My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Today’s Education Reform Rant Brought to You by the Letter “C”

I was once sitting among some colleagues who were discussing the difficulties our ELL students have with spelling – like kids who write “whase” for “was”. Teaching spelling is even trickier when your population’s first language has different sounds, and different sounds represented by letters that differ from English (if they have any experience with letter alphabets or writing at all).

We use Words Their Way, which is essentially a phonics program that encourages deductive reasoning, and uses pictures or word cards, all of which have proven problematic for classes such as mine. Firstly because when doing sound sorts with word cards usually kids just look and see that “mat” looks like “sat” and not “set”, and group them by letters rather than sounds, which they’re supposed to be noticing. While this might be useful for students if you’re teaching them the letters in the English language, but the usefulness even then is limited. Secondly, the picture cards, where they match pictures by the sounds in the words they represent, require vocabulary knowledge! You have to know the picture you are looking at is of a “hen” to see how it fits with “pen”.

Add to this the fact that spelling is arbitrary. There is no inherent logic that the squiggle that looks like a “c” should make the /k/ sound rather than the letter “g”. I know kids don’t need to know that, but teachers and curriculum authors ought to! Besides, spelling in English is so irregular that teaching rules has never proven too helpful (in my experience) because there is also a “however…” tacked onto the end if it.

So, it really struck me as such a surprise when I overheard a fellow teacher say, “No matter how many times I remind them, they still spell ‘excited’ as ‘exited’”. I responded by saying, (in the positive scenario, assuming the kid doesn’t have other problems or difficulties), “There’s a similar word in Spanish but spelled “exitoso”, and maybe that’s why.” And this person paused and replied emphatically, “But you can hear the c,” and then pronounced the word slowly.

What made me really stop in this comment is that despite knowing that ‘c’ can make more than 1 sound, what she didn’t know was that letters don’t actually “make” sounds. They are just representations of sound, and often they represent very different ones (between and within languages), which can reinforce confusion by ELLs and likely not just ELLs.

For example, if I’m thinking of something to say in Spanish or Italian that has the letters “ch” in it, which is pronounced differently in the two languages, I first think to myself how “Che” is said in Spanish, and then I know which sound I need to make. The Italian pronunciation for “ch”, is represented in English by the letters k, c, and also ch (think character). And both Spanish and Italian have their trilled “r” sounds that most people think English doesn’t have. We have one of them. Just say the word ladder out loud and compare what your tongue does to either the Spanish pero, if you know it, to see the similarities, or to the English “made” to see how our “d” at the end of a word differs when “d” is in the middle. Now do you want to teach kids how to pronounce words in English, or how to spell that way? A little trickier, isn’t it, when you think of all the sounds we actually make.

But I digress.

This is NOT a dig at this person, or at teachers — because many of us have not had the experience of really learning a foreign language, or of taking a linguistics class that really invite us to rethink the written language differently from its sound system, or phonetics. And perhaps the way we teach spelling would be different if teachers were encouraged to reflect on their teaching and their particular population’s needs in deeper ways, instead of just being given a book they are required to use three times a week.

I’d like you to consider: this is someone who actually has years of experience with ELLs and still doesn’t understand some key aspects of their learning. So imagine the true value of someone with no experience with ELLs — and I don’t mean the teachers now, but the politicians and others who actually write policy and determine teacher training and curricula — imagine them having the impact they do on our education system.

And we’re just talking about spelling here.

If this question of English orthography and phonetics interests you, I suggest reading this.

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8 thoughts on “Today’s Education Reform Rant Brought to You by the Letter “C”

  1. Oh, I know what you mean! And my pupils’ first language is not a Latin based one (Hebrew)!
    Naomi

  2. So, we use Words Their Way also, and have a lot of the the same problems. I do like that the kids can see patterns, and I used it with my ELLs, but my complaint about the program is that it has no meaningful context for ELLs. It’s just letters and words. They might be able to learn the vowel patterns and spell the words, but they still might not know the meaning of the words.

    As for the breaking the rules thing, actually I went to the initial big WTW training our district did (Shane Templeton himself spoke) and learned that there are more things that make sense and follow a logistical pattern than we realize. The whole “exciting” scenario? If the teacher would go back and show the students that the root word is excite and point out that there’s a long vowel pattern where there’s not in exit (short i), maybe that would help. A lot of WTW actually shows you those suffix patterns. BUT they’re in Syllable Juncture and Derivational Constancy and I never usually get that far with my ELLs!

    Great post!

    • Yes there are patterns but the whole concept of “long” and “short” vowels actually doesn’t exist in the realm of linguistics. It was dreamt up by educators (actually I don’t know who dreamt it up, but I do know it was done so for the purpose of teaching). And I find teaching children IPA symbols might even benefit them more since they could transfer sound knowledge between languages, facilitating deeper language learning.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. In my youth, I really expected such great things to have happened by the 21st century. No one could imagine my great disappointment ~~ particularly in the education field. Good to know there are teachers out there who have not yet given up! Hats off to you!

  4. Interesting!! I think that this is even more difficult for those of us who are over thirty and learned all our letter and sounds on Sesame street. We were taught that letters essentially are sounds. I didn’t make the leap until a few years ago when I had a student who has a language processing disorder. Any concept that involved representation (symbols in math, letters) was very difficult for him to process and apply. I never considered the difficulty this could represent for ELL students (I have never had an ELL student – small, Caucasian community). I do, however, have a team mate who grew up in Pittsburgh. She often has trouble with teaching spelling patterns because of her dialect.

    Thanks for the insight!

    Heather Mathews
    First Grade Teacher
    Hudson, WI

    • I love your comment about your Pittsburgh friend. Pretty funny. I actually remember in kindergarten (in NJ), the teacher trying to teach us how log and dog had the same vowel sound and yet she pronounced dog as dawg!

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