Big Questions in ELT #KELTchat: Right time to introduce R & W

The last KELTchat of the year was as stimulating as usually PLN chats are. I’m not a regular, or haven’t been a regular of twitter chats but thanks to Mike Griffin I participated last Sunday. I’m glad I did. Different topics came up and were discussed. I’m not really going to try to capture everyone’s response in this follow-up post, only the questions mainly and use it as a way to reflect on my own knowledge of the subject as I understand it today, meaning that it might change as my studies in literacy and applied linguistics continue to share me as an educator and my practice. When comes to ELT this is a big questions for me too. So I thank Anne for asking it.

Here’s the Question: When is the right time to introduce reading and writing to young learners?

Other Qs that came up to explore the BQ!

What would make it the “right time?” And, doesn’t other factors like ability matter as well? Do you mean ideal age? ability, age, number of words learned. What else? needs? (meaning (potential) future needs of English) and stakeholders’ wants and perceptions? The relationship between what you’d be doing with reading and writing and holistic development? I also thought about this “introduce” cuz maybe it just means a brief intro without expectation of production?

Thinking about it

When comes to the acquisition of written language, so much comes into play. Much more than just considering words represented through written symbols and spelling or saying them out aloud. That might seem obvious to say, but in practice that’s what reading and writing become, especially in the EFL/ESL classroom as I have observed and practiced myself in the past (after reading Geoff’s Christmas Carol parody, it makes me feel like I’m seeing the first spirit hauting me). Futhermore, we tend also to consider reading and writing from the point of view of adults because they have already mastered the written code in their own language. But children learning to speak their L1, and then later make sense of the written code around them is just as complex and in stages as if they were learning a new language. It’s developmental¹. Something we don’t seem to take notice of. Or putting it in another way, even if older children, teenagers or adults can read in their own language, that does not mean that they can naturally transfer that to another language because each language has its own system, be it spoken or written. Apart from understanding that written symbols represent sounds and together they create words that express thoughts… no much more will make any sense until they learn or acquire the new system. Through listening and pronunciation instruction, the spoken language. But what about the written language with all the complex rules out there? How does that work for the ESL/EFL learner? Especially those learning it in a classroom?

So to begin with, are we talking about children learning their first language(s) spoken and written language? If so, the process would need to be considered from the stand point of the child development as a whole. As this is a subject close to my heart and my studies in university, so let me begin by reflecting on this first.

Lightbrown and Spada affirms that by the age of four, most children can ask questions, give commands, report real events, and create stories about imaginary ones, using correct word order and grammatical markers most of the time.[..] And they continue to learn vocabulary at the rate of several words A DAY.

I’m considering here a child whose development was nurtured by his/her caretaker and by the time the child is exposed to written language, the child already understands the social purpose of those written symbols. Now, they have to connect sound to writing. When does that happen? It depends on how the children are nurtured by those who care for them. If children interaction with adults is rich and meaningful and if reading/writing are part of the adults in the children’s life, the chances that children will understand the social function of the written language is great and as they do, they will also become curious about what do these symbols written down on various places around them really represent. Therefore, reading becomes natural part of the child’s life and easier to acquire. However, children who do not go through rich experiences with the oral and written language will have more difficult in acquiring the written system. Generally speaking this is what happens.

Children have massive exposure to input (if they live in a rich environment) when they are learning their first language and the development phases they go through trying to use it until by the age of four being able to use it well to communicate and by functioning in social interactions gives them a tremendous advantage and here is the major difference between  L1 users and L2 learners when comes to know the language or not knowing at all.

Writing Skills

For children learning their first language, reading is part of everyday life, writing depends on their fine motor skills development that does not start with letters but with drawings. A misconception is to look at the children drawing as just that. Drawing is making sense of the world around them. It is an instrument of communication. Next time you are with a child, invite them to draw and afterwards have a conversation about it. Take it beyond “oh! that’s cute”. Ask them what it is, etc. You will be amazed. When they get to pre-school stage those drawings become more well-defined. And then, letters start to take shape.

But what is writing? The ability to handwrite or to encode? Emanuel who is 4 is able to type words in the computer to make searches on Google. He is still in the pre-writing stage, but if he want to access NASA website, he just types it out or the word PLANETS, and Google gives him links that he can easily identify by finding the word NASA (decoding). He has even discovered that with Google, he doesn’t even have to type out the whole word to get where he wants.

