The Role of Phonics in ESL Learning

Are you a parent with a child learning English at home as a second language (generally referred to as ESL) or a teacher with ESL students in the classroom and wondering if phonics lessons are worth your time? Well, the short answer is a big YES! Read on to find out why, and how you should approach phonics lessons for ESL learning.

Why do ESL learners need to be taught phonics?

In order to be fluent in the English language, there are four categories that ESL learners need to master: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Now let’s zoom in to the reading component: recent scientific research has credited systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics as an important component to effective reading instruction, making phonics both indispensable and crucial to learning to read in English.

Ok, so now we’ve established the importance of phonics to reading; but one might still wonder, is what works for native English learners going to be also effective for children learning English as a second language? Rest assured, according to the National Reading Panel’s report in 2006 on best practices for literacy development among ESL learners, instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension is just as helpful to ESL learners as it is to native learners. 

How does phonics empower ESL learners?

First and foremost, phonics gives the students the ability to “decode” and read the words they have in front of them. Hows does it work? Well, phonics is a method of teaching students how to read and write by understanding the sounds of individual letters, letter groups, and syllables. Students grow from learning the sound for each letter to combining sounds to form simple consonant-vowel-consonant words, and eventually moving on to being able to read more complex words aloud.  

Additionally, knowing what sound each individual letter and letter combinations make and being able to read more fluently will also increase the student’s confidence in a classroom environment, especially for students who are learning English as a second language. Moreover, a strong phonics foundation also has positive impact on other aspects of language learning such as spelling and composition.

Important things to keep in mind when teaching phonics to ESL learners:

However successful the learner’s decoding skills may be, it can literally be meaningless if the student does not understand what they’re reading. With ESL learners, it is crucial for the teacher or the parent to discuss the meaning of the words throughout the decoding process, including simple words that would not necessarily need to be explained to native speakers. In working with students who are learning how to speak a new language, teachers need to be purposeful about developing vocabulary and oral language skills in every lesson.

A helpful approach to teaching ESL students in the early stages of word-blending may be to use simple words which are nouns that can be paired with pictures or other visuals. This will help to increase the students’ vocabulary and comprehension at the same time of sounding out the word.

Here at Phunics, our online reading program offers systematic phonics instruction through 200+ decodable stories that are fun and engaging. They come with memorable characters, exciting adventure, AND beautiful illustrations that are intended to guide young readers to make sense of the words and the story as they read. Our stories are a perfect companion to ESL learners looking to sharpen their reading skills.

Our uniquely designed stories are both decodable and LEXILE® leveled, are equipped with targeted learning goals with specific sound-letter relationships, and are carefully sequenced into 9 sets that gradually and systematically introduce phonetic patterns to students of various ages. Visit our sample stories page, read a sample story to determine your student’s level, and start reading today!