Every summer there comes a point, in the middle of sunny slower-paced days, that I feel it. It usually happens in August, but sometimes sooner. It’s that little insistent feeling, as though someone is tapping my shoulder, gently nudging. September is coming, with all its excitement and challenges and learning ahead.

Over the break I usually centre on one area I want to brush up on, or even learn for the first time, to prepare for those first September days. Sometimes I just read up on these subjects on my own time, sometimes it’s more formal learning. Some years I have wanted to look into math, other years it has been social justice, or collaborative teaching … This year, it’s reading for multilingual language learners. 

Coincidentally, near the beginning of this summer, I heard a radio interview discussing phonics while driving to one of my schools. The child on the audio clip was trying to sound out a word, laboriously ploughing through, applying the phonics rules she had learned in an attempt to decode. Her tiny voice wobbled through all the correct sounds, a sweet staccato that let listeners know she had them all right, and would be able to blend them together into a word at any moment. I held the steering wheel and waited expectantly for it to click.

“Sa-sa-sa. Far-far. sa-fa-fa-r …. Safari!”

Her voice was jubilant on that last word. The letter sounds had finally come together and she realized in a flash, this was a word she knew. Safari! 

The radio guest who had brought the clip went on to describe that moment, the joy in reading, when students realize they can do it, decode and recognize a word, and from there begin to orthographically map it in their brains, and make meaning of the print on the page … It truly is an amazing moment. And I have some wonderings …

What if the student were a multilingual language learner, in the early stages of acquiring English? And what if that same student sounded out all the letters, applying all the phonics rules they have been taught (just as the child on the audio clip did) only to at last utter the word “safari” … and not know what the word “safari” means. No joy in recognizing the word, in realizing they know it … no increased understanding of the text …. no inclusion in the knowledge, enjoyment, and thinking processes inherent in reading that the child in the audio clip experienced. 

Earlier this year, I discussed some of the main considerations for literacy instruction for MLLs in my blog entry Equitable Phonics  including the importance of teaching and developing vocabulary and oral language, so that MLLs understand the words they are decoding.  With so many teaching resources now turning significant attention to the scope and sequence of phonics instruction, sometimes with little to no context for word meaning and oral language, I wonder how to make this process equitable for MLLs. How best to develop oral language and vocabulary alongside systematic phonics instruction, so that the process and purpose of reading is fully available to all students? How best to centre and affirm literacy development in first languages? After all, the benefits of doing so, as research tells us, are numerous and irreplaceable.

Wonderings are a constant in teaching, I think, and one of the ways pedagogical practice grows and responds to the needs and identities of students. So for my final blog of the year, I will end with these ones. May your own wonderings inspire fantastic journeys ahead.


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