John Bald, an independent educational consultant, and blogger says use of phonics is crucial to teach English - but not enough
Every alphabetic system works on the basis of representing sounds by means of letters. Blending information from these sound-letter links in order to read, and putting information about sounds into letters in order to write, is the approach known as phonics, or, latterly, synthetic phonics, as the word is synthesised from the information conveyed through letters. This is the basis of reading and writing in these languages. Some people pick up the connections for themselves, no matter how they are taught, but most need to be systematically taught to use phonics.
Phonics are therefore the basis of literacy in English, but there is a snag. In some languages, notably Finnish, the correspondence between sounds and letters, and the ways in which longer words are pronounced, are almost totally regular, so that you write what you say, and say what you write.
In English, changes in the language and in pronunciation over centuries have not been matched by changes in spelling. Phonics therefore do not always tell us all we need to know to read or spell a word, and no-one pretends they do. Phonics will, though, tell us what works most of the time, and give us partial
information on words where they won’t give us the whole story. Children understand this, provided it is explained properly.
I use the following maxims:
We use what the letters tell us, but we don’t believe the letters tell us everything.
English is roughly 1,000 years old. If we were 1,000 years old, we’d have a few wrinkles too.
Once children understand that letters, like people, behave most of the time, and not all of the time, they are not given the false expectation that they can work every new word out from its letters, and so are not driven to despair when a word won’t sound out. If teaching is extended to include key irregular patterns – eg do, who, to – they can learn to recognise these alongside regular patterns, and so build up their own repertoire of words they know without having to work them out from scratch.
This is a key element in fluent reading – once we’ve worked a word out, we remember it, wholly or partly, and so don’t have to begin from zero next time we meet it. It is, in practical terms, much more economic and effective to teach children that phonics work most, but not all, of the time than to give them irregular words in different colours and just tell them to learn them, which too many phonic schemes do. This is no better than any other form of flashcard/look-and-say teaching. It is an Achilles’ heel to many schemes, and a major source of reading failure to children taught by phonic schemes.
On balance, phonics probably gives us three-quarters of what we need to know to learn to read words. This is based on estimates of the degree of regularity in English at around 75% – not a cast-iron figure, but the mid-point in a range of estimates prepared by David Crystal.
The remaining knowledge is built up of irregular patterns, of changing emphases in pronunciation – eg photograph, photographic, photographer. We must add the element of understanding – there is a “second wind” to phonics in longer words, mostly of Latin and Greek origin, which a minority of children can “read” from their sounds, without understanding what they mean. This understanding is generated chiefly by discussion, either formally or informally.
Sources of irregularity
English was flooded with French words between 1066 and 1300. Say table in French, and you hear the l before the e. We have kept the French spelling, but changed the pronunciation. Table is phonically regular – in French. So are fruit, biscuit, and circuit. The old English equivalent to table was bord, modern board.
The next changes were shifts in pronunciation over centuries so that words such as warm are no longer pronounced in a Germanic way, and some letters that used to be pronounced, such as k in knight, are now silent.
Enter Dr. Johnson, whose dictionary codified changes to spelling that had been introduced by printers. Some of these, such as the use of ough, are arbitrary. We might also mention Swift, who was furious at the shortening of the –ed in the past tense – for a time this was written with an apostrophe (from the Greek word for a gap), as in wish’d, but, no doubt because it helps handwriting to flow, we standardised on ed, though we still rarely pronounce it. Modern changes in pronunciation, usually shortcuts that are not accepted in formal English, such as the New Labour affectation of dropping t at the ends of words a are not reflected in spelling. The more of these we take, the harder it is to read and to spell.
Finally, vowels pose unique problems in English. A vowel is, in the first place, a sound made by the voice. The word is derived from the old French vouielle (roughly, vouielle – vouiel – vowel) and the word unfortunately does not contain any clear link with the idea of voice. Most of us think of vowels as letters rather than sounds. If we know that we need a vowel in every word, we mostly don’t know why, because no-one has explained why. The reason is that if there is no voice sound, we can’t hear the word. Vowels are crucial, and we would be better off with the Spanish term for them, vocals. Vowels cause problems with phonics because we have around 25 vowel sounds, and only these letters – aeiou, y, w (say w slowly, and you can hear double-u) – to make them with.
The letters are overworked. Each has to represent at least two sounds, and they have to work in combination with each other. Ou, for example, gives widely different sounds in out, should, shoulder, boutique. To read these words, we need to know what it sound ou represents in a particular word. With vowels more than any other letters, phonics gives us most of what we need to know, but not everything.
Once the explanations in the second paragraph are understood, they need to be applied. My basic approach to irregular words is to unpack and explain them, and find other words with the same spelling and sounds.
If a child misreads a regular word, I don’t work on that word, but switch to another with the same sound and spelling, and practise that one carefully. Eg, if someone reads fun as fish (a classic error as well as a real example, guessing from the first letter), I’ll write sun or make it with plastic letters, and we’ll carefully construct the word from its sounds. I’ll then change the first letter, perhaps to make gun or run, and will carry on with this until I get a look from the child that says, “this is too easy.” At that point I’ll put in sun, and he or she will usually get it right.
Phonic work for weaker readers needs to be reinforced with memory work. Within lessons, I sometimes switch attention away from the word by starting a conversation about something else – anything will do, birthdays, football, dogs, anything – then without warning switch back to the words to see if they’ve been remembered. And I always go through at the start of a lesson the words we’ve worked on last time. The more we have in our memory, the less we have to work out.
I offer free help to anyone with a literacy problem, by phone if necessary, and this service has been used by people aged 4 to 50+ from all over the country and occasionally from abroad (I see children and parents together). If you know of anyone who might find this useful, please put them in touch via my blog.