Monday, May 14, 2012

Understanding Orthography and its Implications for English Language Learners

Understanding Orthography and its Implications for English Language Learners

By Wendy Sheets, Intermediate Literacy Trainer 

In understanding approaches for reaching our English Language Learners, I’ve been doing some studying lately. The book English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy, edited by Gilbert G. Garcia (2003), is a useful resource. As I looked at chapter four, written by Donald R. Bear, Shane Templeton, Lori A. Helman, and Tamara Baren, I was able to glean (and would like to share) a better understanding of orthographic development and its implications for the support we give to our English Language Learners. As educators, we may be better equipped if we understand how orthography propels reading development and how word-study instruction can be a powerful practice to increase literacy learning.

Understanding the Layers of Orthography    

Although there are many different orthographies, most of them are composed of sound, pattern, and meaning, which are evolving layers of information. A shallow or transparent orthography is one that is highly regular in its sound-symbol correspondences, such as spelling in Spanish or Italian. In these orthographies, it is easy to decode written words because there are fewer sounds and a direct correspondence between sounds and letters. A deep or opaque orthography, such as French or English, often includes a less direct correspondence between letters and sounds. Chinese, which is also a deep orthography, includes characters that represent morphemes, and they contain sound, pattern, and meaning layers. Semitransparent orthographies, such as German, are characterized somewhere between shallow and deep orthographies. According to Rieben, Saada-Robert, & Moro, the progression within a student’s literacy learning often takes place in stages or “phases of dominance” (as cited in Garcia, 2003, p.73). Those reading and spelling stages are a progression from sound to pattern to meaning, and may be broken down to include the following: Emergent, Letter Name-Alphabetic, Within Word Pattern, Syllables and Affixes, and Derivational Relations. If you have used Donald Bear’s or Kathy Ganske’s developmental spelling inventories, you should be familiar with these stages of spelling and reading.

I found it interesting to consider the impact on development that a deeper or more opaque orthography has. For instance, in English, patterns are examined earlier and for a longer period of time than in more transparent orthographies, such as Spanish. Where a character represents a single syllable, such as in Chinese, young children may make the match between the sound and written symbol early (around age 4). Within a shallow orthography, emergent readers and spellers may appear more advanced because of their ability to track text and make a few sound-symbol correspondences. We see faster reading rates among Spanish readers because it is easier to read more words accurately within a shallow orthography. However, reading with expression and building an extensive sight vocabulary is more complicated.

How Bilingualism Affects Development 

It is helpful for educators to have knowledge about the spoken and written languages of their students in order to understand their development. The interaction between spoken languages has an impact on what students hear and how they pronounce words. For example, a teacher may hear the short i in hit, but to her students, it may sound more like a long e (as in heat). There are several sounds in English that may be difficult for Spanish-speaking students to pronounce. Those include /d/, /j/, /r/, /v/, /z/, /sh/, /th/, /zh/, /ng/; beginning and ending with s, and ending sounds with r. Knowing that it may be logical for the j as in jump to be pronounced like chump, for example, can be helpful for teachers. The good news, according to Tolchinsky & Teberosky (1998), is that in comparative studies of orthographic knowledge, bilingual learners negotiate between languages and literacies (as cited in Garcia, 2003, p. 75). Instead of different orthographies causing confusion, learners apply their knowledge about spelling and reading from one language to another. There are some cognitive advantages to bilingualism in growing a stronger knowledge base with respect to each language. In young children, the phonetic or sound quality of words should be emphasized, as those phonological processes create a foundation for reading.

Word Study Activities  

In order to develop a word-study program, it is recommended that a spelling inventory be used to reveal what students know about English orthography and their primary language. I’ve found useful spelling inventories in the publications: Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction and Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction. Words that can be spelled can also be read, so spelling assessments reveal a measure of word reading or decoding. Bear, Templeton, Helman, and Baren suggest engaging students in instructional activities of sorting and charting to explore patterns and facilitate vocabulary development. Emergent learners may explore and make distinctions through concept sorts, using objects and pictures such as buttons, plastic animals, and macaroni according to different criteria. They may play “Concentration” games, sort by the way pictures or objects sound at the beginning, or by other criteria, such as size. Later, sorts may become more abstract, with the purpose of examining contrasting words with stress assignment, or words in the past tense. Beginning charting experiences include shared opportunities for students to talk about what they know, watch a teacher or another student model the writing, listen to syllables, think about word parts, and use analogies to spell. They may build webs together and may chart known words from around the world. These experiences also broaden English-speaking students’ vocabulary and appreciation of other languages. Collecting and charting interesting words and clarifying meaning (through questioning, discussion, noticing relationships, and using a dictionary or thesaurus) is a way older students may explore vocabulary as well. Students may learn to make meaning connections between words for various reasons. As they notice connections and relationships between words, they understand more about the structure of words and are able to pose important questions about word meaning. Word study is not a matter of naming rules, but of discovering patterns. Physically manipulating words provides the active process of construction to take learning beyond the verbal level, leading to automaticity. Sorting and charting activities may be explored within content area studies as well. Throughout all of these activities, it is important to support English language learners with practices that use oral language to bridge an understanding to the written.

Talk, Talk, Talk!

It is imperative to note the understanding that learning is a social process, and that English language learners (along with all of us) need multiple opportunities for discussion and interaction with others. As we consider orthography and the acquisition of language, we also must remember that while a student is able to decode or write a word, without building meaning, the process is not truly reading. Although I am able to “decode” text in Spanish, my understanding is quite limited. I have to agree with Marie Clay’s assertion that “Reading is a message-making, problem-solving activity, which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced” (Clay, 1991). In order to build comprehension and engage students in making meaning, much conversation needs to take place. “Dialogue seeks to harness the ‘collective intelligence’…of the people around you; together we are more aware and smarter than we are on our own” (Isaacs, 1999, p.11).  It is through purposeful talk with others that we construct ideas and visions of possibility for ourselves and each other.  As we do this, we create that habit of mind to think reflectively and critically, rather than passively absorbing information in isolation.  We know that new knowledge connects to previous knowledge. As our English language learners synthesize by building on oral language resources, background experiences, and literacy in other languages, it is my hope that we, too, may create new understandings as we strive to improve our practices to best support all of our learners.


Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F.R. (2000).
        Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling
        Instruction. Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming Literate: The Construction of Inner Control.

Ganske, K. (2000). Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling,
        and Vocabulary Instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.

Garcia, G.G. (2003). English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English
        Literacy. International Reading Association.

Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. New York: Random


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