Phoneme -Grapheme decoding in Phonics-Based Instruction of English as a Second Language at an Italian High School: A Randomised Controlled Trial

  • Robert Coates Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi
  • Judith Gorham Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi
  • Richard Nicholas Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi
Keywords: Critical Period Hypothesis, prosody, phonics, orthography, pronunciation, phoneme-grapheme decoding, TESOL


Recent neurological breakthroughs in our understanding of the Critical Period Hypothesis and prosody may suggest strategies on how phonics instruction could improve L2 language learning and in particular phoneme/grapheme decoding. We therefore conducted a randomised controlled-trial on the application of prosody and phonics techniques, to improve phoneme-grapheme decoding, to test these findings on a typical late high school cohort of Italians. A trial group of 24, 17-18 year-olds followed a short 10-week, 20-hour trial course and were compared to a control (14 students) preparing for the Cambridge First Certificate exam. The trial group were given phoneme/grapheme decoding material and event-related-potential reinforcement in substitution of traditional exam practice, taught from a current textbook and web-site material. Results showed that the trial-group significantly improved in both orthography (p=0.048) and pronunciation (p=0.000), in particular in the long vowel and digraph categories. Furthermore, they significantly improved in a shortened interview category (p=0.024), for lexis, discourse and pronunciation. Due to the trial’s small size, we concentrated on reducing type 2 statistical errors to a minimum. We believe that our results confirmed the neurological findings of the use of prosody in TESOL and confirmed the validity of phonics techniques for L2 teaching. We also consider that the results are sufficiently robust to warrant a full-sized trial of phonics and prosody as a valid TESOL teaching technique


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Author Biographies

Robert Coates, Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi

Robert Coates graduated from Edinburgh University, with a general arts degree followed by an M.A. in History, I subsequently gained an M.A TESOL from Sunderland University (UK) in 2014. I worked at Brescia University, initially in the Medical Faculty teaching medical English, where I started cooperating with various Medical Doctors in publishing articles in Medical journals as a Medical Writer. This led to my first ESP research area of Medical Publishing in English. My interest in using medical approaches to linguistic studies particularly for empirical research, stemmed from early interest. Subsequently, following my MA TESOL, I became interested in learning strategies both at schools and for older students. Given the widespread use of phonics for L1 teaching, I was particularly interested in the possibility of applying these techniques to L2 teaching, both for children and for older students. Again, contact with both psychologists and neurologist cultivated a strong interest in ‘cross-fertilized’ research, applying findings from medicine in linguistics.

Judith Gorham, Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi

Judith Gorham After graduating in Fine Art from Newcastle University. I took a PGCE before coming to Italy to teach at the British Council in 2000. I took the DELTA in 2002 and worked in the tertiary sector in Northern Italy. I have been teaching at Bocconi University for 15 years while currently finishing an MA in Education (Applied Linguistics) from the Open University. I am interested in Systemic Functional Linguistics and currently working on English as a Medium of Instruction in Italian Universities.

Richard Nicholas, Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi

Richard Nicholas holds an MA TESOL from University College London and teaches at the Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi, in Milan, Italy. He has worked for over 15 years in the field of English language training, development and assessment. His interests lie mainly in the socio-economic and geopolitical relationships which influence the teaching of English as well as second language acquisition.


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How to Cite
Coates, R., Gorham, J., & Nicholas, R. (2018). Phoneme -Grapheme decoding in Phonics-Based Instruction of English as a Second Language at an Italian High School: A Randomised Controlled Trial. GiST Education and Learning Research Journal, (15), 29-67.