Teaching English to Italian children: it’s (not) as easy as ABC

Italian is a beautiful language with a phonetic alphabet. You see it, you say it. Pronunciation almost always corresponds directly to the written form.  Whilst learning to read and write is never easy, with this type of correspondence once children understand the sound of the letter they tend to make quick progress in their literacy skills. 

On the other hand, English has a vast array of rules and broken rules, complex spellings and identical spelling patterns that are pronounced in a variety of ways. So how do you develop early literacy skills in English with your Italian students?

Reading and writing in English: the order of the skills

First up, reading and writing should be the last skills to be taught. Young children first need to develop the receptive skill of listening. Once exposed to repeated language over a period of time they will then be able to produce it, by saying the words. 

Children need to be confident in how a word sounds and how they say it before they move on to decoding it then producing the written form. As we know, even with adult learners, if you are first shown the written form you will make guesses as to its pronunciation, this error can then stick!

Teaching English to Italian kids: letter sounds or letter names?

It’s important to teach the letter sounds and not just the letter names. Being able to recite the alphabet first off won’t help children to read or write. 

Consider starting with the sounds first and then the letter names, by which I mean for example, the sound is ‘e’ as in ‘pet’ and the name is ‘e’ as in ‘tree’. Once a handful of letter sounds are known, children can start blending them together to read familiar words. 

We usually start with simple CVC (consonant vowel consonant) words such as cat, dog, hen etc. Remember to use words that the children already know and that are simple to check for meaning. You can then move to letter names. Try using a mime or gesture to show the difference between sounds and letters. 

Be familiar with your own teaching context

It’s important to know what children are doing in schools and make sure that whatever they are doing in their English class is complementary. So, as children don’t start mandatory schooling until age 6 in Italy, you may not want to introduce early literacy skills in English before this time. 

Whilst English children are taught to write in lower case, Italian children write first in capitals. Bear this in mind and be ready to accept both alternatives. 

Finally, use the child’s L1 as a springboard to their language learning. First introduce letter sounds which are the same such as p/e/t.  Then make comparisons about sounds which are different such as /c/.

English for Italians: early reading and writing strategies

Use flashcards to introduce and practise letter sounds, just as you would with images for vocabulary. You can do the same for digraphs and trigraphs (two or three letters which make one phoneme sound). After blending a word to read it, as described above, children can then segment a word to write it. 

So, for example, show a flashcard of a dog. Elicit the word then elicit the three sounds and write them on the board.  Children can then practise by labelling pictures of familiar objects or animals. 

Some activity ideas

  • Writing without paper – children draw letters in the air or on their friend’s back. They can also write letters in trays of flour or polenta or make letter shapes from dough.  You can then move from individual letters to short words.
  • Memory – children create their own set of 6 pelmanism cards: 6 pictures and 6 words. They then join with a partner, mix all the cards together and play!
  • Read and do  – Each child writes actions on different slips of paper e.g. hop, jump, run. Children then form small groups, putting their words together in a central pile. The children take turns to read a slip then do the action.
  • Spelling race – divide children into teams. Each team has a set of letters or scrabble tiles. The teacher holds up a flashcard of a known word. The children then race to spell the word. 

English for Italian children: conclusion

Teaching early literacy skills is a wide area, but if this has sparked your interest, there’s plenty of information, courses and resources available. 

It’s important to remember that just because a child can read and write in their own language, it doesn’t mean they will be able to do it in English, without support. However, developing their ability to read and write English independently not only motivates them as language learners but also gives them the skills to learn outside the classroom. This will put them on the path to a lifetime of language learning.

Teaching English to Italian children: it’s (not) as easy as ABC

Kate Knight is a freelance Teacher Trainer based in the UK. She started her ELT career in 2007 first as a teacher, then Senior Teacher, Young Learner Coordinator, and Director of Studies. In her various academic management roles she has served as a mentor for hundreds of teachers. She is most passionate about teaching children and teenagers and is the main course tutor on both the IH VYL and IH CYLT. She is both CELTA and DELTA-qualified.

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