Tapping with Nida

by thesignifier

File Under: Teacher Z. explores Comparative Alphabetic/Logographic Orthography… with a second grader.

I sit in a low chair at a low table as I leaf through the level B book I’m about to teach. Nida walks in apprehensively, but she sees me at the table and smiles, showing her missing incisors proudly. She turns to Teacher J and giggles. “Today Teacher Z is here!”

“Yes, Nida, you’re going to read with Teacher Z.”

My supervising teacher nods Nida in the direction of the table, and I smile as my new friend walks over and sits beside me.

Nida just turned eight years old last week. “Teacher M and the rest of the class sing… (a pause) …ed me Happy Birthday!,” she tells me, furrowing her eyebrows as she chews the syllables in her mouth.

Diligent as I am, I asked about Nida before working with her. The situation is grim. With her chronically low scores, she isn’t on progress to be mainstreamed soon. She’s having problems with her sight words, doesn’t tap out the phonemes like she should, and relies too much on help from her partners in word attack. “See what you can do, though,” Teacher J says. After all, you have to meet the student where they are.

We start the book together. I go through the protocol, timing her page count in my head, writing down word that she misreads on a sticky note. As I look up, I realize the angle of Nida’s eyebrows tell me exactly how she is doing. Her little fingers wiggle tenuously as she tries tapping out the phonemes, but she lowers her hand dejectedly when b-o-x renders something unfamiliar. Her pleading eyes meet mine. I can feel my willpower melting into a pool on the tile floor as I see her see me. She knows I know. She knows she doesn’t.

“Look at the picture. What’s that thing Rosie is carrying?” I offer.

A dictionary opens in her mind, filled with all of her English words. She can find it only in Cantonese, but you can’t tap out the phonemes in 匣子 because, well, there are no phonemes to put on Nida’s little fingers. Two years of learning to read in English has taught her at least that much. How can you learn to read with English words you don’t know in the first place?

I wonder how I can help. Experience and Wikipedia tell me that there are Romanizations for Chinese that I could use to ease Nida into reading English, but I wonder how Han-centric they are: Pinyin works well for Mandarin’s four tones, but what about Cantonese’s nine? Could we tap out words in Cantonese instead? Unlikely. I frown. I wonder about Nida’s life back in South China.

A few hours later, I see Nida back in her second grade classroom working with her writing partner on her small moment story. The little boy quibbles over Nida’s capitalization and Spartan sentences. Once again, I watch Nida’s furrowed eyebrows, the outward gauges of the wheels and gears spinning in her head. She suddenly smiles, once again showing the gaps where one day she will have two beautiful teeth.

“Oh, I mistake!”

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2 Comments to “Tapping with Nida”

  1. Welcome, Teacher Z! Please tell me more about Cantonese phonemes. What would tapping out Cantonese look like? Are your goals for Nida more to build phonemic awareness, or to increase her English vocabulary?

    I am glad to hear that Nida is smiling about her mistakes. That is a helpful disposition toward language learning!

  2. Appleseed,

    Yes, I’m glad too that Nida has a positive outlook and a generally effervescent attitude towards school. I think this is supported by the fact that many of her peers speak Fujianese and Cantonese, and everyone is in Mandarin classes. So, there are a lot of people for her to share experiences with, even if they aren’t in English.

    So, on to your first question. “Tapping out” is a Wilson Phonics skill that we use at my school that doesn’t look that different from a regular phonics approach: you “put the sounds on your fingers”, and use your fingers to tap out discrete phonemes and put the whole thing together. So, the requisites for this are 1) an alphabet, and 2) fingers. I don’t know much about Cantonese (except for its formidable 9 tones!) except for its written with Chinese characters which can differ to some extent to Mandarin writing styles. Heck, she’s most likely reading in Mandarin anyway. There have been some attempts to try to transliterate Cantonese/Hakka/Hokkien/Teochew into a Roman alphabet, but none are very widely used. So, there’s a bit of a bust there.

    To your second question. I think my goals lie somewhere in the middle, if there is one. I think that’s the question I’m getting at with my post: how can you teach phonemic awareness with a vocabulary deficit? In fact, some of the literature that I’ve reviewed says that a lot of elementary emergent bilinguals enter a “vocabulary gap”, since most of their ESOL classes focus on phonemic awareness in grades 1-4 instead of vocabulary building. They figure that the kids will pick up vocabulary by interacting in the English speaking world, but this isn’t necessarily true in terms of kids who grow up in Chinatowns (or barrios, for that matter.) I try to do both, but I don’t think when I do both, I do either well.

    So no easy answers… only more questions. But, I hope I explained a little bit of the research behind a largely creative piece.

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