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Meet the Teacher: Phonetics for Bilingual Learners

22 January 2021



At Huili primary we are ready to start the new year full of enthusiasm and continue moving forward guiding the children through their English acquisition path. English teaching encompasses four different areas: speaking, listening, reading and writing. It is important to understand that very few children will have the same level of development in all areas, especially as a second language learner. That is why it is so important to understand that we need to spot the areas where children need the most support, very early on in the academic year, to ensure we level those areas as quickly as possible. This is where our phonics program comes in.



A very important part of our English input falls under the Read, Write Inc. programme, or what we know daily as phonics. Phonics is a complete scheme that aims to move a child from the early stages of reading to fluency and comprehension by slowly building the necessary links between sounds and words and subsequently, sentences and stories.



As with everything in Huili, we need a phonics provision with its own identity to fit our bilingual learners and those who have just started their English journey. Our provision needs to consider different sounds the children have never been exposed to in their first language speech and the fact that native children rely on making links to known vocabulary to understand how sounds work. Making these links is not something our Huili children can do at the beginning and the sounds will not be physiologically natural for them.



To address this challenge, we work very closely with our Chinese colleagues. All teachers who play a part in teaching phonics have been specifically trained by our Heads of Department and English support team, to understand how and why it works. This makes them more than apt to contribute to the process of customising our approach to best fit the needs of our children. In the early stages it is important to be able to communicate with the children and be able to explain to them how to place their tongue and where the air comes from, to get the sounds correct. This is done by our Chinese colleagues and the results are outstanding. Due to their understanding of how it works and their own expertise in bilingualism they can help the children to make those links between sound and letters very effectively.



Getting an efficient provision at the early stages, means we can start to develop the children’s vocabulary quicker. They can start their process of decoding to read short stories and will enjoy reading as more and more text becomes available to them. The evidence is clear, when we note that in G1 we started with 51% of our children in the sounds stage of phonics and after a term only 4.7% remain there and moving on to the following stage in the next few weeks.



It is important to understand where each child is in respect to the four areas of English learning. It is easy to assume a child who can speak a full sentence, is also able to read it, write it and manipulate the language within that sentence in different ways. This is not always the case. In fact, this is rarely the reality.


At Huili, our constant formative assessment allows us to have a very fluid system to move the children in and out of the different phonics groups depending on the area they need to strengthen. For instance, if a child has a green level of phonics reading but cannot use these sounds to write a sentence, they will be moved to the red group, where their early writing strategies will be strengthened through appropriate engaging activities. It is the same if a child can read at a blue level using their sounds but cannot understand what they are reading, they would be moved to an Orange group, where they can enrich their vocabulary.



Children really enjoy the approach of a fluid system for learning phonics, they are exposed to different teachers, different accents and, most importantly, a variety of different methods that develop their use of language tailored to their specific needs and moving at a pace where no child is left behind. In their eyes, they want to move on, whether it is to share with a friend in another group, or just for the novelty of being taught in a different classroom. This keeps their motivation levels high and engagement levels in the right gear.


It goes without saying that without parental engagement and support from families, this would not be as successful. Parents play a crucial role in their child’s development. A child’s enthusiasm and attitude towards learning a new language is largely shaped by the parents supporting them, helping with their homework, practicing words and reading books together. Allow children to laugh at your poor pronunciation. As a parent of a bilingual child, I understand how difficult this is, but we help to instill that a love for learning and embracing the English language is tricky but a rewarding challenge.



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