Learning to read and write is among the most important skills required for a child’s academic success at school as well as in his/her future education. Learning literacy skills will influence one’s performances in other disciplines. Literacy can have substantial impacts on developing livelihood. As claimed in a report by The World Bank (2002), people who had fulfilled literacy courses were shown to be more enthusiastic to improve their livelihoods. In addition to that, Eldred (2008) mentioned that literacy is associated with specific job skills as well as developments in critical thinking and problem solving. Similarly, Ekpo, Udosen, Afangideh, Ekukinam and Ikorok (2007) asserted that:
Over the years, there’s been a tremendous body of research conducted on the factors that affect literacy learning and development (Pretorius ; Mampuru,
2007). However, while researchers have come to an agreement about the different linguistic, socioeconomic, sociocultural and developmental elements in various contexts such as home, school and classroom which directly or indirectly influence the language and literacy achievements, a considerable debate about the best ways of teaching literacy to children continues to exist in the English- speaking countries (Harrison, 2004). In the past, as Chall (1983) put it, at the center of this great debate was the disagreement among those researchers, educators and policy makers who emphasized the bottom-up approaches (i.e. phonics) to literacy which focused on breaking the code and those who placed emphasis on whole-language (i.e. top-down) approaches in which meaning- emphasis was the center of attention.
In recent years, however, with the growth of convincing evidence from cognitive science which displays a strong relationship between success in literacy, phonemic/phonological awareness, and phonological skills (Anderson, 2004; Goswami; Bryant, 1990) and with the educational ministries of English-speaking countries seeking verification from ‘scientifically’ based research (Schemo, 2002), phonics has been adhered to as the best method of teaching literacy especially in primary stages.
1.2 Statement of the Problem
English as a foreign language is not the medium of communication in daily conversations and everyday life activities in Iran. Therefore, students’ exposure to English is only restricted to the English classroom and there do not have any chance of practicing English for learners outside the classroom setting.
Iranian’s students start their formal English learning in the first grade of secondary school when they are about 12 or 13 years old. However, student’s English language learning has got importance for Iranian parents. Parents know the international place of English all over the world and the determining role that mastery of English holds in children’s educational future and job opportunities, many parents are willing to have their children start their English language learning as soon as possible. Hence, to attract registrations, lots of private primary schools and even kindergartens offer English language teaching in their curriculum. Nonetheless, because the government does not include English language teaching in primary levels, and thus is not among the main subject matters of primary school curriculum, English is placed at the last hours of school days as an extracurricular school course which also requires extra tuition from the parents. As a result, children who are already exhausted at these very last hours of the day at school do not take English seriously as a major school subject and this will result in a poor language attainment on the part of learners. In addition to these reasons, since English is usually considered just as a means of attracting customers in private primary schools, the quality of its teaching is not very desirable and satisfactory. Worse than that, the quality of formal English education in secondary school is very poor too. The textbooks which are written and presented under the supervision of Ministry of Education in Iran are based on very old methods of teaching English.
All in all, because of the overall disappointing conditions of English language teaching at schools and the late beginning of official English teaching in the Iranian educational system, parents resort to language institutes in the hope of giving their children the privilege of good English education. The quality of English teaching in language institutes is usually satisfactory compared to that of schools and the methods of teaching are often based on the ones offered by the new and popular textbooks such as Backpack (Herrera ; Pinkley, 2009), First Friends (Lannuzzi, 2011), Family and Friends (Simmons, 2010), etc. which have been written for ESL and EFL purposes by native authors. However, no systematic attention to learners’ literacy learning is observed in the language institutes in Iran. Phonics which has been identified as the best method of teaching literacy over the years (Beck, 2006) is used occasionally and from time to time rather than regularly and systematically. In other words, the method of teaching early literacy in most language institutes is the rote traditional phonics. Teachers start by teaching the letters of alphabet and their associated sounds followed by teaching some example words that start with those specific alphabet letters (e.g. apple is introduced as an example word for the letter sound a). This procedure is usually done through repeated drills in which the teacher chants the words and students repeat after the teacher in unison. As noted by Eshiet (2012), “This method lacks any form of motivation for the pupils as the knowledge gained through rote learning is not easily applicable when they see new words” (p. 3).
Due to the absence of Teacher Training Course (TTC) workshops to train teachers on how to teach phonics systematically, the teachers worsen the situation by their lack of competence in presenting systematic phonics to students and teaching English literacy appropriately. Therefore, the same as what Ekpo et al. (2007) describe, “The consequence is that some students just memorize some words without any clue to how those words are formed or pronounced. At the primary stages, words and short sentences are forced into the children’s memory through constant drill and memorizations”.
