How I Teach My Students to Read

The methods that Thai teachers currently use in their classrooms to teach English are a bit, to put it kindly, dreadful. While Thai kids are better at memorizing things than American students (mostly because that’s how they learn EVERYTHING), this is no way to teach reading. Literacy, in any language, is something that I think is extremely fundamental to a person’s growth. As a child, books opened my mind to worlds I never heard of before. While reading is not something widely treasured in the rural areas of Thailand, I want my students to have a general understanding of Roman alphabet in hopes of them one day expanding their own world outside of our village.

When introducing vocabulary to their students, Thai teachers give their students the English word, the Thai translation, and sometimes the Thai transliteration (the Thai characters of how to say the word). Thai letters look like this: กิน ข้าว, or in the English transliteration we learned in PST, gin kaao, to eat (rice). Now memorize those symbols and what sounds the make. Clearly this is not a reasonable way for the majority of students to be able to successfully sustain or build reading skills. The miraculous thing is I do have a student in one of my classes that has taught himself to read this way. He’s also the smartest student in the school, never watches TV, reads constantly, is uber (even for a Thai kid) polite, and wants to become a doctor. Not the average Thai (or any nationality) student.

ABC…Then What?
Before teaching other people to read, I never thought about phonics. My Mom taught me to sound things out when my brother and I first started to read, but it wasn’t something I consciously thought of. I knew it had to do with reading skills as I remembered the TV ad’s slogan popularizing the ‘Hooked on Phonics’ methods to improve your child’s grades instantly! Or something to that effect. It was even used as an insult in school, ‘he’s so dumb his parents hooked him on phonics.’ Kids can be cruel. This all changed when I started working at a learning center called Advanced Learning Processes and I’ve proudly become the phonics girl of Peace Corps Thailand Group 123.

I remember hearing about this program in the early '90s, do you?

It was at ALPs that I learned how to teach someone, that might not identify the letters and their sounds so intrinsically, to read. From naming the sounds from the way your lips form to block chains to loud vs. quiet pairs, the methods I learned have helped me immensely not only teaching my students to read, but also for them to properly pronounce them as well. This usually leads to lots of laughs in class because I’ve got my tongue either hanging out of my mouth or my hands making the motions of my tongue and mouth. Sometimes they giggle uncontrollably because they don’t know what to do when their teacher is making a downright fool of themselves for their learning and entertainment. Like when I pretended I was eating bugs out of a student’s hair as a monkey to understand the benefits of the letter U and its sound.

I think reading/phonics is the most important English skill to teach my students as well as train my coteachers how to do it. Most Thai students will use English mostly to take tests which are fairly difficult to pass when a majority of them (the students that I’ve come across anyway) can not read. Teachers realize it’s important for their students to read, but they don’t know how to teach it. I come in and start explaining little tricks such as, two vowels go walking, the first (usually) does the talking (for example oa, ie, ea), jumping ‘e’ makes vowels say their name (or become long) instead of their sound (short), the difference of c’s sound depending on the vowel following it, ca(t), cu(t), co(t) vs. ce(ll), ci(ty), (fan)cy. These are all brand new ideas to my Thai coteachers, ones I am glad to share. Many times I see my them in the back taking notes about what I’m teaching that day and we clarify afterwards so they can fully explain to students later if the students don’t understand me.

So What Do I Do?
Every consonant has a pair, well a family at least. The order that I start with is what I learned in ALPs, but any order can work well with students. Gifted at memorizing, they generally know and can write their ABCs in order, but when it comes to a simple word, like bip, pronouncing it like it reads instead of spelling it, they had no idea where to start, so that’s where we did. Three letters a day, two consonants (Bb/Pp) and a vowel (Ii), we do the letter name and then I tell them what sound it makes. After we’ve gone through the letters and mixing up which one I point to so I know they really know it, we move to two letter combos.

Now, each of my students have a piece of paper with two thick black lines and a dotted one in the middle so that they know how big to make their letters. This is especially useful for Asian students that use characters instead of the Roman alphabet. That piece of paper is in a plastic paper protector, the kind you put in binders. This idea was given to us by another Volunteer in my group to work as a cheap whiteboard. The biggest expense is making sure all students have a marker that is still capable of writing, we burn through those quickly.

Simple yet effective when teaching the difference between capitalized and non-capitalized letters to students that have never seen either before

With the letter combos, I tell them how many letters I’m going to use and then read the word for them, for example ip. The first few times they’re really confused and have no idea what to write, so I slow it down for them going letter by letter. Next, they write the letters on their mini-whiteboards and I have them hold them up to show me. I like to make a big deal about it to give them positive reinforcement, something they don’t get a lot of in English class. I’ll borrow someone’s board and have the class tell me the letters they wrote, what sounds they make on their own, and then how it reads. The last bit we’re still working on and I’ve come up with something else to help them with this part of reading.

