What is Wrong with Phonics

The problems of phonics

The Problems of Phonics

In a previous post I outlined some reasons why basic phonics instruction is essential for EFL (English as a Foreign Language) children. However, I also believe that too much phonics is an inefficient use of limited class time. Here are some reasons why excessive phonics training is unnecessary.

The English language is not phonetically regular.

Many teachers treat phoneme-grapheme correspondences as an infallible law similar to music or mathematics. The problem is that there are so many exceptions to every phonics rule without much reason. These exceptions are usually brushed over as sight words or ignored altogether.

Take a look at some of these word pairs to see what I mean.

  • have – gave
  • love – cove
  • come – home
  • chocolate – late

Basically the above rule is that a final ‘e’ or magic ‘e’ makes the previous vowel long… except when it doesn’t. I have read that only about 65% of the English language if phonetically regular.

Even English speakers can’t agree.

There are substantial pronunciation and spelling differences between UK and US English, not to mention all the other variations around the world. Short ‘a’ in the UK is much closer to the short ‘o’ sound in the US. The short ‘o’ sound in the UK is much closer to the long ‘o’ in the US.  Should it be ‘color’ or ‘colour?’ Some zealots even go so far as to say that the modified English in countries like Singapore or the Philippines is not ‘correct English.’ Also, don’t forget all the new slang and short hand English that is developing because of text messaging (e.g. R U OK?).

So who is right then? The Queen’s English? American English? English is a global language that is evolving. We don’t speak or spell like Shakespeare did, but that doesn’t make old English correct or incorrect. The English language depends on who is speaking it and when in history you are observing.

Many English teachers can’t even produce the correct vowel sounds.

I have found that most novice EFL teachers don’t know the short and long vowel sounds themselves. I had to memorize the sounds as well when I started teaching. Why should we hammer these phonetic sounds into children’s heads if their teachers are having trouble was well?

Phonics is NOT reading.

Phonics training does not include actually giving meaning to words. Being able to say the words on a page doesn’t mean that students actually understand the meaning. Reading is about understanding what words mean not just being able to vocalize the sounds.

Spelling rules are complicated.

Remember all those crazy spelling rules that seem to have countless exceptions; “i’ before ‘e’ except after c.” “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking.” Those types of rules are great except when students start discovering all the exceptions. (weird, friend, height, etc.)

Students can’t read what they can speak.

Young children want to talk about their favourite video games, TV programs, hobbies, likes and dislikes etc. Constricting their reading and writing to a set phonics teaching system greatly limits the topics you can cover. When will  children learn to read and write phonetically irregular sentences like “I want chocolate?” Stories like ‘big bugs on a bed” don’t even come close to expressing children’s feelings and interests.

Phonics is boring.

Children who are reading Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings in their own language are not going to get excited by reading “a fat cat on a mat” stories. Sure it is possible to make phonics learning more entertaining through games and activities but it is pretty hard to create interesting stories from graded phonics readers.

Reading is NOT only left to right.

For many words in English, the entire word has to be seen in order to determine what sounds the previous letters represent (photograph versus photographer, hat versus hate or vacation versus vaccine). This is important because reading is not just decoding graphemes into phonemes. There are many mental processes involved.

Children are smart and can discover phonics are their own.

Extensive phonics (teaching all the sound letter correspondences) approaches generally assume that students must be explicitly taught all the phonics in a strict order. This ignores the fact that students can and do deduce the sounds on their own by reading themselves. In many cases, not all, it can be more effective for students to learn the sound representations of letters from the words themselves. It doesn’t always have to be a constructivist approach of building up words from individual sounds. Children who are exposed to words and letters soon start to see patterns and make inferences on their own.

For example, in my classes I have never once mentioned or even highlighted the sound that the ending ‘y’ makes in words like ‘twenty’ or ‘happy.’ Yet students never have a problem with writing or reading the final ‘y.’ They all discover it on their own through exposure.

The secret to becoming a better reader is…

Reading! The more children are read to and the more they read, the better readers they become. While that may seem obvious it doesn’t seem that way to many academics.

The often cited ‘Rose Report’ showed that  extensive and explicit phonics instruction boosted literacy levels by small but significant amounts. However, what often gets ignored is that the children in the study were given several extra hours of reading training every week. There were private tutors for students falling behind and even parents were trained and strongly encouraged to give extra reading practice at home. Of course, students are going to improve their reading ability if they are spending so much extra time reading.

