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1. What is the most effective program for teaching phonics to Japanese students?
There are many different ways to teach reading, some of which don’t even involve phonics. And teachers find each approach effective because their students learn to read. What is probably more useful is to look at the overall purpose of phonics approaches and then show how we’ve tried to incorporate them in Let’s Go. Even if you aren’t using our books, you can still use this information to help you evaluate other phonics programs in terms of whether or not they are likely to work for your students.
First, the purpose of phonics is to help children attach symbols to sounds in words. A combination of phonics words (which children can sound out based on patterns) and common sight words (like the, a, is, are) usually provide students with enough tools to get started reading independently. English-speaking children typically know between 2,500 and 5,000 words when they start using phonics to attach letters to sounds. Children learning to read English in their foreign language class know far fewer words, so it’s important to teach phonics patterns to children using words that they’ve already learned orally.
That’s one of the reasons that vocabulary in Let’s Go is so carefully controlled. We want to make sure that students have learned to say and understand the meaning of words before we ask them to read them. So, for example, when students learn that one way to show the long A sound is a__e (in Let’s Go 2), we use words learned in earlier levels: cake, make, and game. We also make sure that students can find other words in Let’s Go that fit this pattern so that they can try applying the phonics rule and develop confidence in sounding out less familiar words that are decodable. The sight words students first learn to read are the same words they’ve been using in language practice in every lesson.
We think it’s most effective if students can focus on one new thing at a time. Learning to read familiar words is a small step. Asking students to learn both the sound and meaning of new words at the same time in order to introduce new phonics patterns is too much, and ineffective in the long run.
2. What is the ideal time allotted for teaching phonics and teaching using textbooks?
Ideally, we should try to include reading practice in every lesson. Depending on the length of your classes and the number of times you see students each week, you might have a lesson focusing on phonics skills once a week or once a month, but it’s easy to incorporate reading skills in other lessons as well. For example, with very young students, you can:
- ask them to count how many times a specific word appears in a chant or song (which builds scanning skills and reinforces the idea that spaces help us identify words)
- have a treasure hunt asking students to find words that begin with specific sounds
- write the words from the language pattern on cards and let students practice building sentences with a combination of word cards and picture cards.
The less contact time we have with our students, the more important it is to incorporate reading skills whenever we can.
3. Most textbooks introduce a lot of vocabulary but with little emphasis on the phonics program. What is the ideal method for allowing or injecting a learning opportunity for a phonics program, while using a textbook, to maximize the time?
You can use the vocabulary in your textbook to teach phonics. It takes a bit more effort to do this if your textbook hasn’t already planned the syllabus to teach the words students will use for phonics from the beginning, but it can be done. All you need to do is look at the words your students are learning and identify some common phonics patterns. Do your students learn vocabulary words like cat, bat, map, bag, and man? After students have learned the words and their meaning, use them to teach the short /a/ sound. Help students learn to identify initial and ending sounds by looking at the words in their lessons. Use repetitive song and chant lyrics to build sight reading skills. Teaching sounds in the context of words and reading in the context of sentences helps us make the most effective use of our class time.
4. How can I get my students to do their homework each week?
If parents are willing to work with you, it’s relatively easy as long as you keep parents informed. Some teachers send notes home, or if they use the Let’s Go parent guides, they write the week’s homework assignment at the bottom of the weekly summary. Some teachers maintain a class wiki or blog where they post homework assignments, and others send email or text messages to parents.
Ideally, you want students to do their homework without needing parent support. Learning to be responsible for assignments is an important skill for students to develop. One of the biggest reasons students don’t do homework is that they don’t understand what they’re expected to do. To prevent this from happening, take the last five minutes of class to go over the homework together. For older children, read the instructions together and confirm that they understand what to do. For younger children, you can even do the exercises orally before they leave class. If they’re expected to write, show them how they can use the Student Book page from the lesson to help them spell words if they’re unsure. A little bit of support in class can help students become independent at home.
Answers supplied by Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Karen Frazier Tsai and Ritsuko Kagawa Nakata.
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