* From Phonics to Reading and Writing

New Directions - Meeting the Opportunities and Challengesof Language Literacy and Numeracy in Context, 9 March 2007 Barrier Reef Institute of TAFE, Townsville

Abstract:  Hazel will briefly outline some of the principles behind her teaching practice and, using her own published materials as examples, demonstrate a range of classroom techniques to practise the decoding and encoding skills which she introduces gradually throughout her courses.  Although the main focus will be on students who are illiterate in their first languages, she will link the demonstrated techniques to practices she uses with higher level classes.

After the formal completion of the session, she will be available to chat with teachers who have further questions or who want to develop techniques for producing their own reading texts for low level students.

 Biodata:  Hazel has been an ESL teacher for the past 25 years.  She has taught students from all levels, from very beginners through to people about to enter Australian universities.  Her special area of interest is in literacy for students who have had very little or no formal schooling before their arrival in Australia.  With colleague, Dorothy Court, she has published two volumes of phonics-based spelling materials and four sets of reading materials with accompanying workbooks and sound CD's.  More recently Dorothy and Hazel, along with Margaret Hounslow, edited A Whole New World, a collection of teaching tips, resources, worksheets and reading materials to assist teachers facing the interesting challenges of working with newly-arrived unschooled refugees.  This book is accompanied by a sound CD of language-teaching songs.


Most of us learnt to read:

·        after 4-6 yrs of developing oral English

·        at the teachable age (the age at which it is natural to learn a skill)

·        without major health problems

·        without major social and/or domestic dislocation or disruption

·        over 4-5 yrs to gain reasonable functional literacy.

Most of our students are expected to learn:

·        with poor or negligible oral English skills;

·        past the teachable age

·        in many cases with serious physical and/or mental health, social and/or domestic problems;

·        and show significant, measurable progress within 160 hrs (or 8 wks – less than one term!)

Yet it is totally illogical to expect these disadvantaged people

to learn more quickly than we did!


PRINCIPLES:       Low level

Higher levels

1. Repeat, repeat, repeat; routine, routine, routine

Teachers are bored, but students are reassured and progress towards the necessary mastery of basic skills necessary for beginning real reading and writing.


1. The same with modifications: shorter, quicker routines.

We also need to make allowance for disillusioned students who may reject this approach.  However, in my experience most tolerate it quite well.


2. Use students' expectations of school. Even students who have never been to school have preconceptions about what should happen.  For ESL students in particular, these include:

Rote learning

Routine repetition

Reading books (rather than snippets from newspapers, junk mail etc)

Choral reading

 These techniques will do no harm and may well be helpful.  They can be interspersed with the sorts of practices we are more comfortable with.


same with adjustment for students who reject these approaches.  However, it is often surprising how well young Australian students react to these old fashioned techniques which have largely disappeared from our schools and are therefore novel to many young people.


3. Reinforcing & extending other parts of course

Names and most common sounds of letters

Reading gives information (meaning) – we know this but extracting meaning from text is often outside the experience of our students.  For many decoding is an exercise they do merely to please teachers.

Clear articulation (See Short vowels – mouth positions and l-r wall chart, from English Spelling CD Vol. 1)

Links between pronunciation and squiggles on page - a new concept for many!

Exercises for writing practice

Introduction to syllabification

Introduction to digraphs

Introduction to un/stressed syllables and to // sound which is so very common in English words of more than one syllable.

Sentence rhythms


. The same - Spelling is crucial to both reading & writing.



1. We can't assume ANY transfer of skills or information from one context to the next:

Therefore it is necessary to practise :

Squiggle to sound and name of each letter ( See alphabet hand cards and alphabet sound song from English Spelling CD Vol. 1)

Sound and name of letter to squiggle;

Individual sounds to hearing words

Hearing words to hearing individual sounds



1. Check these skills with higher level classes: do a quick initial test of alphabet sounds, then of digraphs and routinely practise the ones in which they show weakness.

(See Digraph cards and wall chart of short vowels and long vowels and English Sounds booklet from English Spelling Vol. 2)


2. Spelling which moves from sound to word to sentence to continuous text; i.e., we need to move constantly from phonics to context AND refer back from context to phonics.

Look for, or write, materials which do this.

e.g. English Spelling CD Vol. 1


2. The same principles apply.

I use spelling lists (e.g., English Spelling Vol. 2 for level 2 students or upper primary spelling books for levels 3 and 4) These extend vocabulary, put words into context, give opportunities for detailed pronunciation practice where students sound out words, divide them into syllables, recognise digraphs, silent letters. 

Stress the need for slow, exaggerated articulation for spelling AND fast articulation for stress and normal speaking and listening skills.  (Native speakers have difficulty in understanding foreign-language speakers who articulate too clearly!)



3. Read, read, read

I prefer continuous text because it provides context and interest.  Students are often understandably fed up with endless junk mail, government forms etc.

BUT texts must be appropriate.

Technical issues:

Need for consistent, most common use of tenses (NO historic present  "Goldilocks sees a house and knocks on the door…")

Common but gradually increasing vocabulary (No whimsical uncommon touches)

No puns and plays on words

No jokes because they are culturally tricky

Short sentences, preferably single-clause sentences; at most, two clauses linked by and, but or because (no other conjunctions).