After they erase and we do another few with two letters, we bump it up to three. If we’re still using our first three letters of b,p, and i, it doesn’t leave us with a lot of combination options, but it’s usually too confusing for them when you first start to do many more than, bip, pib, or ipb (though I usually stay with consonant vowel consonant combinations). When you move into your next letter set, Tt/Dd and Aa for my classes, it meant there was automatic review built-in for the old letters. I just make sure to always have one of the new letters in each of the words.

After we learned all the short vowel sounds, I added something new to the lineup that looks a little like this:


My students have trouble with identifying the vowel sounds, so I figured I would help them get extra practice by hearing the difference between at vs. et vs. it. This is where we start using the same consonant until the get the hang of it and also reading the two letters together. It’s helped a lot with their vowel pronunciation as well as reading frequency. After they get the hang of it, I start with the letter combinations again.

With my lower levels, we still start doing two letters, the vowel they already have and then adding the consonant that I say, let’s use our ip example. They usually find the vowel sound and then listen to me say the consonant sound again and then write it down next to the vowel. After we have one consonant attached to each of the vowels, (let’s say ab, ed, ip, om, and ug, but with my older kids I sometimes do a combination of both initial and ending consonants, for example ab, de, ip, mo, ug) we add another consonant, say I call out, sip. They find the vowel consonant combination that sounds most like what they have already, add the other consonant, and then I pretend like I’m a dummy and have them tell me which vowel, in the front or back, and which consonant to add to the board version.


And then…


Right now, we finish out each vowel with a third consonant due to my students’ level. When each vowel is completed in a CVC way, we start from the top and read each word. This is usually a really good indicator if your students are getting it or not if they can read the words without any help from your pronunciation. The important thing to remember when teaching phonics, especially in the beginning, you don’t need to use ‘real’ words to teach kids how to read. They just need to understand the sounds that the letters make together. I hope this all makes sense, a demonstration would be much easier, I’m thinking that I’ll make a mini-video sometime this school year.

Why It Works
One of the goals of my project is to introduce ‘Student Centered Learning’ techniques. Don’t worry, I didn’t understand what that was before I got here. Basically it means they, the students, are in charge. Students are actively doing what they are trying to learn and in this case, that means recognizing letter sounds when I say them, writing them down, and then being able to read it back to me (usually). This means everyone is participating in the activity, albeit widespread cheating happens, but that is a cultural thing I’m never going to be able to change.

With each student actually doing something instead of following the smartest kids in the class (usually the girls), I feel that the general reading level of my students has gotten much better already after just a few months (although when you compare the actual teaching time, it’s probably closer to a few weeks). I’m really lucky to have two coteachers that are in full support of these methods. Some Volunteers have to suffer through being the talking parrot as students write down, in Thai, what they think they’re hearing.

The next step is getting my coteachers comfortable enough to do it when I’m not there. If our students have gotten this good with phonics just twice a week, my little phonics heart skips a beat when I think about them getting it everyday. I’ve got another twenty months to get my coteachers there. I’m hoping that if they get a solid year watching and learning from me, next school year I’ll have them teaching phonics on their own. Maybe  students would actually be able to read the questions on the obscene standardized government tests that they’ll have to take at the end of the year! Now that would be a miracle this PCV can only dream about.

One last thing that I think is extremely useful if you’re starting with younger children is the TPR (total physical response) alphabet. I used this at the English camp a few weeks ago and it was a quick and easy way to get the basics across. Another Volunteer, who learned it when she was student teaching, shared it at Reconnect and I wish I had learned it earlier. TPR gives the body an action to remember the associated letter sound or word and that’s what this alphabet is all about. I’ve changed a few of my letter actions (like the monkey/U example), click here to watch the youtube video. I wish my teachers would have me help them teach the younger kids with them as well to do this alphabet, it would save a lot of headaches for them once the students reach the upper elementary level.

I hope my explanation was thorough enough. If you have ANY questions at all, please send me an email or comment and I would glad to talk things through.


5 thoughts on “How I Teach My Students to Read

    • Hey Heather,
      For the second piece, with the list of vowels, it takes me about fifteen minutes or so if we start with one other consonant and vowel combination. I’ve definitely dedicated more time than suggested to phonics because I feel that my coteachers already know how to present vocabulary, so I focus a lot on phonics. With older students, like at the English camp I had a few weeks ago, they pretend like it’s not necessary, but it showed that they really did need to work on it after they failed miserably at this. Hope this works for you, let me know how you like it!

      • With my p4 and 5 I can stick to the recommended time frame, but with my m1 they are struggling more. We definitely go longer on phonics because we get 3 hours a week with m1, and my coteacher thinks teaching them to read is important. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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