Decoding written language is about making sense of what is written and enconding is the ability to put the symbols back together accurately.

Handwriting ability is more complex and takes the child in a journey that goes from non-sense lines to the representation of things or concepts, to then arrive at the representation of words. Let’s also take into consideration fine motor skills development.

Ms Natalie Chew explains well what involves learning to write for a child in her article Teach Your Child to Write the Right Way. #worth reading #pretty short article

My Emanuel has developed intellectually well and is able to use a computer like a boss, but his handwriting ability is still of a child who is 2-3 years old.

My own contribution to Anne’s Big Question

We are talking about ELT right? Then, the answer will be definitely different for native kids. This is first thing to keep in mind.

Does the child understand what the printed words are, and that they represent words spoken? For children words can be just drawing/pictures. It takes time for them to make this connection. Emanuel is 4 and already makes this connection and asks me to read for him everything he sees around.

Can we really answer the question when it is the right time and how to approach it without considering the child’s physical and intellectual development?

I don’t think so. I just had the opportunity to work with a group of learners who were 6 and learning to read and write in L1. Their knowledge of English was close to zero. And another group who were 7 in the 2nd grade. Both groups were ready to be introduced to reading and writing in L2 considering the physical and intelectual as they were learning to do it in their own language, but our problem was lack of language knowledge. The second group vocabulary consisted of very simple words related to animals, classroom objects, colors, etc. Both groups could not say the alphabet, nor could they spell any word. Some students in the second group could decode simple words like cat, dog, apple, but mostly by pronouncing them innacurately. And couldn’t understand spoken language apart from those simple words mentioned before.

For second language learners those written letters are meaningless until they can link them to spoken language and meaning. When children know in L1 that they can represent spoken language with written symbols (letters), they will know that they can do that in L2 as well. But they can’t link to it any meaning and sound leaving L2 learners with a lot to learn at once depending on their age, expectations of the parents and school board, curriculum they attend. Is it fair to put such a burden on learners especially at young age? Wouldn’t be better to create an environment that language could be acquired through songs, play, stories and interaction with caretakers in English? Why do young children have to produce language when they are not ready for it? And what is the role of L1 in the development of Young Learners? To answer all these questions or to offer us a better way to develop learners second language knowledge, I’ll send US all to Juan Uribe’s website. The four posts below explains the stages a child goes through while learning English affectively.

Pre-production – hints and ways to interact with very young learners and true beginners.
Early Production – helping students to produce their very first words in a success oriented way.
Speech Emergence – letting students make their very own sentences. My favorite phase!
Intermediate Fluency – refining students’ speech through humanistic strategies.
To ELT bloggers and teachers out there, putting this post together was really intense and I might have over stressed some of the points. If there is any point which you feel like arguing against, discussing further or questioning, I’d appreciate. I’m always interested to know If I was able to convey my thoughts well and improve my own written communication skills.
Anne, this is just an attempt to raise the issue. Most of the time, even if we know the right answers to big questions, it doesn’t mean we will be able to put them into practice. A shame though. One of the participants said that what stakeholders’ wants and their perceptions might count more than our own knowledge and perception. And I totally agree with that. But I also think that we need to consider child development and try to defend what is right for the children. I love how Juan Uribe sees the process of learning/acquiring language for YLs. Mike pointed out that introduce does not mean expect the child to produce language, and that is an interesting point. Unfortunally that is not what happens in reality. Learners are expected to produce and show that they can do it. After all isn’t that why skills and language are compartmentalized? So it can be tested later and results be shown?
Couple of books I like and the second one I bought this year before starting the classes I mentioned above.  Elizabeth Claire has the survival kit e-books with lots of ideas to develop learners language through repetition of chunks in meaningful interaction with the language as well as stories, play, movement, etc. Although she talks about ESL, I found it to be pertinent to my own context (EFL) as well.

¹ How languages are learned. Lightbrown and Spada 4th edition.

Phonics for English Language Learners? What the ESL teacher Needs to know. Elizabeth Claire. 2010


One thought on “Big Questions in ELT #KELTchat: Right time to introduce R & W

  1. Pingback: Pencil Grip through Play | A Journey in 2 Languages

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