A sound approach to reading English

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am

SEMANTIC, SYNTACTIC, sequential, systematic. There are fancy words aplenty in the field of reading education but are they helpful in identifying the best way forward when teaching Hong Kong's Cantonese-speaking children to read and write in English?

Unfortunately, the growing body of scientific research in this area has yet to have any real impact in Hong Kong education.

Deep in the recesses of the University of Hong Kong, ground-breaking brain research conducted by Dr Tan Li-hai shows there are significant differences in the way the human brain processes alphabetic written scripts, such as English, and non-alphabetic scripts, such as Chinese.

Thanks to the neurological discoveries of Dr Tan and his colleagues and the accumulated evidence from hundreds of other scientific studies of alphabetic reading over the past 20 years or more, the writing is clearly on the wall: alphabetic writing systems operate through direct connections between letters and sounds.

Many of these scientific studies have found their way into an authoritative new collection of reading research findings, published last month by Blackwell in the UK. Entitled The Science of Reading: A Handbook, the list of contributors reads like an international Who's Who of the psychology of reading.

It should be an essential reference work for anyone intending to provide advice on reading to classroom teachers and parents, especially those who work with bi-scriptal students. One entire section of the book is devoted to the reading skills demanded by different writing systems.

In the face of this mountain of scientific evidence regarding the different reading skills required by different written scripts, it is almost beyond belief that workshops on English teaching have been conducted in Hong Kong in the last month advocating teaching English reading 'Chinese-style'.

At one such gathering a 'semantic and syntactic' approach to English reading was called for. This is a high-sounding way of saying it is fine for students to skip and to guess the meanings of unknown words from their context, rather than make any attempt to engage with them directly.

In Chinese reading, one often has to guess meaning from context. This is the case in English reading too, but getting into the habit of skipping words will mean the student completely misses the 'alphabetic bonuses' of knowing how to pronounce the new word and being able to add it to their active vocabulary.

When teachers emphasise only the meaning of text, 'Chinese-style', children learning to read English completely miss out on the beauty of alphabetic reading as a self-teaching mechanism.

Whenever a young reader of English succeeds in sounding-out a new word by themselves by blending its sounds together, there is a feeling of elation - not just for the child, but also for his or her teachers and parents. Such eureka moments happen all too rarely in English lessons in Hong Kong.

Alphabetic reading is designed to operate on the basis of letters corresponding to sounds and readers need to be able to decode words into their component sounds. Once readers learning an alphabetic script have a genuine grasp of this principle, they are able to read independently and their vocabulary will continue to grow by itself through further reading.

Urging children who cannot decode an alphabetic script to simply read more can be counter-productive. They will only be faced with more new words and more frustration. Without the necessary tools to open up new words, there is little motivation to read anything beyond compulsory texts.

It is a tragedy that so few Hong Kong learners of English have any idea of the simple but powerful nature of an alphabetic script. To deny generation after generation of English learners the key to alphabetic reading verges on systematic linguistic torture.

Scores of native English-speaking teachers (NETs) in Hong Kong's primary and secondary schools meet continual resistance to their efforts to establish serious, sequential phonics programmes in schools. Many are forced to sit through meetings and workshops on English reading strategies they know to be ineffective, if not counter-productive.

When arguing, for instance, against the destructive practice of Chinese-style seen-dictation, in which words are memorised before dictation is given, NETs' pleas for change are all too often met with the response: 'I was taught that way, and it worked for me.'

Of course, memory plays a big role in language learning but the direct transfer of a Chinese script learning method to an alphabetic language is absurd.

In fact, the English language lends itself perfectly to unseen dictation, in which learners have to listen closely to every sound rather than memorising each stroke.

While far too many Hong Kong schools have been either hostile or lukewarm in their response to the use of phonics, the UK government has made the practice mandatory. There, it is no longer a question of whether phonics is essential, it is about finding the most effective ways of using it.

There have been some pockets of success in teaching using phonics by NETs in Hong Kong primary schools but the children's newly acquired decoding skills need to be nurtured throughout the primary and secondary years.

In my own research with local EMI secondary-school students, I found those who had commenced their primary education in Canada had some residual, mainly consonant-related phonics skills, but the subsequent years of Chinese-style dictation and memorised vocabulary lists had taken their toll and these students were only marginally better than their Hong Kong-educated peers at decoding new words.

Phonics skills are the most important literacy tools we can give our Cantonese-speaking learners of English. Unfortunately, as long as 'skip-and-guess' and seen-dictation rule in the SAR's English classrooms, we will not see any improvements in our learners' attitudes towards the language.

They will continue to see English words as 'those ugly gweilo strokes', as they were once described to me by a Chinese teaching colleague.

Pauline Bunce is a former NET, who is now teaching humanities subjects in an international school and undertaking doctoral studies in reading education.