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It sounds good

Why phonics is a useful tool when teaching English, by Melanie Butler

The first time I used phonics in an EFL class was in Italy in the late 70s – and I did it without even knowing what phonics was. An intermediate level student was talking about some character called ‘the pop’.

Finally, she mentioned the Vatican and I understood. “You mean the pope,” I said, writing the two words on the board. “See, pope has the letter e at the end, so we use a long vowel.” I wrote some other examples on the board: hop/hope, bit/bite, rat/rate, adding, “You see, the long vowel sounds like the name of the letter.”

There was a stunned silence in the class, then somebody asked, rather angrily, why nobody had bothered to tell them this before?

Like most British people of my generation, nobody ever taught me this pattern, which Americans call ‘magic E’. I’d just acquired it, like I acquired the present perfect, implicitly. But for students learning to decode the sounds a written letter represents in a foreign language it can be difficult, especially if your first language is, like Italian, ‘transparent’, which means a single phoneme is always represented by the same single grapheme, or letter.

In fact neuroscience has shown us that the first language we speak influences the way our brain processes the written word.

For example, English children use eight different areas of the brain when they are reading, while Italian children use only one, the area for decoding, according to neuroscientist Sarah Jayne Blakemore.

Meanwhile, the Basque Centre on Cognition Brain and Language has used eye- tracking to look at the way children learn to read. Even before their first reading lesson, children who speak Basque or Spanish, both transparent languages, look at a word letter by letter. By contrast, the eyes of children who speak the most opaque languages, French and English, scan to the end of the word.

We used to think that reading is a transferable skill. That is, if you learned to do it in one language then you didn’t need to be taught to read again in another, except maybe if it had a different alphabet. But that no longer appears to be true.

So, is teaching phonics the answer?

As Gill Ragsdale makes clear in her article opposite, the efficacy of teaching phonics, particularly synthetic phonics, to English language learners is not that clear. The effects are generally positive, but moderate and, as is often the case in language teaching, a lot of the research is poorly designed.

In my opinion, phonics isn’t a magic wand and it certainly shouldn’t replace reading strategies in the EFL toolbox, any more than graded readers, as Sue Leather explains on page 22, should replace authentic materials. Both approaches are useful.

Teaching reading strategies is helpful because L1 speakers of transparent languages don’t need to use them to read their own language, they just need to decode, so they are not going to try and guess the word from context or use visual clues to help them, because that isn’t part of the way they learned to read.

And teaching phonics is helpful, because in English one phoneme isn’t always represented by the same grapheme and the patterns of English spelling – think magic E – are difficult to acquire if your language is transparent.

Plus, there is another reasons why language schools and language teachers should consider introducing phonics: governments around the world are putting them on their English language curriculum, so parents and students will pay teachers and schools to teach them.

Another plus: phonics teaching works brilliantly online and there are lots of jobs for online phonics teachers.

In most of the countries which have adopted them (see box below), the local British Council teaching centres have already launched commercial phonics teaching. If the Council hasn’t added phonics to their criteria for accreditation, could that be because they want to keep the business for themselves?

Where phonics are taught

Countries where, according to Gazette research, English phonics are either on the curriculum or widely used (by language).

Chinese language regions: mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore.

Spanish speaking regions: Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile.

Arabic speaking: Saudi, UAE, Qatar.

Other: Japan, Malaysia, many Indian states.

What do all these language groups have in common?

Apart possibly, for some of the more obscure Indian languages, all of them have five to seven vowel sounds. English has 20 vowels sounds, plus two semi-vowels, but our alphabet only has five vowels and uses no accents or other diacritics.

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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