Grace Vilar – South America

Grace Vilar, former English teacher and Headteacher, is a Bilingual Literacy and Educational Consultant and Synthetic Phonics trainer based in Argentina. Grace has wide experience in bilingual Spanish and English schools in Latin America.

As an expert in the field of Literacy in the bilingual context, Grace gives training and sustained consultancy support on ‘How to teach reading, spelling and writing in English using the Synthetic Phonics method’. This includes a full generic appreciation of the Systematic Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles alongside the rationale and guidance underpinning several commercial systematic synthetic phonics programmes (Jolly Phonics, Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters, Phonics International). Based on the huge success of this approach for teaching English, Grace has subsequently developed systematic synthetic phonics for teaching Spanish and is the author of Phonics International for Spanish (PROGRAMA PHONICS INTERNATIONAL DE ALFABETIZACIÓN EN ESPAÑOL). She trains teachers who are in charge of delivering the Spanish curriculum on Fonetica y ortografia sintetica: El codigo Alfabetico Español y las habilidades de lectura y escritura.

Grace also trains on ‘Classroom Management’, ‘Cooperative learning and group work’, and ‘Reading and writing strategies’. As a Bilingual Consultant, Grace gives advice to schools on ‘How to build an effective bilingual curriculum’. She travels around Latin America sharing her knowledge, experience and her tried and tested strategies to train and support teachers in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Peru and Mexico and is herself constantly learning more about the world of bilingual literacy.

“I have been teaching English as a second language in bilingual schools in Argentina for more than 30 years now. I myself have been taught to read and write simultaneously in both languages, my two boys as well. I am now happy to share my experience with the world!

I was the Head of English Primary at Colegio San Antonio in Areco, a Spanish English bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, until December 2011. When I joined the school back in 2002, the school’s main concern was to raise standards and to help children learn the English language as accurately as possible, and that entailed reading and writing. As Spanish speakers, our children were using their Spanish hypothesis to read and write in English, they were using the Spanish alphabetic code instead of the English one. They were transferring their Spanish strategy of letter-sound correspondences to English words, so the English language started having a “Spanish accent” when reading, and “Spanish spelling” when writing. All this was causing innumerable problems, from listening and speaking to understanding.

I started the search for effective programmes to teach children how to read and write in English. At that time we were following the UK National Literacy Strategy with the ‘searchlights multi-cueing model’ to teach children to read and write. It was very hard work, and even though we became very good at teaching analytic phonics, we were very frustrated because there was always 30-40% of children who would struggle and find it very hard to learn. Children would resort to their mother tongue to be able to memorise all the English words with a complex code. When spelling, they would translate the letters of the word into Spanish sounds, so words such as ‘made’ /m/ai/d/, would be /m/ /a/ /d/ /e/, sounding out the individual letters in Spanish, then they would read that word going back to English: m/ai/d, and of course total understanding was not there!

In 2006 I had the opportunity of visiting schools in Oxford (England) and came across a “new” way of teaching children how to read and write using a Synthetic Phonics approach, and at that time it was ‘Jolly Phonics’. I was struck by how effective the programme was. Once back in Argentina, I implemented the programme and the results were unbelievable. One of the major pluses was the improvement in spelling and pronunciation, which was one of our major concerns. It was amazing to see that once the children had cracked the alphabetic code of those first 42 sounds, they immediately started to master the pronunciation and spelling of English with the accuracy we had been seeking. The children showed greater confidence in writing and reading skills and the progression to reading books, even those which were not purely phonically decodable, was seamless because children were not afraid to pick up any book and have a go at reading it. For the first time in the school, reading aloud and writing became a pleasure! Teachers started enjoying teaching in a way they had not experienced before, parents were delighted to see their children´s progress and enthusiasm showing commitment to learning. The school standards raised dramatically.

As a consequence of the good results we got in school, some other schools in Argentina got involved in the new method and started asking for training, so from my school in San Antonio de Areco, synthetic phonics started spreading all over Argentina, then Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Mexico and Brazil. We now have cumulative, decodable reading books to support the phonics teaching and results are better still.

This was the beginning of a long and important journey in my professional life as an educator, English teacher and Literacy consultant. Since then I have come a long way and I have met amazing professionals such as Sue Lloyd and Debbie Hepplewhite who became my inspiration and very good friends, and whom I meet every year when I visit the UK to continue my own professional development.

I am passionate about bilingual education and how we can better ourselves as teachers to provide more quality opportunities for our students!”

Grace Vilar 2015