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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 2: Spelling

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Pre-teens at a spelling beeIn this second post, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, discusses the peculiarities and difficulties of teaching English spelling to students in Libya.

If you missed it, read Jon’s first post about teaching The Alphabet.

After we had taught the letters, it was time to start creating short words and introducing students to spelling.

Vowels were a particular challenge – while vowel sounds may be shown in Arabic using marks similar to accents, Arabic largely has no need to mark the vowel, as the order of consonants is enough to transmit meaning.

Clearly the first task was to lend a value to each of the vowels, so ‘a’ became / æ / as in cat; and o / ɒ / as in dog and so on.  Words were set out on flash cards and taught alongside visual images. Many words can be built phonically and students would get tremendously excited when they managed to decipher what was written on the board. Eventually we moved onto writing full sentences of language that had been introduced far earlier. For instance: ‘Hello, my name is Ali’ and so on.

When people talk about the difficulties of English spelling they often cite rare words like plough and all the different sounds that the combination of letters –ough can make. (Think of ‘enough’, ‘through’, ‘though’ and so on.) Believe me, the problems are much more basic than this! We had to start with far more basic concepts.

One of the early tasks was to introduce and teach the simplest digraphs – one sound from two letters – such as –sh for / ʃ /, –ch for / tʃ / and –er for / ə(r) /. We covered wh– for wh– questions very early on. Later on we showed how the final ‘e’ in a word could sometimes make the preceding vowel take on its full alphabetic value (think of ‘Tim’ / ɪ / and ‘time’ / aɪ /). The multitude of ways of realizing the same sound was another area that students always found perplexing. The long / iː / could be represented be as in ‘be’; –ee as in ‘see’; –ea as in ‘please’, and so on.

With consonants, / ʃ / commonly appears as ‘sh’ but can also be su– in sure and sugar and –tion as in station. Then, of course we would teach –ing for / ɪŋ /. We dealt with more complex combinations such as –ight or –ough much later. –ph as in telephone and photograph would come later, if ever!

At that point students would have done several terms of reading and writing class and, in our terms, be considered relatively advanced students! The student would have encountered the simple past and present perfect even if he had not seen them written.

The words and spelling rules we focused on were largely determined by taking the words we considered to be the most common and working backwards to isolate the most important and teachable elements. This is entirely different from teaching children who by the time they learn to write already have a large vocabulary to draw upon. So frequency and usefulness were our touchstones.

Unfortunately many common words such as ‘because’ do not break down into conveniently teachable phonic components. This doesn’t mean that they cannot be taught. Instead they need to be spelt out letter by letter and read as a whole word, not treated phonically.

I have never fully understood the war that rages intermittently between advocates of a ‘whole word’ approach to reading and those who prefer ‘phonics’. As a committed pragmatist I would rather use both approaches according to the word we are attempting to teach.

How do you teach spelling? Do you take the ‘whole word’ approach, use only phonics, or a combination of the two, like me?

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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7 thoughts on “Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 2: Spelling

  1. Pingback: Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 3: Reading and Handwriting « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching Global Blog @OUPELTGlobal

  2. Pingback: Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 2: Spelling | To learn or not to learn? | Scoop.it

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