This message takes up two current threads on the ESOL-Research discussion list, those of approaches to literacy in general, and the more recent one on phonics. It's an edited message to me from my old friend and colleague David Thornton, who has been working in Oman for the past few years as a regional tutor on the University of Leeds BA TESOL for Omani teachers. He has said I can send the repeatable bits to ESOL-Research. Thanks David. The attachment is part of some work in progress David is doing on Arabic/English literacy and teaching English to Arabic-speaking learners.
I was interested in LESLLA and what you had to say about the acquisition of L2 English literacy by learners who have not acquired literacy in L1. This seems to be related to a phenomenon probably not unknown to you from your days in Saudi, when some of the Saudi Aramco apprentices had better literacy skills in English than in Arabic [and some of the older trainees were quite possibly illiterate in Arabic]. I have encountered another variant of this with my teachers of English here in Oman: the men in particular seem to have better literacy in English than in Arabic.
I think part of the problem is to do with differences in discourse patterns. Texts written in English by Arabic speakers often appear to wander and meander. This seems to be because the rhetorical patterns and structures of Arabic not only permit and facilitate diversion from the main point in an utterance but may actually encourage this. The consequence is that when an Arabic speaker writes in English, the text may make sense for a while, but then may appear to lose its thread of meaning. The text often subsequently regains its focus, only to lose it again. Arabic rhetorical structure adds interesting information or asides to linear text. This is considered appropriate and correct in Arabic, but it is not successful when transferred to English. Written texts in English commonly follow either a deductive or an inductive pattern, with an introduction or proposition at the beginning and a conclusion at the end: Arabic texts tend not to.
I am not entirely persuaded by the argument that Heide Spruck Wrigley puts forward that we only need to learn to read once and that we consequently do not need to use phonics-based approaches with people who already have L1 literacy. In a way, this is a non-seqitur: phonics tends to be used at the start of initial literacy development and would almost certainly not be used with the type of adult learners that HSW seems to focus on. Who would talk about using phonics with adults? I certainly think that the processes for the acquisition of L2 English literacy by adult learners who have not acquired literacy in L1 are different to those for young learners.
See attached files for Arabic-English comparisons: I think all of these would affect the extent to which literacy skills transfer from L1 to L2.
The relationship between L1 literacy, L2 literacy and phonics depends on the psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic nature of the languages concerned. HSW stresses that people with L1 literacy have underlying skills they can transfer but I suspect that sometimes these skills are different to those in English. It seems linguistically quite eurocentric to suggest [as Elaine Tarone does] that if somebody is literate in one language it transfers quite easily into a second language. I suspect that the efficacy of this statement depends very much on the languages involved.
Kurvers makes some useful points about the need to distinguish between sight words, and their functional use, and phonics work that is non-functional. I am less convinced about the place of fast, compact phonics-based work on an adult literacy course even when the boring non-functional phonics work would be done intensively on a computer. How well do phonics programmes for young learners adapt to adults?
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