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When reading is not as simple as...


Expecting all English language students to learn to read and spell in the same way as they do in their native language is misguided, writes Melanie Butler

We need to talk about spelling. It is, after all, the single most difficult thing about English, at least according to a survey of second-language speakers at Cambridge Assessment. They would agree with a comment I saw on social media recently: ‘English is a simple language with a simple grammar and a psychotic spelling system.’

Yet in EFL we barely teach it. Foreign children, it seems, are expected simply to acquire it naturally, though no child in the English-speaking world would be expected to get through primary school without being taught and tested in spelling. In the US it is a national obsession, with groups of children subjected live on television to trial by orthography in a so-called ‘spelling bee’.

They don’t have spelling bees in Spain. Spanish is a transparent language with an almost perfect match between graphemes and phonemes; words are spelled exactly the way they’re pronounced. The same is true of Turkish, Finnish and Italian. Transparent-language speakers don’t just have an easier time learning to spell, they learn to read much more quickly and have a much lower rate of dyslexia.

Around 1 per cent of Spanish children are diagnosed as dyslexic, while the rate in the English-speaking world is 8 to10 per cent. When Spanish or Turkish children try to learn English, 8 to 10 per cent will also develop dyslexia, a condition that correlates not only with reading difficulties but with learning a second language.

Do we test them for this problem? No, we’re too busy trying to decide their learning style. Even if we find out they have the problem, what do we do to support them? All too often, the answer is nothing. Dyslexia does not appear in our training courses or our textbooks. In the magic world of EFL, it does not exist.

EFL follows the mantra that the reading skills from a child’s first language are transferred to their second language and therefore don’t need to be dealt with at all. But the skills you use to learn to read in a transparent language are completely different to the ones you need to read in an opaque one like English, French or Arabic.

In their book The Learning Mind, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith describe the differences between the brain processes Italian children use to read and those used by English children. The Italians process reading entirely in the area of the brain dedicated to phonemic processing, while English children rely largely on the semantic area but use over a dozen different areas to read.

Think about that for a moment. We give a group of Italian teenagers an authentic text and ask them to guess the meaning of the underlined words from context. Even if they know the 90 per cent of surrounding words required to guess successfully from context, their brains are not wired to check semantic meaning while reading. Small wonder, then, as Catherine Walter has pointed out, that foreign learners are much less successful at guessing from context than English speakers. We are asking them to read in a different part of their brain.

The opacity of our L1 seems to dictate how we process the written word. A series of papers from bilingualism researchers in the Basque Country show that L1 speakers of Basque and Spanish – both transparent languages – process reading letter by letter, making scanning and skimming almost impossible. English and French L1-speakers process in whole words, which is harder but faster. Bilingual Basque–French and Spanish–French children use a system between the two. What is the EFL profession doing to address these issues? Nothing much that we can see.

The UK government is not waiting to see what the EFL gurus have to say. They are adopting synthetic phonics, a system of learning to read through overt teaching of patterns of spelling that is supported by the British Dyslexia Association. And yet it remains controversial in education in much of the English-speaking world. Some of the reasons may sound familiar: children should read real books, not specially written ones; they need to learn to use strategies like guessing from context and using the information in pictures; and there is evidence that gifted children read less well when they learn though phonics. That last one may be true, but should extra progress for the linguistically gifted come at the expense of everybody else?

Australian teachers may currently be fighting synthetic phonics tests but phonics is already compulsory from early primary in English language classes in China. They want native-speaker teachers to help them. Unfortunately, the native speakers don’t know how. After all, Chinese children can just transfer their reading skills honed on thousands of characters to decode English.

Can’t they?

Blinking babies

Bilingual babies blink if you change language mid-stream, but if you switch at the end of a sentence they don’t so much as raise an eyebrow, recent research from Canada shows. The study tracked eye movements in twenty-month-old bilingual infants to see how well they could switch languages. The babies were more accurate in recognising objects in pictures when they heard the whole instruction in one language, for example: ‘Find the dog,’ than when languages were switched mid-sentence, as in: ‘Find the chien.’ Infants’ pupil size also increased during a mid-sentence language switch, suggesting an increased cognitive overload.

The cognitive load was reduced, however, when the language switch came after the end of a sentence, as in: ‘That one looks fun! Le chien!’ The same pattern of performance was found in bilingual adults asked to perform the same task, even though the switched words were basic. The authors argue that the study shows that young bilinguals can control and monitor their languages in real time in the same way as bilingual adults.

Byers-Heinlen, K, Morin-Lessard, E, Lew-Williams, C (2017) Bilinguals control their languages as they listen. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences