Changing that is going to be a long, slow process, but little by little, I am going to change it.

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Graded Readers

I found a reader online which introduced new words one at a time, feeding them into the text and then making sentences with them.  I absolutely LOVED the idea for my kids….I have to teach meaning as well as phonics in order for them to be able to read and understand what they’re reading, so books with even 15 or 20 words in them can feel overwhelming at times!  (And if I feel overwhelmed, how must my poor kiddos feel?!)  The idea of teaching a single word, using it in context, then teaching another, using it in context while repeating the first, teaching another, using it in context while repeating the first two….the idea is something of a relief, actually.  🙂

Of course graded readers rely heavily on sight words, which is something I’ve been wanting to introduce more of in my classrooms.  (100 words which make up half the literature they’ll ever read?  You can’t go wrong with that!)

Amazon has some lovely readers that do just that: one word at a time, they build whole stories while constantly practicing words that have gone before.  I must admit, I started drooling when I saw them!

Unfortunately, they’re a bit pricey (worth it, definitely! but, you know, pricey.).  Also, I would have to order them online, and with international shipping what it is, in first place, the cost would be ridiculous (last time I tried to order a couple of books, the shipping total was something like $60….definitely out of my price range!!) and, in second place, by the time they get here, my kids would be graduated!

And, I know, I know, it’s an investment in the future; every class I’ll ever have would benefit from those books.  But I want something I can use in the meantime.  As in, now.  With the kids I have.

Sooooo, I started thinking….am I a writer, or am I a writer??  (Well, I was a writer, before I came to Peru to be a missionary.  I haven’t written since then, unless you count lesson plans.  I’ve written lots and lots and LOTS of those!)

So, I decided to start making my own graded readers!  I am using the same format I saw in the Amazon books and the other reader (I wish I could remember what the other reader was called, but I lost it somewhere in one of my thousand and one browser tabs, and never found it again): introducing a single word, using it, adding another, using it, building, repeating, growing.

I finished my first reader yesterday.  (If you’re curious, you can see it here at my TPT store.)  It’s kind of a weird hybrid; it uses mainly words that my students in particular will need to know next month when we start our A Beka reading circles.  But, at the same time, the words it uses from my curriculum list are mainly those which are also found on the Dolch nouns list or the Fry list.  (You won’t, for example, find the word “tot” or “lad” here, in spite of the fact that my kids need to practice them because they’re going to be reading them pretty soon.)  It’s also heavy on sight words, something that I want to start using more in my classroom.

To illustrate the book, I used clipart sets from the lovely Nicole Rethmeier, of Jolie Designs.  She’s been making me clipart from my A Beka word lists, and it certainly came in handy for this project!   A few pictures that weren’t on my word lists I added in from English Unite, which also has lovely clipart.

Now my problem is, how exactly am I going to use it in the classroom?  Printing off a copy for each student is definitely out of my price range right now.  And reading with them one by one would be too time-consuming.  I have some ideas, but that will be for another blog post.  🙂

Let’s Start Spelling

Next week we start learning to spell in K5.  More than anything else, we start learning about the concept of spelling, and the focus is on using the letter names, rather than the letter sounds.

To help with the concept, I’ve made some spelling puzzles out of craft foam.  (Or, rather, out of corrospun, which is like craft foam but glossy and easy to write on.)  I love the corrospun because it’s easy to cut and work with, but also easy for the kids to handle and work with.  (Plus, it comes in such bright, fun colors!)

I made the letters in cursive, because our students start learning cursive from kindergarten.  (I’ve read some very persuasive articles which suggest that kids should actually learn cursive BEFORE they learn print, but ours start with print in K3 and K4, then move up to cursive in K5.)

I love how the puzzles are turning out, and I can’t wait to play – erm, I mean, work – with them next week.  🙂

Little by Little (Thoughts on designing a curriculum)

When I was in school (homeschooled), I started studying French.  I say started, because I never really became fluent, but that’s a subject for another post.  (Actually, it’s a post I’ll probably write in the near future; it has a lot to do with my line of work today.)

One of the “bits” of French that did stick with me, however, was a line in my textbook that said “Petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.” (And yes, I totally just had to look up the spelling of “oiseau”!  And people complain that English vowels are confusing….)  It means “Little by little, the bird builds his nest,” and it could be considered my defining motto in life, if I had a defining motto in life.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time, and preferable with lots of mayonaise and Heinz ketchup!