One or two sentences per page.  If more are really necessary, insert a picture between them.

Text chunked for meaning; e.g., don't let your computer wrap in the middle of a phrase or between subject and verb.

Large sans serif font; e.g., Century Gothic or Comic Sans MS or the state primary school fonts, which you can buy quite cheaply for your computer through www.schoolfonts.com.au.

Left to right – no "artistic" angles etc.

Complete text, but not too long because exhaustion sets in and students lose the thread of meaning

Colour illustrations are better than black and white but more expensive

Photos are better than drawings.  I look out for potentially useful images as I take holiday photos – this avoids copyright issues.



The same general principles apply.

Look at:

Subject matter
Is it interesting to you? If you are bored, that will rub off onto your students. Your enthusiasm for texts which interest you is likely to be contagious. 

Edit texts if necessary and add line numbers so that you and the students can find specific words or phrases readily.

Length of text
Level 3 students can cope well with approximately one A4 page of 14 point font; level 4 two or three pages

Linguistic difficulty

Consider carefully:

embedded clauses,

length of sentences,

unusual structures or vocabulary;

proportion of unknown vocabulary (aim at 90% known) (see Clarke & Nation article in Bibliography)



Custom written texts have advantages:

You can use students' photos (but be careful with names, which are often unknown to other students and thus constitute new vocabulary.  They also make the text more difficult to use with other classes.  On the other hand, they provide additional identification with the text.  It's yet another professional balancing act.

You can focus on shared experiences such as excursions or class activities.

You can focus on students' interests and needs such as health and other practical issues and background information on Australian history, geography and customs ("values"!!)

BUT there are disadvantages, the main ones, of course, being consuming your TIME & ENERGY

 Existing texts need to be selected carefully.  I use the ones which Dorothy Court and I have published and which are listed in the bibliography.  Most of these are written at three levels of difficulty within the one volume so that you can start at the students' comfort level, follow up with the exercises at that level and then push the students on to a level which would have otherwise been beyond their current skills.

There are, of course, other suitable texts on the market, including some excellent ones by Paula Withers, another Queensland ESL teacher.


Sometimes I write texts for my higher level students on specific topics relevant, e.g., as preparation for a planned excursion.


Reading techniques:

Give students time to look at pictures

Read one section to class.  (Make OHT's of each page so that students can follow from the white board and so that you can annotate the text where necessary.)

Return to beginning.  From here on the class repeats after the teacher at each point:

Sound first word from OHT

Read whole word (See if students can tell you the word after it has been sounded.)

If there are two syllables in a word, divide it into syllables & sound each syllable

Read whole word with each syllable stressed

Repeat whole word with normal stress

Continue to end of phrase & then reread whole phrase

Continue to end of sentence and reread each phrase

Reread whole sentence with normal stress & rhythm



Faster but similar principles


Read through or play a tape of the text (Depending on students' listening skills, you can choose to do this first reading with or without the written text in front of the students)

Ask general questions about the meaning.

Reread with students repeating in turn after you.  (I find most ESL students are keen to do this but an occasional one isn't.  I allow students to choose to participate or not in the oral reading.)

Go back to the first paragraph and ask students to tell you words they don't know (I never comment at this stage.)

Put the words onto a vocabulary grid on the white board. (See attachment)

Divide these words into syllables, look at digraphs, mark the stressed syllables, mark the unstressed with the schwa symbol (). 

Note part of speech and the other features as shown on the grid. 

Reread the paragraph.

Move through the whole text in this way. 

Then reread whole text to re-establish the overall meaning.



Exercises on text

To get best value from text, use follow-up or interpellated exercises; e.g.,

Match pictures to words

Jumbled spellings

Letters missing

Word search

Cross words

Missing words

Supply verbs in correct tense (Use Simple present as habitual tense (sometimes, always, never), present continuous in its basic meaning of now, not finished, and simple past.)

Proof reading sentences

Sentences to show correct/incorrect meanings

For other examples, look at the Davidson & Court workbooks in the Bibliography.


The same principles apply:

Suggested exercises include:

Words missing in sentences;

Parts of speech built from words in text; e.g., from expelexpulsion, expelled etc build

Definitions and opposites;

Summary notes of text; Remove the original text (so that they don't copy parts of it!) and ask students to write a paragraph with topic sentence, details and concluding sentence

Detailed listening exercise where students listen to tape of part of the text and have to supply missing words, including both content and unstressed function words.  (I design this exercise with three levels to allow for widely varied listening skills within most classes.  The lowest level has every second word missing (missing words have _ for each letter); the second level removes 3 out of every 4 words; the highest level removes most of the words, leaving in proper nouns and an occasional word to keep the place on the page.  See listening exercises at HardWorkbooks in Bibliography.) level in

Return original text and replay tape.  Then replay one last time without written text in front of students.


There's no magic wand.  You need:

Lots of patience,
Assistance to transfer skills back & forth


Clarke, D.F. & Nation, S.P.: Guessing the meaning of words from context: strategy and techniques in System, Vol. 8, pp.211-220

Davidson & Court: see website for details of reading texts published

Withers, P. (2006). Baseball reader, Baseball Student's Workbook and audio CD.  Paula has produced five other beginner readers with workbooks and audio CD's.