Chinese Pilots' English Learning Soars with The Spalding Method


Aviation communication must be clear, precise and comprehendible to insure the safety of all. When a US flight school needed an effective method to teach English as a second language to Chinese pilots, the school found success with instructors who used The Spalding Method, an integrated language arts program.


PHOENIX - Oct. 5, 2012 - When English language instructors Dan and Ya-mei Shaffer first interviewed with a US flight academy in 2007, flight instructors complained that many Chinese students had problems with listening comprehension and pronunciation. These are compounded in the cockpit of an airborne plane where students must multi-task - flying the airplane properly while at the same time looking out for other aircraft, checking their location against landmarks on the ground, paying attention to their flight instructor and listening to the aviation radio. Air traffic controllers at the airport complained that during radio contact, some students mispronounced "left" and "right" - a serious matter where you have parallel runways titled, "Runway 7 Left" and "Runway 7 Right."

Chinese student pilot


The Shaffers are certified instructors in The Spalding Method, a multi-sensory, integrated language arts approach for teaching speech, spelling, writing and reading. This method uses the textbook "The Writing Road to Reading," originally written by the late Romalda B. Spalding in the 1950s. In 1986 she founded a nonprofit organization in Phoenix to carry on her work. Today, Spalding Education International regularly updates her textbook and certifies teachers in her method. Over the years, this method has been successful at helping all students succeed in learning English regardless of socio-economic group, ethnicity or native language - including those at Title 1 schools or those in English as a Second Language programs.


From 2007 to 2011, the Shaffers used The Spalding Method to teach aviation English to hundreds of Chinese student pilots at a flight academy at Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix. These pilots were sent by Chinese airlines to be trained as commercial transport pilots.


"All instruction and testing was in English," said Dan. "This represented an immense linguistic and technical challenge. Pilots and air traffic controllers must be able to understand one another accurately in routine and non-routine situations."


Because radiotelephony communication between pilots and air traffic controllers is entirely verbal, listening comprehension, good pronunciation, and the ability to hear, understand, and repeat back complex instructions are critical. Unfortunately, two-way radios have relatively poor sound quality and regular background interference, making the task more challenging.


"The more we listened to the problems, the more we were convinced that The Spalding Method - particularly the phonograms - would be helpful in teaching students how to decode English words and make connections between the written language and the spoken language," said Dan. "The pronunciation of the Chinese student pilots was not accurate enough for them to communicate well. We accepted the teaching challenge and went to work."


Most Chinese Lacking in Verbal English Skills
Most Chinese students receive 10 years of English language instruction in middle school, high school and college. Unfortunately, the emphasis is on written English and rote memorization to pass exams. Students were seldom tested on verbal skills such as listening comprehension or pronunciation, and most had little or no opportunity to interact conversationally with native English speakers. The Shaffers also learned students had few decoding skills for the accurate pronunciation of English words


"They could read a sentence in English, but many were not able to read it aloud in a way that would be easily understood by a native speaker," said Dan. "The missing element was the logical connection between spelling and pronunciation - the phonemic awareness that is cultivated so effectively by The Spalding Method."


Realizing this, the Shaffer's first priority was to teach students the Spalding phonograms. Using phonograms and vocabulary development, they would emphasize words that the Chinese pilots needed to use in their interactions with air traffic controllers, as well as with their flight and ground instructors. However, several phonograms presented a special challenge to the majority of the students. In spoken Mandarin Chinese, words ending in voiced consonant sounds are much less common than in English. Voicing "n" and "m" at the end of English words was a challenge for many students, as were the two sounds of "th," as these are non-existent sounds in Mandarin Chinese.


Morrison-McCall spelling tests and McCall-Crabbs reading assessments were used to discern the relative English proficiency of the students. Those who seemed weaker were assigned supplemental classes to help them catch up.


Phonograms Help Teach Correct Pronunciation
"Explicit teaching of the Spalding phonograms also helped in teaching the correct pronunciation of aviation terms that might otherwise sound identical if mispronounced," said Dan. He cited the words "altitude" versus "attitude" as examples.


One day a frustrated flight instructor asked Ya-mei to talk with one of his students. The student replied that his instructor said he could not say "read write." Ya-mei said, "I can understand you, 'read,' as in 'read a book' and 'write' as in 'write your name.'" "No!" the student insisted, who then wrote what he was trying to say, "red light," which is important to understand because a red light in the cockpit means something needs immediate attention.


"Our Spalding training empowered us to help him and other students to recognize and correct pronunciation problems," said Ya-mei.


After several weeks of intensive aviation-oriented English classes, students begin flight and ground school instruction to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to earn a Private Pilot License. Within six months, flight instructors told Shaffers they had seen definite improvement in students' pronunciation and in their ability to communicate in English. Some students said learning the Spalding phonograms allowed them to recognize the relationship, in English, between the spoken language and the written language. Previously, words such as "please" and "police" sounded exactly the same to them.


In the spring of 2010, the flight academy sent the Shaffers to China to provide pre-instruction to future trainees to improve their English proficiency. They concluded their full-time teaching for the academy in October 2010, but continue to work on-call for special projects. The Chinese airline sponsoring the students was pleased with the results of their teaching in China, and for the past three years the Shaffers have been returning to China to teach aviation English at the Civil Aviation Flight University of China in Guanghan, Sichuan Province.


"The flight academy's emphasis is on producing safe, professional airline pilots," said Ya-mei. "The school wanted to see better results and fewer problems with the students as a result of better English."


Mission accomplished.


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About Spalding Education International
Spalding Education International (SEI) is dedicated to teaching all students to spell, write and read. The organization was founded in 1986 by Romalda B. Spalding, author of "The Writing Road to Reading" - a comprehensive K-6 total language arts program that closely aligns with the Common Core Standards. In the Spalding Method, instruction is explicit, systematic, interactive, diagnostic and multi-sensory. SEI courses are accredited by the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council (IMSLEC) for its literacy instructional programs for teachers and Spalding teacher trainers. Classroom and resource room teachers, adult educators, as well as home educators in the United States, Canada, Australia, Central America, Europe, Singapore and Taiwan are currently using the Spalding Method. SEI is a nonprofit, tax exempt 501(c)(3) corporation based in Phoenix, Ariz. For more information, call 1-623-434-1204 or visit


Contact: Jim Sexton / 623-434-1204 /