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When phonics doesn’t phit

TABLE c

Phonics can work wonders with English native-speaker children, but young English learners with another mother tongue might need a different approach to reading, writes Terry Phillips

This is not a polemic against using phonics to teach sound/sight patterns to children who are native speakers of English.

I assume, given the longevity and widespread adoption of the approach in UK and US schools, that it is an excellent way to introduce such children to the written form.

This article is, however, a plea to those teaching non-native-speakers to think very carefully before using the phonics approach with children who have just begun to learn spoken English.

I believe phonics works with a native-speaker child because the process of learning to read is a matter of recognition. The child knows the denotation of 90 per cent, or even 100 per cent, of words he or she encounters in an appropriately graded reader.

Depending on when reading lessons begin, at three, four or five a native-speaker child already recognises and produces many phonemes correctly, including all vowels.

The denotation and pronunciation do not therefore need to be taught before reading can take place. Only the relationship between phoneme and grapheme must be taught, but then the child will recognise the item and often experience the ‘ah hah’ effect as in: ‘Ah hah! So those are the letters ‘c-a-t’ and they make the sound /kat/ and that is the furry thing we keep as a pet.’

Even for the native-speaker child of English, learning the sound/sight relationship between sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes) is not easy because English is not a transparent language.

Candy Cat can cut the cake.
Emma Emu eats each egg.
Wally Whale washes his waistcoat.

In other words, one phoneme does not, in general, equate with one grapheme. Although there is usually a base relationship, e.g. ‘c’ usually = /k/, the actual possibilities are often much more complex – see the table above.

Someone has apparently worked out that each of the five vowel letters can make all of the possible vowel sounds in English. And it is also apparently true that every letter in English can be silent in a specific context.

Phonics-based materials that are eminently suitable for native-speaker children – because of their vocabulary range and spoken language proficiency – are sometimes transferred to non-native environments with little recognition of the extra learning load that is being place on the activity.

For example, take the poems, songs and chants you might find in the courses I’m referring to (see the graphic on the left for some made-up examples)
It is important to consider:

  • How many of the words does the non-native child know in the early stages of language learning?
  • How many of the phonemes can the child already pronounce with reasonable accuracy?
  • Do the chants show a clear and repetitive pattern of relationship between the target phoneme and the target grapheme, e.g. how often is ‘c’ rendered as /k/?
  • How much illustration is required to ensure that the child understands the sentence?

Learning to read is about recognising the denotation of a orthographic form, but if the child successfully decodes the written form ‘w-a-s-h’ as /wɒʃ/, but doesn’t know what ‘wash’ means, reading has not really taken place.

So what’s the answer? In my view, we should teach non-native-speaker children to start reading with the whole word method, showing them the orthographic form of words they already know and can pronounce.

In my own recent work, I try to achieve this through highly illustrated readers with familiar stories from fables and fairy tales.

It may be that non-native children never need to chant /k/ /ae/ /t/ is ‘cat’ because they can immediately recognise the whole word, which is so important in early learning.

After all, only around 20 per cent of the most common 200 words in English have a completely regular sound/sight relationship, susceptible to the phonics approach.


For details of this research, contact terry@innovapress.com