This is the full version of the article in the EL Gazette, April 2010 issue. It’s a little longer because it didn’t have to be edited to fit a particular space.
Ten years ago I wrote on the plight of students from non-Roman alphabet (NRA) cultures in multi-lingual classes, suggesting that they were treated shamefully. Language schools, academic institutions and publishers have ignored their problems, which stretch from beginner level right through to university. Private language schools were happy to enroll NRA students and shove them in classes with students from Roman alphabet (RA) cultures, leaving the teachers to sink, swim or sort it out. State ESL colleges had syllabuses prepared with little regard to the EFL / ELT concepts of structure, and very often had little or no budget for suitable materials. I met teachers who had been given a pair of scissors, a glue stick and a copy of “The Times” as materials. The University of Knotty Ash was happy enough to pocket the fees and place students on the Directing Blockbuster Movies BA (only 100 places this year), and to set them reading lists which would take an NRA student, even one with years of experience in learning English, decades to complete. Publishers were obsessed with the economics of scale, leading the major ones to throw their resources into pushing a single mega “One Size Fits All” course to a huge range of different countries (or rather, in publisher terms, “markets.”)
Whenever I’ve spoken about teaching beginners, the same question always comes up. Everyone has the problem of Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Mandarin speakers who display good speaking skills, but as soon as they’re paired with a speaker of a European language, simply can’t read instructions or exercises fast enough to maintain pace.
Global ELT textbooks don’t help. As publishers have bowed to requests for more listening, more reading development, a pronunciation syllabus, a lexical syllabus, attention to corpus frequency, attention to lexical chunking, grammar summaries, a grammar supplement, a full vocabulary index with phonetics etc. books have become denser and denser. No one regards the fact that multiple columns of text, a variety of fonts (caps, lower case, print script, handwriting all with their different letter shapes), coloured backgrounds, different sizes and so on interfere with reading for NRA students. If you’re struggling with reading the normal 26 letters at speed, the introduction of phonetic transcripts at lower levels is not helpful.
One college head told me there were at least 400,000 people in the UK from NRA cultures who cannot read or write at all in English. The majority are not “illiterate” because they can read and write in their own language, whether it’s a linear phonetic script like Arabic or Farsi, or whether it’s a pictographic language, such as Chinese. ESL teachers are noting a growing number who because of interrupted education in their home countries, cannot read or write in their native language either.
The phrase “functionally illiterate” has become non-PC, but there are further numbers who read or write so slowly that they have no chance of coping in a situation with speakers of European languages. Then there’s a further group, in tertiary education, who can certainly read and write, but still cannot get near matching the processing speeds of students whose native language uses the same alphabet.
The challenge is to help these people to acquire greater mechanical proficiency in reading. We’re not discussing reading skills development, not even “learning English” but simply the processing of shapes on the page and interpreting them as sounds. For the vast majority, we’re not discussing learning disabilities either. Mostly, we need to teach already literate people to “crack the code” of a different symbol to sound relationships, to learn to combine them and to do so at speed. This will involve meeting a large number of spelling / pronunciation rules, but English does not “lack rules” (as some people have said). On the contrary it has lots of rules, most of which are sufficiently consistent.
Children’s material has often been the resort for desperate teachers, but is discouraging for adults and young adults, and in any case comes from exactly the opposite direction. When you have a kid’s reader with The dog got on the log and sat in the fog, the child already knows the meanings of the words, which will be illustrated in any case. Teachers of phonics schemes are aware that the illustration dominates, so it is suggested that nonsense words (gof, pog, nog) are used to check concept. The NRA learner knows neither the meaning, nor the structure (past simple: got, sat) nor the symbols. Also, in a linear language, direction and segmentation are crucial. Like a native speaker dyslexic, speakers of pictographic languages will find it harder to detect the difference between nat, tan and ant; or between was and saw.
Take the lower level learner as an example. Most very easy two page first units in textbooks have at least twenty distinct words, many of which are either “irregular” (you, I, the, two, one) or follow minor spelling rules (he, me, we, she). That’s excluding headings and instructions. Some have thirty or forty distinct words. Because it was designed with Roman alphabet cultures in mind, one recent textbook has the names Keira Knightley and Andrea Bocelli in unit one. How do you think that undermines the confidence of the Arabic or Chinese speaker who simply can’t pronounce them by looking (and may not know who they are), even though their classmates from Europe have no problem? What’s wrong with a text about Tom, Dan, Meg and Ann?
Adult students from NRA cultures are overloaded by trying to grapple with meaning, context, pronunciation, intonation, structure while also struggling with basic sound / symbol relations. The breakthrough is to take (a) meaning and (b) sound / letter processing as distinct and separate goals. By focussing on processing the sounds, students can progress and improve reading speeds rapidly. The focus of a lesson is code-cracking. To add interest, a small number of words are illustrated and given meaning because this gives students something concrete to associate the sounds with, but most words are used as part of a code-cracking exercise only. One teacher said that he’d been learning Arabic for twenty years, but would still find this sort of programmed approach highly useful in improving his reading speed.
In producing materials, we were very aware of the ubiquity of English letters and words internationally on signs and logos and made use of this with many photos. This sort of work is exhausting for the student, and we have found that little and often produces the best results. Ten minutes a day for five or six days a week will make a major difference. We suggest that a teacher demonstrates and works in class regularly, but that students also work alone with a CD recording in between and for short spells. The non-focus on meaning and communication seems blasphemous to many teachers, but the impact on processing speeds is remarkable. Moreover, the students themselves know full-well that this is their problem, and are prepared to make the separation.