Phonics - Why teach them?

Teaching Phonics - Introduction

As native speakers, we have a thorough knowledge of our own phonic system, and as children this not only allowed us to read and write words we already knew, but to make informed guesses as to the spelling or pronunciation of words we hadn't met before. This rule is true even now, and is invaluable to us as speakers, readers and writers of English.

We may not have been taught phonics explicitly in school, but we were able to 'intuit' them simply as a result of being surrounded by our language. In our lessons, however, the students are only exposed to English for an hour a week, meaning that to simply acquire a solid is far more difficult - almost impossible. Without these rules, the only knowledge that our students have to draw on is in Japanese, leading to the kind of mistakes that we see every day.
In the curriculum, the children are largely taught to learn whole chunks of language, and noun phrases, and are rarely if ever required to read any of the language presented to them. However, once they start YLE, they are suddenly expected to read rather than recognise, write rather than copy, and to attempt to learn and use words that they haven't encountered in full sentences, which they haven't been prepared for. As such, it would seem that the earlier that we start teaching our students how to recognise the 'building blocks' of English, and the rules that accompany them, the better they will do once they reach the point where they're expected to be more independent learners.

Teaching Phonics - Why Teach Phonics Every Lesson?

Simply put, phonics is easy to learn, but completely alien for most of our students. It's often contrary to what they know as speakers of Japanese, it's full of strange sounds like 'eff', 'ess', 'vee' and to make matters worse, they only see it for 50 minutes a month, 40 times a year. I am a terrible student of Japanese, but simple common sense dictates that I'd do better spending five minutes a day learning and reviewing Japanese on my way to work, than sit down on the 1st day of the month and study for an hour.
Moreover, whilst I can use my Japanese pretty much whenever I choose, the children can't usually speak English except with me! As the key to learning phonics is reinforcement, including a 10-minute phonic focus into a regular lesson from 3 years old level will give kids a much better chance of succeeding once they reach the YLE curriculum.

Teaching Phonics - How Should We Teach Phonics

The following is a common progression that's effective for learners who don't use the Roman Alphabet in their native language (paraphrased from Paul, D.; Teaching English To Children In Asia, Longman, 2003). If there's a YLE student that's completely new to English, the first 5 points will give them a quick 'boost', however the items on the list build on each other, so it's best to make sure they're covered properly so that students aren't asked to read/write something that they don't know to tackle.

1. Vowels
2. Consonants (starting with simple, easily pronounced consonants and moving to more complex ones like 'v' 'f' and 'r')
3. Vowel-Consonant Combinations (2-letter, phonically regular combinations)
4. Consonant-vowel-consonant Combinations (3-letter, phonically regular combinations)
5. Longer phonically regular words (melon, banana, introduce 2+letter consonants e.g. frog, apple)
6. Special Combinations (Dipthongs - ay, ow, ou etc., Digraphs - ch, sh, wh etc.)
7. Dipthong-consonant combinations (for example ee->ree->tree)
8. Special rules ('magic 'e'', the trailing a in panda, Canada, banana etc.)
Teaching the single-letter phonics is essentially a matter of attaching a phonically regular 'anchor word' to the target phonic, first teaching the anchor word, then demonstrating how the anchor word relates to the phonic sound. The letter names are often confusing, in that the A-ay sound is totally different from the 'a-apple' sound that we're looking for - children often know the letter names but these often hinder rather than help learning.
Personally I don't like to focus on letter names, but it's perfectly feasible to teach the phonic A(ay)a(a.)apple, which shows the different sound but doesn't focus on the letter name. Once the students are comfortable with the anchor word, it's important to gradually shift the focus to the phonic sound, and try to isolate it from just the one anchor word - moving students to identify other words they know which start with the same phonic helps this process, for example B, b, book, banana, baseball.
Phonically regular meaning that the anchor word begins with the same sound as the phonic sound, rather than just the same letter. As an example - I, i, insect rather than I, i, ice cream. There are many phonics cards designed for native English-speaking children, but these only serve to confuse rather than to help Japanese learners - don't use them! I use a really good set of cards from an old job, which i can thoroughly recommend, but there are many others out there.

As native speakers, much of this may seem simple, but recognising that the single phonic sound 'g' is different to the same letter as part of the word 'get' or 'gum' is quite a subtle distinction - as before, most Japanese children will try to pronounce the word as 'go-et' or 'go-um', as their only frame of reference is the g= sound in Japanese. As such, what seems like quite a small amount of work becomes a much larger task when presenting it to such infrequent students.

Teaching Phonics - What Should We Expect From Our Students?

As our students range in age and as such in the development of their native language, the goals that we set for them must be appropriate for their age. Having talked to teachers and looked at similar and more intensive English curricula, the following would seem to be reasonable goals for our students:
NB – this is the progression for a student who starts the programme at Aged 3 and goes through the complete curriculum. For the first and second years, the expectations will be different for Aged 4 and Aged 5, and are detailed in the curriculum outline.
Aged 3
Students can:
• Can recognise, read and write all the single-letter phonics, preferably without resorting to the phonic anchor word
• Can connect the phonic sound that they know with other English words
• Are able to produce phonics out-of-order, and without input from flashcards, anchor words etc.
Aged 4
All of the above, as well as:
• Reading and writing 2-letter phonically regular combinationsReading and writing 3-letter phonically regular combination
• Reading and writing 3-letter phonically regular combination
• s
• Some 'special combinations' (see above)
Aged 5
As Ages 3 and 4 plus:
• Longer phonically regular words
• All special combinations
• Dipthong-consonant combinations
• Special rules (depending on ability - some may be better covered as part of YLE)

Teaching Phonics - How Can We Build It Into Our Lessons?

Whilst the structure of teaching phonics is quite rigid, consisting essentially of presentation, experimentation, practice and review, the way in which you apply it to your classes is very much a matter of 'whatever works'. Spending 10 minutes of each Kagai class on phonics, which usually comes after the 'controlled practice' stage of the SuperTots target language and before the 'Activity/Free Practice' Stage seems to be the most effective place to incorporate the idea. A typical phonics element usually consists of:
• Reviewing any previously learned phonics
• Adding some new phonic cards
• A short receptive game (for example a slam game, a hand out/collect in game or choosing a card from a selection)
• A song, or a productive game (essentially any 'flashcard' game)

Lastly...

Teaching phonics is often initially confusing, and can be challenging for both the teacher and students. However, the potential gains from starting as early as possible in teaching phonics are really worthwhile - once children discover that English is a 'code' that can be deciphered once you know some basic rules, their learning becomes much more 'active', and they not only enjoy studying English, they can engage with it on a much more meaningful level.
Phonics Games
Check our Phonics Games pages for tried and tested games and activities.

Lesson plans by book

Phonics lesson plans - traditional


Lets Study Phonics
Phonics lesson plans
Phonics - Why teach them?