BY ALECSANDRA MACIEL AMERICAN SCHOOL OF RECIFE
When I wrote my graduation thesis at College about phonetics, I had no idea about how useful it would be to me when I started to teach in an international school some years later. I simply chose to write something about Phonology because I had always been fascinated by it. But when I had the opportunity to teach in an international school I finally found out how useful all of it was to me. For those who don`t know it, the literacy process in my native language (Portuguese) is very different from how people become literate in English. In Portuguese, it is crucial that we know the letter name, however, in English we should know the letter sound so that we can link those sounds and start to read words. It is nothing but a phonetic procedure. As a passionate language teacher, I am delighted by how these processes occur.
My first years teaching in an international school was at the Kindergarten level. In general, one of the biggest challenges I had to face was to make students understand that each letter has one sound and one name in English. By that time, I had Brazilians, Italians, Spanish and Turkish students in my group. According to my experience, in this grade level we normally work on the phonemes first and then we consolidate each of the sounds so that the pupils can keep them in their minds. Then we face another challenge that is the fact that some letters in English have more than one sound. Yes! Some letters have their short and long sounds depending on the words they form and that is why the letter A has its long sound in “bake” and it short sound in “apple” (not to mention the letters that follow it can change its sound once more as in “ball”!). Wow… so, is a 5-year-old child able to learn that? My answer is “yes”. The first piece of advice I normally give to parents that ask me how they can help their child learn is READ! Reading is a fundamental practice to any child, especially to the ones who have embarked on the literacy journey as it is the most effective way of building the “language” neural connections in their growing brains.
Also, students in Kindergarten are introduced to high frequency words for the first time. These words (also known as sight words) are intended to be memorized. I know it may sound strange for those who were raised in Portuguese and Spanish, however it is an ordinary part of the literacy process in English. Students should be able to look at these words and remember how they sound. It is similar to the process of looking at a logo and remembering what brand it is.
Regarding my recent experience teaching a Pre-K group, I can say that in terms of time it is more flexible than Kindergarten. We normally have more time to work on each letter and develop more projects such as thematic days, songs, sensory activities, nursery rhymes, poems, etc. On the other hand, at the age of 4/5 children still need to develop their fine motor skills and develop an acceptable pencil grip, and quite often we need to start to working on them as soon as possible. Activities to help students develop these skills are introduced due to fine motor movements involving the coordination of small muscles in the hands and fingers. Strong fine motor skills are essential to complete tasks such as holding pencils to color and write and therefore it is important than we make use of materials in classes and enlist parent support at home.
In Pre-K, letter names and sounds are both taught in class but my feeling is that most of the students need more time to consolidate them properly and that it will probably happen more in Kindergarten. I would say that by the time my students were in Kindergarten they seemed to be more mature and able to internalize the phonemes. Of course, we sometimes have some outstanding students who go beyond expectations but in general that is the scenario.
Taking into consideration that most of the students in international schools are bilingual, I would go even further to say that the literacy process begins in Pre-K and continues throughout the elementary school years. Most of time I meet anxious parents that ask me when their child will be able to read and I have to calm them down and explain that the literacy process is not that simple. Becoming literate is not only about being able to blend the sounds, decode, and read, but most importantly it is about being able to understand, interpret, and think critically about what you read. Therefore, building a solid foundation in the first years of preschool will surely enable students to become a literate person in the future.
You may contact Alecsandra Maciel via email