By Dr Susan Russak and Dr Richard Wong

01 February 2019 - 17:01

Pink letters on a white background
'Children must learn to turn the words they see in a text into sounds and make sense of these sounds.' Photo  ©

Jason Leung used under licence and adapted from the original

What is a phonics approach to learning to read, and how can you use it in the classroom with younger children? We asked Dr Richard Wong fromThe Hong Kong University of Education and Dr Susan Russak from Beit Berl Academic College, Israel.

What is phonics? Why is it important?

We often hear educators say, 'What children can say today forms the basis for what they can read and write in the future'. But this only tells part of the story.

To read English successfully, children must learn to turn the words they see in a text into sounds, and make sense of these sounds. It is important for children to learn letter-sound relationships because English uses letters in the alphabet to represent sounds.

Phonics teaches this information to help children learn how to read. Children learn the sounds that each letter makes, and how a change in the order of letters changes a word’s meaning. For example, if we don’t pay attention to letter order, words such as ‘dog’ and ‘pat’ might be misread as ‘god’ and ‘tap’ respectively. 

Studies on children’s reading development have shown that the phonics approach is more effective than meaning-based approaches, such as the whole-language approach, in improving young children’s reading skills.

The whole-language approach encourages rote memorisation based on a child's visual memory of individual words. For example, to help children recognise the words ‘pig’, ‘big’ and ‘dig’, teachers might put these words in the following sentences and encourage the children to read these sentences multiple times: 'I can see a big pig. The pig can dig in the mud. The pig is having a mud bath.' Children would memorise ‘big’, ‘pig’, and ‘dig’ as three separate lexical units. They would not be encouraged to grasp that any other words containing the part ‘-ig’ (e.g., ‘fig’) would be similar in pronunciation.

Breaking the code of written language

In contrast, the phonics approach focuses on analytical skills for breaking the code of written language. Teachers would highlight that, although the words ‘big’, ‘pig’, and ‘dig’ have different onsets (beginning sounds), the three words contain the same rhyme family ‘-ig’. Children would reflect on the shared spelling patterns across the target words. Knowledge of these patterns will help children sound out familiar words, and predict the pronunciation of unfamiliar words.

Critics of phonics often claim that this approach does not focus enough on meaning. It does not encourage children to learn how to use words in meaningful contexts, and stories that are used to highlight the target letter-sound relationships are often nonsensical.

Vocabulary instruction can go hand-in-hand with phonics instruction. Key words that contain the target letter-sound relationships are first embedded in fun visuals that make sense to the children. Vocabulary instruction is followed by games through which children learn to identify and manipulate sounds.

How can we choose a phonics programme?

There are different commercial phonics programmes. Some begin by highlighting the most frequently occurring letters in English (e.g., s, i, t) and then teach children how to blend these letters to form words (e.g., s, i, t to form ‘sit’).

Others take a different approach, for example by seeking to improve children’s phonological awareness – sound awareness and manipulation skills – before teaching letter-sound relationships.

Sound awareness refers to children’s abilities to identify the different sound units within a word, for example, syllables, onsets, rhymes (vowels with/without an ending consonant) and phonemes (individual sounds).

Sound manipulation includes combining sound units to form a word (known as blending, e.g., b + ad = bad) or breaking a word down into its component sound units (known as segmentation, e.g., bad = b + ad).

Research indicates that children who have learned strong phonological awareness acquire reading with greater ease and success than children who haven't.

The effectiveness of various phonics programmes depends on children’s ages. We write more about this below.

How should teachers prepare a phonics lesson for preschool children?

As mentioned earlier, phonics instruction should be integrated with vocabulary instruction, because the ultimate goal is to help children make sense of what they have 'sounded out' from a text. This can be done by first introducing words (e.g., cat, hat, rat, fat) using multi-sensory activities and stories.

The vocabulary provides the context for highlighting the target letter-sound relationships (the words in the above example all contain the rhyme family 'at'), whereas the stories help children understand how the words are used.

Next, teachers should encourage the children to say the target words aloud. This can be done by embedding the words in chants, nursery rhymes or games.

