Why Native Writing Systems Impact Second Language Fluency
By Robert Schroeder
New research from National Louis proves the ability of adult English language learners to learn English is dependent on the learner’s original writing system.
A study conducted by Kristin Lems, Ed.D., professor in the National College of Education, examined the success of English language learners compared with the learner’s original orthography, or writing system. Lems’ study shows that learners coming from an alphabetic orthography transition to English speaking with the greatest ease, followed by learners with a syllable-based writing system such as Bulgarians. Chinese speakers, coming from a logo-syllabic orthography which is character based, struggled the most. Lems’ findings were published in the inaugural edition of the journal “Writing Systems Research.”
“The closer the orthography of the English language learner was to English, the more accurately and more quickly they read in English,” Lems said. “You might say that’s a no-brainer, but there wasn’t any research proving that.”
The study tested the fluency skills of 232 English language learners. Students using variations of the Roman alphabet grasped English skills most quickly. This group included Spanish-language speakers and Polish speakers, who encounter less triangulation between interpreting and sounding out letters with the English language and alphabet. Native speakers using syllable-based writing systems, such as the Cyrillic alphabet, showed some struggles converting to an alphabetic writing system. Native Chinese speakers, not familiar with the phonological component of the Roman alphabet, posted significantly lower oral reading fluency scores. In particular, native Chinese speakers struggled with the reciprocal relationship that a symbol has a sound and a sound has a symbol.
Lems says her study shows English as a second language instructors need to differentiate curriculum working with adult learners or young learners.
“Students from a similar orthography should be working on looking for meaning as they read, because it’s easy for them to just trip along and decode,” Lems said. “With the Chinese speakers, [teachers] have to work on teaching skills of rapid decoding.”
In particular, Lems suggests speakers with a native Roman alphabet can engage in group reading, in which readers stop frequently and retell what they just read to a partner. For groups with logo-syllabic writing systems, Lems recommends students reading passages with easier decoding, slowly building up to tackle the irregularities of the English language. Teachers should expect and accommodate logo-syllabic native speakers to read more slowly and to engage in word-by-word translation.
Lems stresses her study is not an indication of ability to read, rather stressing a different entry into reading and a different type of reading process. Her next line of research is to examine how English as a second language teachers can effectively create differentiated learning plans in an era of overworked teachers.