Ohiaeri (1994) and Ekpo (1999) have identified some obstacles to young learners’ ability to read at appropriate age in Nigeria, some of which are also true in Iranian EFL context:
1. High cost of books and lack of class readers by most pupils
2. Inadequate instructional time
3. Teachers are not prepare on reading at initial teacher training institutions
4. Adoption of poor teaching methods
5. Lack of appropriate variation in the teaching approaches to reading, for instance, the use of activities such as picture recognition, storytelling, card games, news reading, cartoon collection, posters, flash cards, role play, story club, reading competition, leisure reading, etc. can be incorporated into reading lessons for variety to generate interest (Edem, 2005).
6. Lack of commitment on the part of the teachers due to poor job satisfaction
As is clear from the factors enumerated by Ohiaeri (1994) and Ekpo (1999), the reason for the failure of most children in mastering English literacy is not because they are incapable to learn but to a great extent is because of the poor teaching methods adopted in teaching literacy. The teachers in schools and language institutes in Iran are required to thoroughly depend on and stick to the prescribed course materials offered by the relevant language institute or by the Ministry of Education in the case of secondary schools. Consequently, the learners are not provided with the right kinds of learning experiences which enable their appropriate mastery of literacy skills.
The irregularity of English writing system that is influenced by other languages adds fuel to this fire. For example, ch sounds sh in champagne which is the effect of French. Another instance is ch as in Christmas which sounds k and is the influence of Greek language. “Several centuries ago, the first dictionary was printed and once the words went into print, that’s how they were spelt. But pronunciation changes over the years and yet the link to the letters is not always the same” (Lloyd, 2012). The result is that there are only 26 letters but about 42 sounds in the English language and that’s what makes it more difficult to learn to read and write in English.
Jolly Phonics is a fun and child-centered approach to teaching literacy which has actions for each of the 42 letter sounds of English and teaches five key skills for reading and writing by using a synthetic multisensory approach. These five skills include (i) learning the letter sounds which consist of the alphabet sounds as well as diagraphs (e.g. sh, ai, etc.), (ii) learning letter formation, (iii) blending, (iv) segmenting, and (v) tricky words that have irregular spellings and children learn them separately in this method (“Teaching Literacy with Jolly Phonics”, 2014).
1.3 Purpose of the Study
Given the importance of literacy skills and the difficulties that young learners face with in reading and writing English at primary levels, this study aims at lighting upon a way to help children to learn reading and writing. To fulfill this objective, the present study seeks to discover the possible effects that the synthetic multisensory phonics (i.e. Jolly Phonics) can have on facilitating children’s early learning.
1.4 Significance of the Study
English, more than a century of debate has occurred over whether English phonics should or should not be used in teaching beginning reading. As a solution to overcome the above-mentioned barriers in the way of EFL/ESL children’s English literacy, the present study seeks to find out whether adopting a the synthetic method of Jolly Phonics is going to have significant impacts on helping young Iranian EFL learners to break through their reading and spelling difficulties. Despite the work of 19th century proponents such as Rebecca Smith Pollard, some American educators, prominently Horace Mann argued that phonics should not be taught at all. This led to the commonly used “look-say” approach ensconced in the “Dick and Jane” readers popular in the mid 20-th century.
Beginning in the 1950, however, phonics resurfaced as a method of teaching reading. Spurred by Rudolf Flesch’s criticism of the absence of phonics instruction (particularly in his popular book, why johnny can’t read, 1995) phonics resurfaced.
Spoken language is used in contexts that offer much support for meaning often from familiar and helpful adults who know the child and interact with him or her regularly. On the other hand, a child faced with a written text has support only from previous knowledge, from what the writer can build in, or through pictures or diagrams that illustrate the text. The writer is much more distant from a reader than is the case with speaking, and this distance can place a high demand on a reader to construct an understanding of the text (Reid, 1990 as cited in Cameron, 2001, p. 127).
