Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language where you don’t know the writing system? Think of Korean, Arabic or Chinese. Everything looks like a big mess and you have absolutely no idea how to decipher the language.
Then try a Latin based language with characters and sounds similar to English. Maybe try Italian, French or even Hungarian. It is much easier because you have some knowledge of how to decode the letters into sounds. There will be many characters and combinations that you don’t know or are unsure of but you will likely still have a good approximation of what sounds the letters represent, even if you don’t know the meaning.
The reason you can decode Latin languages and not different writing systems is because you have a base knowledge of the phonemic code or letter to sound representations.
If you want to learn to read Japanese, it is important to first learn the two basic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) and the sounds they represent. Then you can move to the more complex characters (kanji). Without the ability to decode the letters into sounds you will NOT be able to read, period. Knowledge of phonics is absolutely essential, however there are many debates on how that phonics should be learned.
Do Phonics Need to be Explicitly Taught?
Native English children have intensive exposure to spoken and written English so that by the time they reach school age, phonics may no longer be necessary. Whole language proponents commonly site studies where children who are exposed to lots of early reading will indeed learn to read effectively without comprehensive phonics instruction.
The key point is that children are learning phonics but it may not be in a classroom setting. Phonics extremists often say that it is impossible to read by memorizing the shapes of words and indeed it is. What many overlook is the fact that children are intelligent and curious and capable of inferring phonics rules on their own.
Spend a few hours watching any child from a middle income family in an English speaking country and you will find dozens of exposures to phonics. There have access to phonics television programs, story books and speaking toys. Parents and siblings point out letters and sounds to inquisitive children. Soon children naturally start to decode letters and words they see into sounds.
Have you every watched a young child navigate the text heavy menus on video game consoles? Children start to understand the meaning of words and how to read them just by trial and error. They see the names of popular characters and soon make connections between the first letter sounds and other words starting with that same letter. That is phonics.
Why do Lower Income Children have Problems Reading?
In virtually all reading studies, income is the directly correlated with reading ability. In fact, it is almost always the primary determinant. Richer kids read better than poorer children at all age groups. The reason for this discrepancy is simple, rich kids have far more exposure to reading material and therefore have better developed reading skills. Included in those skills is phonetic decoding ability. Basically practice makes perfect. Lower income children don’t have the same access to story books, educational TV programs, software, and learning toys. Perhaps most importantly, poorer children don’t have parents with the time or interest to read to them, answer questions and point out words and letters like economically stable parents can.
For children who have missed out on the massive letter and reading exposure of their wealthier peers, intensive and explicit phonics instruction in public schools is necessary to develop reading skills. These children simply don’t have enough opportunities to read so will require direct phonics training to develop basic level skills.
EFL Students are Similar to Low Income Native English Speakers
Students that are trying to learn English in a non-English speaking environment are also at a disadvantage. Children studying English in foreign countries are typically wealthier so the lack of English exposure is not income related but more obvious. They don’t have the same oral knowledge of the English language and they have no where near the quantity of reading exposure to formulate phonics rules on their own.
English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students and disadvantaged native English children have the same problem; not enough exposure to written text and reading materials. In most cases, both groups of children will have almost zero English reading exposure. It is no surprise that children who don’t read, can’t read. That is like trying to learn to play the piano without playing the piano.
Phonics is the Solution
For children who haven’t had the massive reading exposure early in their lives, direct phonics instruction is an extremely effective method of providing the base reading skills. With phonics training, the indecipherable scribbles on a page start having meaning and kids can begin to see the power of reading. As a teacher, it is a very powerful experience to see children finally begin to make sense of written text. It is as if a light bulb is turned on inside their heads.
Phonics isn’t the Only Solution
Phonics is clearly important. The argument shouldn’t be ‘phonics or no phonics.’ Teachers and parents should consider how much phonetic decoding skills children have acquired prior to formal classroom training. Putting all children through boring phonics drills can keep more developed children from progressing to real, interesting reading experiences. “An angry ant” stories just don’t compete against visually stimulating television and video games. Phonics training can definitely benefit children with weaker reading skills, but we shouldn’t hold back higher level students from real reading opportunities just because they haven’t had formal phonics training. If we go back to the piano example, that would be like stopping children from playing their favourite songs because they haven’t memorized all the music scales yet.