Once the children are able to say the whole words, the next step is to use activities to teach phonological awareness by directing the children’s attention to the sound units within words (e.g., syllables, onsets, rhymes, phonemes) and encouraging the children to manipulate these sound units (e.g., blending and segmenting).

Teachers should vary the type of phonological awareness tasks in line with the age of children.

For three-year-old children, the teachers can count with them the number of syllables within the target words (e.g., clapping hands twice for the word Carol to indicate that this word has two syllables).

For four-year-old children, teachers can focus on the rhyme families and onsets within words. For example, teachers can say ‘cat, c-at, cat’ to highlight the onset c and the rhyme ‘at’ for the word ‘cat’, and then encourage children to blend the onset c and rhyme ‘at’ to form the word ‘cat’.

For five-year-old children, teachers can add in visual cues to show how to break a word down into its onset and rhyme (e.g., cat = c + at).

With this foundation of phonological awareness, associating sounds with letters will be much easier for children.

Can phonics be included as a small part of each lesson?

Because practice makes perfect, it is ideal if a teacher can integrate phonics into every English lesson.

Teachers can do this by encouraging children to apply the phonics skills they have learned to words they encounter in stories and nursery rhymes. For example, in a story session, teachers can count with the children the number of syllables in target words, and also encourage the children to think whether the key words contain onsets, rhyme families and letters that they have learnt previously.

How can parents help their children with phonics?

Parents play a crucial role in fostering children’s reading development. It helps if parents recycle the words that their children have learnt from school in their daily conversations. It also helps if parents read with their children stories that have been encountered in school.

Parents can reinforce their children’s knowledge of letter-sound relationships by asking questions such as, 'What is the beginning letter in this word? What sound does it make? What is the last letter in the word? What sound does it make?’

Parents whose first language is not English

Parents who are not native-level speakers of English might be concerned about the influence of their English on their children’s pronunciation skills. However, provided that children have regular access to a variety of speakers (even through videos), their English pronunciation can improve.

Parents can encourage their children to listen to nursery rhyme recordings and sing along. Singing allows children to practise using their articulators (speech organs), and to compare their articulation of words with a good model. Another strategy is for the parents to look up the English translation for words from the first language on their mobile phones, play the pronunciation, and ask their children to repeat the words back to them.

Besides worrying about their own English pronunciation, parents might wonder whether their children are at a disadvantage compared to monolingual English-speaking children because their home language does not use the Latin alphabet. This concern is unwarranted because, in the early years, no child is able to read on his or her own; all children are learning the Latin alphabet from scratch.

However, children learning English as a second or additional language tend to have a much smaller oral vocabulary size. When they attempt to sound a word out, they might not be able to make sense of what they have just sounded out. A strong focus on vocabulary instruction is therefore crucial for these children.

Helping young learners who are having difficulty learning to read

If a child is struggling to learn to read, it is important to identify whether the difficulties arise from a lack of oral vocabulary (the child cannot make sense of what they have sounded out) or a poor understanding of the letter-sound relationships in English (the child cannot sound out a word).

If the cause is the former, teachers and parents should use stories or informational texts to introduce words, and discuss their meanings or word use. If it is the latter, phonics will be the solution.

However, if the child does not respond to any of these interventions and consistently performs below their peers, we recommend seeking help from specialists.

Limitations of phonics

While phonics can help children learn to sound out both familiar and unfamiliar words in texts, the approach has limitations. In English, many high-frequency words are irregular. The word ‘one’ does not have a ‘w’, but it begins with the sound /w/. Although the word ‘of’ ends with the letter ‘f’, the ending sound is actually /v/.

These irregularities mean that, even after having learnt phonics, children will still need to rote-learn the pronunciation of many words. However, from an educational perspective, being able to predict the pronunciation of many words using letter-sound knowledge is still better than having to rote-learn the pronunciation of all words in a text.

Join Susan and Richard's webinar An innovative way to teach ESL children phonics on 26 February 2019. 

Dr Susan Russak and Dr Richard Wong are co-authors of the preschool series, Get Set Go! Phonics, which won an ELTons Innovation Award in 2018.

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