Monday, January 12, 2015

Why We Play Sentence Unscramble

Over the weekend I was Skyping with John Sivell (TESL educator at Brock), and we were talking about how literacy instruction should vary depending on whether the target language has a shallow or deep orthography. 

With their lovely one-to-one grapheme-phoneme correspondence, languages like Spanish and German have been very easy for me to learn to read and pronounce. Learning to read English as a second language, on the other hand, must be quite a challenge for our literacy students. Our learners have to contend with so many spelling irregularities, homophones and homographs, don't they? One letter can make a number of sounds, and one sound can be represented in a host of ways.

Once we as a class have pretty much mastered short vowel sounds in CVC words, I enjoy teaching the two-vowel rule. But I wince every time we run into an exception. We put those in a special column. They are our English-spelling-is-sometimes-crazy-I'm-so-sorry words. How can we better equip ESL literacy learners to take on a language in which predicting the pronunciation of the word in front of you isn't so cut and dried?
From the week we made snack bars in class.
John pointed out that when you are teaching an orthographically shallow language, you can focus a lot on the phonetic building blocks of the language. That's often enough for the learners. But when the target language is one with an orthography as deep as that of English? You have to support the learners with lots of oral practice before reading, and especially with plenty of syntax practice. Knowledge of the S-V-O pattern of English helps learners predict what the next word in a sentence might be, which in turn helps with fluency in reading.

Every week my literacy class tackles a new story or task. If it's a story, it might be Mo Stays Warm from the ESL Literacy Network, A New Dress from Talk of the Block series, or a book we have written ourselves based on photos taken while engaged in an activity. Whatever the text, I always load the ten to twelve new vocabulary words of the week into Spelling City, which allows students to work with the words on computer lab day--spelling and playing various games with them.

One key game is Sentence Unscramble. I always edit the sample sentence for every word in my Spelling City word list so that when students play this game, they are unscrambling sentences taken directly from our text. If I am giving students a sentence scramble worksheet in class, we will first play the game together as a class, pulling up the website on the classroom projector board.

I have found that by making syntax activities a regular part of our weekly routine, students quickly internalize the S-V-O pattern of English sentences--without a bit of metalanguage! Higher levels enjoy this game, too.

Update: This game has been moved to the premium section, prompting me to ask my school for a subscription. We pay about $54 per year USD. Now each student has an account and their scores go into my grade book. I can also print certificates of achievement for them, which we put in their portfolios.

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