Phonics research like this without control groups make it difficult to attribute the reading improvements to any single cause. Are students reading better because of phonics or is it because of the extra 5 to 8 hours a week of reading practice? You can lose weight by running to McDonald’s but that doesn’t mean that a BigMac diet is good for you.

What the research really says.

In almost all reading studies, richer children read better than poorer children and girls read better than boys. What is the cause of those differences. Could it be that richer children read more than poorer children and girls read more than boys?

Whole language proponents like Stephen Krashen often point out that access to interesting reading material at home and at libraries is a far more important indicator of reading ability than extensive phonics training. (Keep in mind that Whole Language methods also incorporate basic phonics instruction. Many phonics extremists misrepresent Whole Language reading instruction as a no phonics approach.)

How much phonics instruction do children need?

The question is NOT ‘phonics or no phonics’. It is how much phonics needs to be taught?  For native English children with massive amounts of English exposure extensive phonics instruction might not be necessary at all if they have active parents that read to them from a young age.

EFL students and even ESL children can definitely benefit from basic phonics instruction even if it continues into their teens. Also, individual children may need extra time and help depending on their own circumstances. Phonics training is important at a certain stage of reading readiness but there are dangers in doing too much. Do we as teachers want to endlessly bore our students with meaningless reading activities and drills thereby taking away precious class time from real communicative activities?

The primary point I am making is that phonics shouldn’t be the focus of EFL classes. It is one important but small component. Every reading and writing activity can be phonics reinforcement. Teachers don’t need to spend 30 or 40 minutes every class for years on phonics drills and activities. In once a week classes with regular writing homework and reading activities, I would say that 5 to 15 minutes per class will suffice. Spend your time on helping your students comfortably speak English and children will gain reading proficiency on their own if they are reading regularly.

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2 Responses to “What is Wrong with Phonics”
  1. on 23 Mar 2013 at 3:42 pmJenny Byrne

    How can children read regularly if they are not taught to read? Guessing isn’t reading.

  2. on 27 Mar 2013 at 3:15 pmJohn

    Thanks for the comment Jenny.

    First off, whole language proponents like Stephen Krashen and myself, do not advocate for ZERO phonics. Why do extreme phonics proponents often misrepresent this as a zero or 100% issue, when it’s clearly not? Basic phonics instruction is critical. The problem is that phonics training loses it’s value as more esoteric ‘rules’ are taught.

    For example, have versus gave, give versus hive. What’s the ‘rule’? The ‘magic e’ makes the preceding vowel long… except when it doesn’t?

    I advocate for maximum effectiveness. The approach that works for beginners, is rarely what intermediate learners require. Teachers need to adapt to students, not the other way around.

    The English language is only about 65% phonetically regular. Teaching it as if there were clear and direct correlations between every grapheme and phoneme is misleading and confusing to children. Even native English speakers from different countries have different ideas on the phonemes of long and short vowels.

    In all phonics programs, words that don’t follow the rules get lumped into ‘sight words’. These are often brushed over in side lessons that don’t fit the phonics curriculum. Why is that form of ‘guessing’ okay? The reason is that there is no other way. Even adult, native English speakers have to guess at pronunciation and meaning of words they don’t know. That is a key part of reading in every language.

    After the basics, children need to read to learn to read. It’s just like swimming, playing the piano or mathematics. Memorizing rules, that aren’t really rules or doing skill based drills is not reading. Even worse, it’s boring. “Sid the pig did a jig on a rig.” is not particularly valuable in my view. Dr. Suess and Harry Potter did more for children’s reading than any reading methodology.

    The most important issue is whether or not you believe children are intelligent and capable of inferring associations for themselves. The industrial age mindset is that all knowledge must be imparted from the teacher. That is what is commonly referred to as ‘teaching’. I think that has largely been proven false. Children can and do learn themselves if given the opportunity. We don’t have to ‘teach’ everything. Kids are capable of discovering for themselves, if given the right environment.

    Children don’t need to be ‘taught’ to talk. They learn through massive amounts of comprehensible input and actively using what they know, or ‘guessing’, as you say. It’s the same with reading.

    All the best,

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