As is maintained by Reid, it is clear that learning reading and writing skills are much more challenging for young learners than acquiring aural/oral skills. “Phonics teaching focuses on letter-sound (grapho-phonemic) relationships, building literacy skills from the bottom up. The usual way involves showing children the sounds of the different letters in the alphabet, then how letters can be combined. Phonics teaching works if it directs children’s attention to letter-sound level features of English and helps children make the mental connections between letters and sounds” (Cameron, 2001, p. 149). To achieve this, the present study seeks to apply a synthetic multisensory approach toward teaching phonics to the young learners and therefore offer them a helping hand in facilitating the troublesome task of learning literacy skills. Besides, phonics is usually regarded as “dry, boring and demotivating” (Cameron, 2001, p. 149). Therefore, Cameron (2001) suggests that phonics should be combined with fun activities which raise children’s interest such as songs and rhymes, and in stages of oral task. The present study may pave the ground to tackle these crucial issues, which have for long been neglected regarding the bore of phonics teaching, by adopting a fun synthetic multisensory approach to phonics which is believed to enhance learners’ motivation towards literacy learning.
1.5 Research Questions
Based on the purpose and the problem under focus in the present study, the following research questions are addressed:
1. Does the synthetic multisensory approach to phonics (i.e. Jolly phonics instruction) have any significant effect on Iranian young EFL learners’ reading skills?
2. Does the synthetic multisensory approach to phonics (i.e. Jolly phonics instruction) have any significant effect on Iranian young EFL learners’ spelling skills?
1.6 Null Hypotheses
Consequently, based on the aforementioned research questions the following hypotheses were formulated:
H1: The synthetic multisensory approach (Jolly Phonics method) adopted for teaching early literacy does not have any significant effect on the reading skills of Iranian EFL children.
H2: The synthetic multisensory approach (Jolly Phonics method) adopted for teaching English literacy does not have any significant effect on the spelling skills of Iranian EFL children.
1.7 Definition of the Key Terms
1.7.1. Phonics or Phonetic Method
According to Richards and Schmidth (2002), phonics is “a method of teaching children to read, in which children are taught to recognize the relationship between letters and sounds. They are taught the sounds which the letters of alphabet represent, and then try to build up the sound of a new or unfamiliar word by saying it one sound at a time” (p.398).
1.7.2. Multisensory Approach to Phonics
“Using a multisensory teaching approach means helping a child to learn through more than one of the senses” (Bradford, 2008 as cited in Ureno, 2012). According to Mohler (2002) he defines multisensory Approach to Phonics as follows: “Multisensory instruction received its name because all information was presented via sight, sound, voice, and kinesthetic means.
1.7.3. Synthetic Phonics
“The synthetic phonics method adopts the direct, systematic and rapid teaching of letter sounds to pupils. This is immediately followed by teaching them how to blend the letter sounds to form words. In English, pupils are taught the first group of letter sounds which make up a large number of 3-letter words; s, a, t, i, p, n. These sounds can be used to make several 3-letter words e.g. pin, sat, sit, tip, tin, pit, pat. The whole program is sometimes taught within a few months– usually
9 to 16 weeks with a great deal of emphasis on word reading. Sight words are taught at key points and carefully selected decodable readers are used alongside the program” (Eshiet, 2012, p. 6).
1.7.4. Jolly Phonics
“Jolly Phonics is a fun and child-centred approach to teaching literacy through synthetic phonics. With actions for each of the 42 letter sounds, the multi-sensory method is very motivating for children and teachers, who can see their students achieve” (“Teaching Literacy with Jolly Phonics”, December 2014).
Richards and Schmidth (2002) define literacy as “The ability to read and write in a language” (p. 313).
1.7.6. EFL Young Learners
Mckay (2006) refers to young learners as follows: “Young language learners are those who are learning a foreign or second language and who are doing so during the first six or seven years of formal schooling. In the education systems of most countries, young learners are children who are in primary or elementary school. In terms of age, young learners are between the ages of approximately ?ve and twelve”. She further explains that “Young language learners may be foreign language learners, learning a language in a situation where the language is seldom heard outside the classroom. They may be learning languages like Vietnamese, Spanish or Chinese in Germany or the United States or they may be learning English as a foreign language (EFL) in countries like Turkey, Malaysia or Spain”.
1.8 Limitations and Delimitations of the Study
Like many other studies conducted in this area, the present one has suffered from a number of limitations which might jeopardize the generalizability of its findings. This study was implemented in a small language institute one of the limitations of this study, it was to some extent narrowed down in terms of the number of participants. Consequently, further research could take place with the inclusion of a larger number of participants within several larger schools or language institutes.
Furthermore, the participants of our study were 3-6 year-old students. Thus, the findings cannot be generalized to learners of other age groups. Subsequently, replicating the study with a group of other age group can be suggested.