So that’s become my attitude to the curriculum I want to develop.  Little by little.  A piece here, a piece there.

One of the questions I had when I first started thinking about how to design the curriculum was whether, in vocabulary, it was better to stick with the approach I’ve been using with the A Beka curriculum, of introducing words by letter, vowel, or special sound (all the t words are introduced when we learn the letter t; all the long a words are introduced when we learn long a, all the ch words are introduced when we learn ch, etc.), or whether it’s better to teach vocabulary “thematically,” i.e. parts of the body, family members, furniture, etc.  Almost all  the EFL programs I’ve researched teach vocabulary thematically, but they don’t really explain why.  (I suspect it has something to do with it being easier to remember words if you first create a framework, a context, in which to store them.  But I can’t find any research on the subject, so that’s just my guess.)

So I’ve decided to try including a bit of thematic vocabulary in my classes, and see which one “sticks” better.  I’ll continue teaching vocabulary by letter as long as I continue using A Beka; it seems to be the best and most efficient way of introducing the words the students will come across in their A Beka reading.  However, I plan to put less emphasis on remembering the phonetic vocabulary (or at least the less-useful, more frustrating words, like “tot”) and instead use that brain power to introduce a bit of thematic vocabulary.

It will definitely be an experiment, but it will be interesting to see how it turns out.

EFL Weather Lapbook

I found this fun EFL Weather Lapbook on YouTube when I was looking for ideas for my class.

I’m hoping to do something similar in the next week or two with my class.  They already know the weather (cloudy, sunny, partly cloudy, rainy, snowy, windy), the days of the week, and the months of the year.  I think this would be a fun project to help solidify that vocabulary, learn how to use it and “put it together” in new ways, and even practice some of those pesky little sight words we’re learning!  (“On Monday it was rainy,” for example!)

I especially love the dress-up paperdoll and would like to add something like that to our morning routines wall.  I think my kids would love that.

I’ll see what I come up with and post pictures when I decide what I’m going to do!

 

Word-Picture Puzzles

As my students begin to put more words together, it gets easier to help them practice their vocabulary.  Today, for example, I’ve been putting together some vocabulary word-picture puzzles to help students with their reading and vocabulary skills.  First I prepared the cards, with the picture on top and the word on bottom, then I glued them to craft foam for easier handling.  Once the glue dried, I cut the word away from the picture.  Different cutting styles (zig-zag, wavy, blocky) and different colored foam (four words per color, because that’s how many fit onto a sheet) help make putting the words together a little easier.  Best of all, it gives me a fun way to practice vocabulary with the whole class, in small groups, or individually.  may 000 007For whole-group learning, I put the pictures up on the board and give each student a word.  I tell them what they word says (if they’re not reading yet) and they go to the board and try to match it to the correct picture.

In small groups, we practice sounding out each word and matching it to the correct picture.  It’s a great way for students to see the relationship between letters, words, and things.

Advanced students who are already reading can play with the puzzles individually once they finish their worksheets, and the colors and designs are different enough that even students who aren’t reading yet could probably figure out which words go with which picture just from the shape.  (Actually, I may have to make a second, harder set before too long….this one is probably too easy for the advanced students, or will be once they play with it a couple of times.)

I can also use the puzzles individually to work one-on-one with students who are struggling in vocabulary; I give them the word and say the name, and then have them match it to the correct picture.  Once they’ve matched it, I have them repeat the word in English and in Spanish.

I’m really looking forward to playing – erm, I mean, working! working – with these in the classroom on Monday.  And I think the kids are really going to enjoy them, too.  (We had an old set from several years back, but it’s practically falling to pieces now, so we haven’t played with it this year.)

Aiyshah had a fascinating post on their blog called “Is English Hijacking the World’s Intelligence?” You can check out the original article here .

As I wrote on in the comments, I don’t necessarily think that the fact that English has become the central language for academics and commerce is a bad thing.  Rather, I see it as a common (and necessary) cycle, with certain languages gaining ascendancy and then falling out of use over time (think Latin, Greek, and French).  As an English teacher, I’m blessed to be living in a time when the language I teach happens to be the dominant language for international dealings (whether those dealings be academic or business), but I don’t think that will always be the case; with time, English will be replaced by some other language (probably an Asian language, but you never know) as the center of power shifts from England and the US to some other part of the world.

