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Trying out phonic-based approaches with ESOL students – an action research approach

By Laura Kehdi – Westway Trust. Member of PDNorth’s online practitioner action research group

I am currently teaching ESOL pre-entry at Westway Trust and I just love it, as it is very rewarding. I have based my research on a pre-entry group of lovely international students, who I teach on Mondays and Wednesdays for two and a half hours per lesson. Each student has a different background, nationality and age. Most of them are illiterate and many also have learning differences and difficulties. Many speak Arabic as their first language, others speak Portuguese, Spanish and Farsi.


Stage 1: Getting feedback from students

Image by Kidaha on Pixabay

I asked my students what they like about my lessons, what they don’t like, and what they would like to continue doing. As they are beginners, I did this by talking to them directly (using translation when necessary), and by taking notes. Their response didn’t surprise me at all; they were all very happy and enthusiastic about what we are currently doing. However, what everyone really wanted to be able to do was to keep trying to learn how to read and write certain words. In essence the group want to become literate, which as an ESOL teacher, is my aim for them too! Following some phonics training our team accessed in November as part of our Outstanding Teaching and Learning (OTLA) CPD, a particular approach caught my attention – something so simple but so useful at the same time. I had never thought of it before, and I felt it could potentially help my students very much when it came to learning a new word, especially when writing and reading it.


Stage 2 implementing a new teaching strategy: From copy and speak to copy, copy, copy, no copy, check!

The technique I first tried out with students is focused on copying words while speaking them at the same time. So, while a student is writing one word, it is extremely helpful to speak the sound of each letter instead of being silent. However, notice that it is the sound of the word that we are taking in consideration, not the name of the letters. So, for example, with the word “cook”, students would say k-ʊ-k (c-oo-k), and not see-ou-ou-key / c-o-o-k.

I shared this strategy with my students, as a new way of practising and learning a new word while becoming more independent; in fact, students can use this strategy anytime and anywhere, without the teacher‘s help. However, I found that just copying the words wasn’t enough for students to both understand the word and to check how much they had actually learned. Building on my reflections, my work with students, and my learning during the CPD course, I developed the following exercise: copy, copy, copy, no copy, check!

STEP 1 Copy, copy, copy

Students copy the word multiple times and concurrently speak the sound of the word (we copied the same word at least 10 times).

STEP 2 No copy

Students cover the sheet where they have copied the word many times. On another sheet, they then try to write the word without copying, just one time.

STEP 3 Check!

Students compare the word they have written without copying (step 2) with the original word (step 1). Students can then see if the word is correct, how many letters were right and how many were wrong – by doing so, students can see by themselves what was correct and what they need to practise.

Repeat this cycle as many times as needed with the same word. Once students feel confident with the word chosen, they can change it and start all over again with another word. I found that it was helpful to stress the name of the steps ‘copy, copy, copy, no copy, check!’ almost like a chant, as this was very helpful for students to memorise the sequence of the exercise, which also helped promote students’ independence.


Stage 3: Reflecting on the results of copy, copy, no copy, check!

I am very pleased with the outcome of the activity so far; I could see huge improvements in every student! For instance:

  • Most of the students can remember and write the word at stage 2 100% correctly. I was impressed on how much copying while speaking the sound of the word, could help students to memorising it – incredible!
  • A few students did not write the word completely correctly. However, I saw a huge improvement in my group. Sometimes from one letter correct to three or four.
  • Speaking the word is key. The sound itself massively helps students at stage 2, when they have to remember the spelling of the word without copying it. Students have combined and memorised the letter and the sound together, therefore this helps them with remembering each letter of the word when saying it.

A key finding from this intervention is that it has helped students to become much more independent when studying a new word. They learn how to practise, to check and correct the word by themselves, and not with the help of the teacher as usual. This is a huge step, especially for illiterate pre-entry ESOL students. 

There are however situations where this approach could be less successful; it is helpful to be aware of these problems, to avoid disappointment. For instance:

  • Students might not be aware nor confident enough with the pronunciation of the word. Make sure the teacher does a lot of drilling first and records the word with the student’s phone to help them and to promote self-study.
  • Students might start spelling the word (name of the letters) instead of speaking the sound of it. For example, with the word “cook”, students would say see-ow-ow-key / c-o-o-k, but actually they must say k-ʊ-k (c-oo-k).
  • Students might struggle with speaking the sound of the word and copying/writing it at the same time. For example, some of them might have just started copying the first letter but finished to pronounce the whole word already. Teacher’s must show students a few examples on the board first, and the stress the fact that writing and speaking must be concurrently.
  • Many students forget to continue speaking after a while. They get back to what they used to do, which was copying without any sound. Make sure you always monitor and encourage students to persist with the nature of the exercise.
  • Students might struggle with remembering the chant at first. Make sure to reinforce this as it helps students to be independent, knowing what to do without any help. Without the chant, it is extremely difficult for students to remember what to do at every stage, especially at pre-entry levels.

Stage 4 – Concluding thoughts and next steps

I am truly pleased on the very positive results I had with my group. I believe that having included the technique as a three-stage cycle improved the outcome even more. This activity works very well not only when it comes to helping students, (especially those who are just beginning to learn to read and write), to learn and practise a new word, but also to promote self-study. I designed this activity for pre-entry students, but it can be adapted and used with higher levels too. For example, instead of learning one word, students might want to practise a whole sentence. Timewise, the exercise can be done in 5 minutes or in 15 – do it as much as it is needed, I would say. I intend to keep adapting my approaches based on learner feedback and my observations, and I will continue engaging in action research as a way of reflecting upon the strategies I develop to support my learners.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to engage in action research and to work on such an enjoyable and important project. I hope that many teachers will find this activity as useful and efficient as I did, and that they will use it to help students to become literate and more independent.