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The Value of Phonics Instruction


The Value of Phonics Instruction


English is a crazy language. There is no other area where this is more profoundly manifest than in its spelling--an area where both native speakers and second language learners encounter difficulty.


Many factors are responsible for the idiosyncratic nature of English spelling. Some are due to loanwords from other languages at different points in history. Some are due to sound changes English went through at different times in its history. Sometimes the spelling change together with the sound; other times only the sound changed. These quirks have convinced some speakers that there is no reasonable correlation between English spelling and pronunciation.


Many English programs adopting a rote memorization approach to spelling. In Japan, phonics instruction is making its way in many outside English classes, but there is little to no phonics instruction in most junior high and senior high schools. Students are constantly tested for spelling, and even in the sentence composition part of an exam will be marked down if they misspell a word. Some schools even teach the phonetic alphabet in senior high school. How do they do this? Rote memorization!!! Just like they remember the spelling of each word, many students in high achieving schools have memorized how to spell many words with the English Phonetic Alphabet (it doesn't matter if they can't pronounce it!).


The correlation between English spelling and pronunciation is certainly muddled, but by no means obliterated. A native speaker or a competent second language speaker can still accurately predict the spelling of unfamiliar words with high probability. There are many irregularities but not to the point where rote memorization becomes the sole, or even the best, approach to learning English. Solid instruction in phonics will help students both their spelling and pronunciation in the long run.


Phonics is not difficult to teach. All you have to do is isolate some sounds in English. Take, for example, the sound /æ/ in cat, hat, and map. This sound is not present in Japanese, but you can teach them to bring the tongue further forward than with the Japanese /a/. Next, give them (or elicit) some words that contain this sound. Practice the sound over and over again. Now, students may come up with words that contain a different sound like cut. This is a good opportunity to compare two similar sounds. The /?/ sound in cut is similar to the Japanese /a/ (discounting some English dialects). Teach the difference between cat and cut then you can drill them with words containing /æ/ and /?/ until they have mastered the difference. You can do this with other similar sounds like /??/ and /??/ as in cord and code respectively.


As students learn more words they will start to realize that there are many possible graphemes for one sound (a grapheme is a letter or combination of letters that represent a sound). The graphemes ee, ea, ie can all represent the /i?/ sound as in sheep, speak, and believe. Conversely, the same grapheme can represent different sounds. c can be pronounced as /s/ or /k/ depending on the vowel after it. ea can be pronounced as /e/ (head), /i?/ (speak), and /e?/ (break) with no definite predicting factor. This is where students have to work hard to memorize which words are spelt with ee (sleep, meet, speed) and which are spelt with ea (read, eat, peak), or how the grapheme o is pronounced differently in "hot" and "other". By the time they reach this phase, however, having solid instruction in phonics will significantly reduce their reliance on rote memory.


There are many systematic phonics instruction programs. For children's programs, Letterland, Jolly Phonics, and Open Court Reading are among the popular programs. For more comprehensive phonics programs that can be continued long term, Letters and Sounds is used as the UK National Curriculum and the program is available online in PDF. Fitzroy Readers is a popular program from Australia and is commercially available.


One thing teachers need to be mindful of is that the best available phonics programs tend to be developed for native children. Because native children can distinguish all English sounds, these programs usually do not highlight sounds that second language learners often confuse. ESL instructors therefore must apply and modify these programs into their lessons for it to be truly effective. In environments where a wholesale implementation of new programs is not viable, one can still pick out approaches and methods from these phonics programs to apply in lessons.


Most English teachers in Japan would already be teaching the difference between /s/ and /th/, /r/ and /l/, and /b/ and /v/. The point of incorporating systematic phonics is that students gradually increase the number words they can both spell and pronounce accurately. It also enables them to predict the spelling of words they hear and predict the pronunciation of words they read.


If you are looking for something new to get better results for you students, try some phonics!

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