English more than just alphabet soup

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2006, 12:00am

Research I've conducted into the English-language reading strategies of almost 800 secondary students from a wide range of Band One and Band Three schools has conclusively shown that the 'PH factor' is, indeed, a major stumbling block on the road to improving English language literacy skills in Hong Kong ('Phonics a tonic, say NETs', Education Post, July 15).

Over the past eight years, I've been testing, teaching and assembling a wide range of information on this educational hurdle. Of all the data that I have collected, the most revealing and poignant has been the students' personal reflections on their own language learning.

Far too many of the brightest, most articulate Band One students see English words as dull and clumsy strings of letters that need to be memorised in sequence. The pure, uninhibited joy that they expressed when they had learned that these words had fascinating historical origins, and internal spelling patterns that could indicate both meaning and sound, was both a highly significant research finding and deeply sobering.

Many simply marvelled at the powerful effects of a final letter 'e' on the vowel sounds of words; changing 'hop' to 'hope', and 'rat' to 'rate'. The saddest revelation for me was to find that even the most capable Band One students could neither read nor spell the simplest of unfamiliar words like 'lop' or 'gut'.

I must strongly challenge the Education and Manpower Bureau's Bruce Bolin's assertion that knowing a word's meaning overrides the importance of being able to say it. Without decoding skills, students will be totally unable to read surnames, brand names or place names. My Band Three students were unable to redistribute their classmates' exercise books when their names were written only in alphabetic script on the cover. They could not decipher names such as Mak Ka-sin, let alone the surname of their NET teacher.

Decoding gives words a voice. Once readers can 'hear' a new word - 'transplant' for example - they might recall having heard it before or they could hold it in memory and look for its meaning in context or a dictionary or they could verbalise it to someone and ask what it means.

The students told me that they had been taught to skip over unfamiliar words - a frightening habit for potential doctors and engineers.

Unfortunately, the clear identification of an educational stumbling block represents only a tiny step in a long journey towards its eradication. Certainly, it is now obvious that there is an urgent need for both teacher training in alphabetic principles and a need for major curriculum adjustments.

Pauline Bunce teaches at an international school, where she developed the 'Word Wizards' summer programme for local students. She is undertaking doctoral research on Hong Kong students' grasp of alphabetic principles.