Phonology and Adolescent English Language Learners

Christine Olson, Saint Xavier University

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Phonology is an important area of linguistics to consider when teaching English Language Learners. Phonology, the study of the sound systems of a language, is concerned with what sounds are in a language and what rules are for combining those sounds into larger units (Rowe & Levine, 2009). With proper support, younger students have an easier time acquiring a second language than adolescents. Adolescents have a developed phonology system in their first language, which interferes with learning a second language. Adolescent English Language Learners may mispronounce words, have difficulty spelling words, and may have difficulty decoding words while reading.

In order to support adolescent English Language Learners, teachers need to enhance the students’ awareness of speech sounds in the second language. Adolescent English Language Learners benefit from practicing the speech sounds of the new language. It is important for teachers to determine where their English Language Learners are having difficulty. Specifically, what sounds will each student have to practice? Once teachers determine where their students may need extra support, teachers can begin to work with their students on correct pronunciation, segmenting sounds, and/or decoding. While this may seem like a tedious task for teachers and students, there are many activities that can be adapted or implemented to address the phonological needs of English Language Learners.
  • Have students read their work aloud in class, e.g., predictions for a science experiment, reflections on a poem, or answers to questions on a worksheet. This gives English Language Learners ample opportunities to practice their speaking and decoding skills. Additionally, this allows the teacher to observe a student’s progress, and provides the opportunity for the teacher to give the student feedback privately.
  • Have a class library that includes Hi-Lo books and give students opportunities to read these books aloud. These books are written at lower reading levels but on topics that interest older students. This allows English Language Learners more exposure to written language without reaching their frustration level.
  • Model correct pronunciation of new words or recast mispronounced words for students. Find a word that can serve as a “code word” to trigger correct pronunciation of a problem sound. Once problem sounds have been identified, work with the student to determine a word for each problem sound that can serve as a reminder for that sound. On the student’s name tag or back of the student ID, affix a sticker or a small picture of the word to serve as a reminder. Additionally, work with one problem sound at a time. Trying to conquer multiple problem sounds may overwhelm the student and hinder progress.
Finally, celebrate even the slightest improvement with a high five, praise, a sticker or a note of recognition. With adolescents, praise may have to be in the form of a compliment. Celebrating each step will serve as motivation for the student and will help increase their confidence and self-esteem in learning a second language. 
Christine Olson is a graduate students studying special education with an endorsement in ESL at Saint Xavier University, Chicago, Illinois. 


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The ITBE Link - Summer 2014 - Volume 42 Number 2

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