But it made me wonder…are we as native English speakers really taking advantage of the priviledge of living during a time when our language is the dominant one?  I’m not going to bash “text speak” here, or “emoticons” (although one of my favorite internet jokes is the one that says that the modern internet has basically become ancient Egypt; we write in symbols and worship cats) or any of the other modern aberrations from the language.  (Okay, I guess I am bashing them just a little.  Bear with me.)

We live in a time when English is the current dominant world language, used to connect disparate languages and culture across the globe….and yet American children are famously bad at reading, writing, and even speaking their own language. Surely we should put as much effort into learning our own language as other cultures do?

This train of thought is not new to me.  It was beautifully expressed in the movie My Fair Lady, where Eliza’s grand triumph comes from a celebrated language master’s declaration that she is a fraud, a phony, not a native-born English lady as she is trying to claim, because

“Her English is too good,” he said; “This clearly indicates that she is foreign.

Whereas others are instructed in their native language, English people aren’t.”

And then promptly goes on to declare street-urchin Eliza a Hungarian princess, based solely on the strength of her English.

Working at the school, you do occasionally find parents who simply don’t care that much about their child’s English.  Meeting with them to discuss problems their students are having in class, their response is often something along the lines of “Well, it doesn’t really matter; I sent them to this school for x reasons, so it doesn’t matter if they struggle in English.” Although I as a teacher would like for every student to reach their full potential in my class, it’s hard to argue with their logic; they WILL be able to get through the rest of their lives even if they fail English to the day they graduate.  (Although, normally those students who struggle in my class also have wider behavior or learning related problems.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve *ever* had a student struggle in my class who was not also struggling in his or her native language classes.)

And yet those parents are a minority.  The vast majority of parents worry about their child’s English, look for ways to help them practice at home, and discipline them if they find out that they’re goofing off in class.  It’s important to them.

Is it as important to us?

Curriculum Thoughts

At our school (a Christian school teaching English as a Foreign Language in Lima, Peru) we use the A Beka curriculum.  Over the years as I’ve been teaching, I’ve made many, many, many modifications to the way we teach, trying to help the kids effectively learn to speak, read, and write English.

But the more modifications I make, the more frustrated I become.  Oh, don’t get me wrong; A Beka is a wonderful curriculum.  As a homeschooler, I grew up with A Beka, at least for part of my education.  And their materials are beautiful.

But A Beka was never designed to teach English as a Foreign Language.  They don’t claim to be designed for that, and to tell the truth, it doesn’t work very well.  But the thing is, finding another curriculum with our specific needs – 1. Christian, 2. Phonetics-based, and 3. designed for EFL – well, that’s more challenging.  There are lots of Christian EFL programs out there, some of them very good….but none of them based in a strong grasp of phonics.  (The more I teach the more convinced I become that phonics is KEY to teaching EFL; it makes a HUGE difference in their pronounciation, especially when they start in preschool!!)   There are lots of phonics-based EFL programs, some of THEM very good (HUGE shout-out to Genki English, whose fun songs make conversation and phonics a blast in the classroom!) – but none of them with the strong Christian worldview our school is looking for.  And of course there’s A Beka, Christian and phonics based, but not designed for EFL.

These past few weeks, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of designing my own curriculum…one that blends useful EFL words and phrases with strong phonics and a Christian worldview.  The thing is, I’m not qualified (unless you count 10 years of experience as qualification!), and I’m all-too-aware of just how big a job it would be.  But I keep studying, keep asking questions to people smarter than me, keep wondering and investigating and thinking and planning….and one day, I fully believe that it will all come together and form a cohesive, integrated curriculum that meets our needs, where we are.

I hope!

Back to Routine

Evaluations have come and gone.  Mother’s Day has come and gone.  Now we’re back to our daily routines.

I don’t know about you, but I love routines.  They give me (and my kids!) a sense of comfort and security.  I like knowing exactly what I need to do and when, and they do, too!  Which is not to say we never do anything different; we do.  But they’re exceptions, not the norm, which of course is what makes it so fun.

And routines seem to make it easier to keep order in the class (a DEFINITE plus when your class is 2/3 boys!!).  I’m really pleased with the progress K5 is making as far as order and attention goes.  We still have about six kids who are struggling in those areas, but it’s a lot better than the fifteen or sixteen we had last year!  It helps that they’re “growing up,” too.  (I know they’re only 5, but when you work in kindergarten/preschool, 5 years old are the big kids on the block!)