Monday, March 3, 2014

Hakalama - Syllabary Reading for Learning Literacy

Hakalama: Pūnana Leo's Literacy Program from Oiwi TV on Vimeo.

"No matter what language you learn to read in, you can transfer the skill of reading into another language. Especially if you are using the same alphabet, like English and Hawaiian." 
- Pila Wilson, PhD

Being that we chose the only non-English school option in town, it probably comes as no surprise that I am constantly fielding questions about literacy. Specifically, aren't I worried about my children "falling behind"? Though I shared many of these same concerns, I don't think anyone chooses this path believing their child will miss the proverbial bus.

Hawaiian uses a syllabary writing system, meaning 'this is what you see, this is how you say it'. Period. In my opinion, it makes learning to read simple, especially for a small child. It is no wonder that kids using syllabary systems can read up to two years earlier than their English-reading counterparts! At one point, Hawaiian schools used a funky system of alphabetic letters that were both confusing and unnecessary (L=la, N=nu, so you would spell lani as la-a-nu-i...wth???). Moving past that Western model of alphabet/phonics and using a more intuitive system like Hakalama is yet another testament to the success of teaching Hawaiian from a Hawaiian perspective. 

My kindergartener learns to read and spell using hakalama, not individual letters. For example, teaching him how to read/spell Hapuna you would simply say "ha-pu-na".  Easy peasy. We occasionally run into code-switching issues, for example English 'e' and Hawaiian 'i', which are both pronounced the same way. Today, Ikaika wanted to write "T-Rex" and wrote it "T-Rix" after listening to me spell it in English (tee-are-ie-ex). I think it helps to be very clear about what language you are using before trying to read/write/spell.

Rather than put the kids at a disadvantage, I think teaching them to read using Hakalama puts them at a distinct advantage for later bilingual literacy. They are gaining the confidence and the understanding of how literacy works using a system that makes sense, rather than English which is full of frustrating irregularities. An ELL teacher once confided in me that she spends an inordinate amount of time apologizing to her students for English ("yes, I know we said C sounds like /k/ but right now it sounds like /ch/...and now it sounds like /s/...I'm sorry."). I'm fairly confident that between me, PBS Kids and the low shelf at the grocery store, my children will be able to develop English literacy skills without the scary struggle of my pre-immersion program nightmares. The foundation is already there.

Hawaiian hakalama is similar to Japanese hiragana

As far as my children are concerned, Ikaika (elder brother) is an exceptionally bright child and has a predilection for reading that can only be credited to the Lord. I didn't notice when he began reading Hawaiian and I certainly didn't know he was capable of reading English until the day I thought we should try a few flashcards and he read a book instead. He's now interested in reading Japanese, although I'm starting to realize that in a world full of Latin letters, hiragana is awfully hard to memorize. I have to expose him to it at least every other day or its probably not going to sink in.

Now that I'm aware of the different stages of literacy I can keep an eye on Kekoa (younger brother) and get a better idea of where he is so I can better support him. Currently, he is able to understand that letters make words and words represent ideas, though he's not quite at the stage of distinguishing what those are. If you stick two cards in front of him, he can point to the one that says his name, but he can't identify the first letter as either English "K" or Hawaiian "Ke". 

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