A world of phonics for the non-native speaker of English
Prof. Stella Palavecino, M.A.
When I came across Phonics I fell in love with this approach for teaching reading and writing. It is a popular method, especially designed for native speakers of English. It is a creative approach that quickly helps learners decode the English alphabet, by relating letters to sounds (Celce-Murcia et al., 2008). Interestingly, it has also been welcome and widely used in EFL classrooms, yet some adjustments have proved vital.
Created for young native speakers, this approach implies a prior mastery of English sounds. Conversely, EFL students should learn new words and sounds before getting into actual phonics. Therefore, there are extra steps that EFL teachers should take: the teaching of new words containing new sounds. A further problem: The existing phonics material does not cover non-native speakers’ needs (Jenkins, 2000). EFL teachers need to think about the particular sounds that EFL learners need to acquire.
Even if non-native English-speaking children are taught to read and write in their mother tongue through phonics, their strategies are untransferable to English. For example, when an EFL learner is taught the word ‘three’, they may end up producing >free< or >tree< if the needed consonant sound is not part of their mother tongue. >TH< may be simple in Peninsular (Spain) Spanish, where teachers may relate the articulation of >TH< sound to ‘Cecilia’ or ‘zanahoria.’ In Spanish-speaking Latin America, this articulation has to be acquired, as the voiceless dental fricative >TH< is non-existent. It is very difficult to avoid a habitual articulation of the mother tongue (Swam & Bernard, 2001).
How can EFL teachers fight the interference of the mother tongue, and still use an approach like phonics, which makes learning enjoyable? To put it in Vygostkian terms, the mother tongue may be the starting point where new articulatory habits begin, and the new sounds will emerge through the activation of the “zone of proximal development” (Read, 2011). In River-Plate (Argentine) Spanish, >TH< is not found. It may be articulated when people put their tongue out. Still, speakers need to push some air out: This combination of movement and sound is the articulation that triggers the “zone of proximal development.” If teachers were to describe all the procedure to young learners, this procedure would simply be forgotten, as meta-language cannot be used with children. A memorable story —whose conflict includes the new sound— may be the scaffold needed
Stories are really important because they create an emotional bond with children. A sound like >TH< should be “noticed” in the conflict of a story and will be noticed before it is acquired. This is in keeping with the Noticing Hypothesis (Schmidt, 1993). Teachers need to create a magical learning environment, with perfect scaffolds to introduce the sounds to change articulatory habits (Palavecino, 2021).
An approach to acquire new sounds is of foremost importance before plunging in phonics. EFL learners , need to learn new words, native speakers already know, and those words are linked to new sounds that EFL learners must acquired if they are inexistent in the mother tongue. Anyway, How can we teach new words, new sounds, new articulatory habits and make it effective? Can you say put the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge and push forward to say >j< or >g< ? . That will be overwhelming. specially with beginners. I suggest an approach to new articulation that is more brain friendly.
Have you ever heard about the effect of stories and the brain?. It is interesting that our brain is framed for storytelling . Stories are powerful because they create an emotional bond with the audience. Our brain is prepared to remember things that are connected to emotions. When we enjoy an activity, the brain releases a chemical called oxytocin, that is the chemical of pleasure, and if we sympathyze with the characters, dopamine, the chemical of sympathy and love is released. No matter how good or bad your learners are at remembering things, they will remember what is stuck in emotions, laughter, and what surprises them.
There are additional elements that are activated through stories like Neural Coupling. A story activates parts in the brain that allows the listener to turn the story into their own ideas and experience. You remember more what you experience yourself.
Why not change articulatory behaviour by changing our brain chemistry through stories?
This is the approach I am suggesting. . What if we created a memorable story whose conflict has to do with the sound that needs to be noticed? Especially the place of articulation that is so difficult to show. Maybe the scaffold that was needed. The Missing link between EFL phonics and Phonics per sei. And at the same time, teachers would approach to the teaching of sounds differently. It will be like killing two birds with one stone
Unlike literature, these stories that I dare call `emo-pron’ stories, a word made up from the blending of emotions and pronunciation, introduce a conflict that is NOT solved with a moral, but by acquiring a new articulatory habit, that will be memorable because stories are powerful , and create that emotional bonds with the audience.
In literature, conflicts are settled differently. EFL phonics stories are solved through a fantasy world containing the new articulation. Some key features in an EFL story include:
The story will help relate sound to spelling. Once memory is activated, training to hear the sounds in words follows (Reilly & Reilly, 2005).
In short, children enter the imaginative world that the story creates (Palavecino, 2022). When new sounds are presented in familiar narrative forms, the memory structure facilitates the brain’s retention of that information. These stories have the potential to hook children to the solution of the problem. The solution often comes when they discover the character in words. The author of this paper has created a collection of phonics stories, songs and games for what she has dared call EFL Phonics. Every teacher can create their own EFL world of phonics as well.
Celce-Murcia, M. et al. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation. A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge University Press.
Jenkins J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford University Press.
Palavecino S. (2021). ‘Pronunciation Teaching Environments that can nourish your mind, heart and soul.’ IATEFL Pronsig Conference. October 2021.
Palavecino, S. (2022). ‘EFL Story Books & Resources.’ https://eflphonics.com.ar/efl-phonics-story-books.
Schmidt, R (1993). ‘Awareness and Second Language Acquisition.’ Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 13.206-26
Read, C. (2011). ‘Carol Read’s ABC of Teaching Children.’ https://carolread. wordpress.com/2011/08/08/z-is-for-zone-of-proximal-development.
Swam M. & Bernard S. (2001). Learner English Second Edition. A Teacher guide to interference and other problems. Cambridge University Press.
Reilly, J. & Reilly, V. (2005). Writing with Children. Oxford University Press.
 Prof. Stella Palavecino (M.A.) is a graduate teacher, a teacher trainer and a materials designer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A validated specialist in Phonetics and Phonology, she holds postgraduate degrees in Higher Education, ICT and Pedagogy. She has published extensively and has delivered presentations in the fields of phonology and pronunciation coaching, ICT tools applied to pronunciation teaching, language laboratories and phonetics pedagogy at various ESL/EFL symposia. She is also a Pronsig scholarship winner for the IATEFL 2020 annual conference.
She currently lectures in Phonetics and Phonology I and II, and English Diction at Schools of Teacher Education and Translation Programmes. She is a founding member of B.A. English House, where she has designed a special fellowship programme in EFL Education, offered to college students from UK universities. In association with the British Council and teacher education institutions, she has organized webinars, conferences and study groups that promote continuing professional development. As a language consultant, she has widely reviewed published materials of her field.