In the US we have free compulsory public education for all children from grade 1 to grade 12. Children must stay in school through grade 12, or at least until they are 16. Public schooling is truly free: no book fees, no music fees, no athletic fees. Books are handed out at the beginning of the school year and must be returned at the end. Most schools supply paper, pencils, erasers, calculators, computers, art supplies and musical instruments.
I have been a primary-school teacher for over 30 years. I teach English in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to pupils who are members of racial minorities. Currently I work with Haitian immigrant children who do not speak English when they enter school. Their families come from a country where violence is all too common. Haitian schools are often closed; indeed, in the past ten years, there has not been a single complete school year. Grinding poverty results in a very low level of literacy. Parents seldom have funds for books, paper or pencils. When the children of such families arrive in the US, they are woefully unprepared to compete with their middle-class agemates.
How should we teachers help them to learn, especially to learn English?
We surround the child with spoken English, encouraging them to use any words they pick up and ignoring all mistakes. We read books aloud, ask questions and constantly encourage responses. A child may start with one word, for examplewater, but by day 3 he can say, "Me water," and by day 5, "I want water." Language grows from small beginnings as the teacher constantly prods the child to use single words and to make longer utterances as he learns. When the child is using English, we do not correct errors in pronunciation. We see such mistakes as the act of practicing a new skill. By trying out his new English skills, the pupil will improve on his own. If he is corrected each time, he will become reluctant to keep trying.
We do not teach English by having the students memorize words. Instead we start by teaching phonics, which is the study of the sounds that letters make. Phonics provides children with a code: pupils learn individual letter sounds and then learn how letters work in groups. As students progress in phonics, they can read new words on their own because they know how individual letters probably sound.
English-speaking students are also taught phonics, but phonics is particularly important for second-language learners. We start teaching the sounds of the alphabet to pupils unable to speak English from the very first day they set foot in the classroom, no matter how few English words they know.
I was amazed to find that primary-school teachers in China do not use phonics in teaching children how to read. It seems a gargantuan task to teach a pupil to memorize every word he needs to know, much as if the child were being asked to shovel a huge pile of sand, with the shovel shut away. Phonics is a code that unlocks word construction. It empowers the child to learn by putting small pieces together.
Right now I am learning Chinese and am happy to discover that the vocabulary is not too difficult. Having learned dong, nan, xi and men, suddenly I can build six or seven words: dongmen, ximen, nanmen, xinanmen. Phonic knowledge operates quite similarly. Suppose I teach a child an, ran, man, can. I then can teach and,stand, land, band. Give the child her, der-, -ing and un- and he can build or recognize under, then understand, and finally understanding. Phonics teaches word families such as cat, bat, fat, flat. Later on we might build catty, batting, fatter, flatten. These words do not need to be memorized because they are built up from small phonic units that children can use in many different combinations. This is a constructionist approach to learning: the children are given the phonic tools to construct and sound out new words by themselves.
Test results show that my students make from one to three years' progress within one school year. Our immigrant children, members of racial minorities, are beginning to close the enormous gap in achievement between minority and majority students.
现在我正在学习中文，我很高兴地发现汉语词汇并不太难，学会了东、南、西和门，一下子我就能组合六七个词了，东门，西门，南门，西南门。语音知识的功能相当类似。如果我教孩子an，ran,man,can,之后就可以教and,stand,land,band。教给孩子her,der- , -ing和un-，他就会合成或认识under,接下来是understand,最后是understanding。语音法教单词的“家族”如cat,bat,fat,flat，之后我们就可以组合成catty,batting，fatter,flatten。这些词并不需要死记硬背，因为它们是由很小的语音单元组合成的，而这些小语音单元是孩子们在很多种不同的组合中都会用的。这是学习语言的一种结构型方式：给孩子们一种能够自己组合新词、念出新词的语音工具。