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How Does Phonemic Awareness in ESL Learners Impact Reading and Writing?

Anthony S. Terrell

J.E.B Stuart High School

Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools

Submitted June 1999


This paper documents the findings of an 18-week action research project to measure the effectiveness of a curriculum which included systematic phonemic instruction provided to two experimentalgroups of students, versus a traditional whole-language curriculum that did not include this instruction, provided to two control groups of ESL learners. A total of thirty-eight intermediate level secondary ESL learners were divided into four groups, two high intermediate groups and two lower intermediate groups. One group at each level served as the experimental group, the others as the controlgroups. The experimental group participated in the curriculum featuring Jane Fell Green’s Language! program as part of a traditional whole-language approach to second language instruction. Language! is a reading/language program that is sequential, cumulative, and taught to the level of automaticity. Students in the high intermediate experimental group averaged a gain of 12.2 points on theDegree of Reading Power (DRP) post-test over pre-test scores. Those in the control group posted an average 6.8 point gain on the same test. Students in the lower intermediate experimental group scored an average 9.5 point gain on the DRP post-test over pre-test scores. The lower intermediate control group posted an average 10.4 point gain. In the area of writing, the lower intermediate group posteda 1.1 point gain in pre and post writing scores on a writing sample, compared to a 0.3 point gain posted by the control group. There was no significant change in writing scores at the higher intermediate level. The results of the research suggests that phonemic instruction is of greater benefit to high intermediate level ESL learners’ reading and that the instruction benefits lower intermediateESL learners’ writing. Both quantitative and qualitative research findings are presented.

The Question

How does the phonemic awareness of ESL learners impact second language acquisition as measured by facility in reading and writing? This question came to me during my first semester at Stuart High School. I was teaching three different groups of intermediate level ESL learnersProcess Writing, using Native American and Chinese proverbs as writing topics. As we worked to master the various steps of the process: formulating what to write (pre-writing); starting to write (rough draft); focusing what has been written; correcting (revising); and finally presenting a final draft and publishing, many of my students had little difficulty finding what to write once shown how tofirst organize their thoughts on a chart, then into a paragraph, and ultimately into an essay. Students often had much to say, had enough passive vocabulary to say it, but lacked the ability to use that passive vocabulary to effectively put their thoughts onto paper. The perennial question in the room became, “How do you spell…how do you spell….Mister, Mister, how do you spell?”
My naturalresponse to the numerous spelling inquires was a good old-fashioned, “I am not going to tell you. Get the dictionary.” I soon realized that instead of having the intended effect of helping students build both vocabulary and a sense of academic self-reliance, my response often caused even more frustration and withdrawal from students. Why? Quite simply, students often had little idea where toeven begin to look in a dictionary for the word they were trying to spelling. The sounds of the words students knew they wanted to use had no connection to the symbols that represent those sounds in the English language. My students had little-to-no phonemic awareness. What impact was this having on their ability to express themselves in writing? Additionally, was this why I was hearing them...
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