Stephen Louw

Phonics: what is it really?

Some of the myths associated with teaching phonics

There is an Indonesian proverb that goes 'Hendak pergi berotan jangan takut onaknya' which translates more or less to mean  if you want rattan, don't be afraid of thorns. Teachers around the archipelago use it to mean things like 'if you want good grades, don't be afraid of the homework' and 'if you want language accuracy, don't be afraid of the verb declensions'. Good one, right? 

In google translate, there is a little speaker icon that lets you hear what a word or phrase sounds like. 

Now, on the assumption that you don't speak Indonesian, you can use this function to compare how you say this proverb with Aunty Google's perfect Indonesian rendering. Try it out (Apart from your obvious foreign accent, my guess is that you got it pretty much right.  

How was it possible for you to do that? Two reasons – one is that Indonesian has a shallow orthography, which means that what you see on the page is pretty much what you say. Second, you are really good at decoding letter into sounds. You identified, for instance, that berotan has 7 sounds, what each of these might be, and how they can be smooshed together into a single word. You did it lightning quick and without too much thought. The ability to read written language in this way is the focus of phonics. You read  berotan with little effort, but for children (or beginner readers), it's no easy feat to decode text. 

Because phonics has been shown to speed up children's literacy, it is rather common to see it in a young-learners' classroom. Some schools have full-time phonics teachers, almost all kindergarten and early primary course books have a focus on phonics in each unit, and even if you aren't a YL teacher, you've probably had to do something with phonics somewhere. 

Despite its importance, however, phonics instruction is not often covered thoroughly in TEFL courses, and schools have differing ideas of what exactly a phonics program involves. In discussions with teachers, head teachers, and school directors, Sunee (who you have met in previous blogs) and I have come across some ideas about what phonics is and how to teach it that I'm going to call 'myths' in this blog. What follows is what I consider to be the most common of these myths, in no particular order.

1. Phonics focuses on pronunciation 

When asked to talk about what they do, phonics teachers sometimes say their program helps students with pronunciation. This misconception could be a result of confusion over the terms phonics andphonetics? Phonetics uses a specialised script to represent the spoken language: /ɪt lʊks laɪk ðɪs ænd ɪts ə gʊd weɪ tə help ˈlɜːrnərz/. So when a learner (or anyone, actually) comes across a new word they don't know how to pronounce, let's say a word like archipelago, a phonetic transcription helps them to get the pronunciation right: /ɑːkɪˈpelɪgəʊ/. There you go!

Phonics, on the other hand, is about learning to read: it aims to help readers decode written language. Now inasmuch as reading leads to some sort of sounding out of the words, there is pronunciation involved, but the goal of reading is to decode and understand, not necessarily to sound out. So in a phonics program we want students to be able to identify that a certain set of letters put together represents a particular word: for instance, the letters d, o, and g written together represent that animal (which, yes, is sounded out in a particular way too). 

2. Phonics is about getting students to sound out letters

Okay I concede that this is not a myth – phonics is about getting students to sound out letters. The mistaken belief some teachers have is that phonics is only about sounding out letters. In fact, there is much more to phonics than sounding out. This preoccupation with sounding out letters is possibly another reason why some teachers think phonics is about pronunciation (and so back to point 1 above).

In a phonics program, children learn the sound that is represented by a specific letter. This is called letter-sound correspondence, and it's important. The mistaken importance of letter-sound correspondence is probably reinforced by the myriad of videos available everywhere that focus exclusively on it (like this one). However, learning that 'b says buh' and 's says ssssss' is only the beginning of learning how to read. 

To get a sense of why letter-sound correspondence on its own is inadequate, try this out for yourself. In Khmer, the symbol corresponds to our English 'j'. The letter is our 'r', but if it's the second letter of a word, like after a , then it looks long and backwards, like this ច្រ. The symbol is our letter 'l'. A little circle over a letter adds an 'om' sound to it. Now you know the letter-sounds associated with these 4 symbols in Khmer, you might be able to piece together the word ច្រឡំ. Can you do it? You probably can, but it's not easy. Simply knowing the sound attached to each symbol isn't all you need for the process of putting together a complete word.

So the letter-sounds are a start, but only then can the real work begin. There are two other skills a beginning reader needs: blending and segmenting.

Segmenting is the skill in identifying the sounds within a word. Since you can already segment successfully, you'll know that my name (Steve) has 4 sounds – the 's', a 'tuh', a long 'e' and the 'v'. You'll also be able to tell that the 's' at the beginning of my name is the same as the sound at the end of the word kiss and in the middle of ask. Helping young learners identify the presence, absence and position of sounds in words is something that helps with sounding out new or long words. It's also phenomenally useful for helping learners with spelling.

Blending is the skill of putting together a string of sounds to make a word. So learning that d+o+g makes dog is a big step for beginner readers. It's not really intuitive that 'duh', 'o' and 'guh' smoosh together to make a word, especially if you aren't sensitive to the fact that 'dog' has three separate sounds in it (and hence why segmenting is an important skill).

So, learning letter sounds like 'duh' and 'sss' is important, but it's only the first step in the road to proficient reading. The skilled phonics teacher embarks on fun segmenting and blending activities that force young readers to split up and join letter sequences as part of the process of becoming a successful reader.

3. Phonics is alphabet sounds.

The idea that phonics is the alphabet is perpetuated in many course books: page 13 is M, page 14, N etc. To be fair, the alphabet is a big part of phonics since it's the basis of reading. But the alphabet is a poor platform for teaching the letter sounds. Firstly, the alphabet doesn't actually cover the complete set of letters we have in English. Just considering the consonants, the alphabet has no dedicated symbols for the sounds 'th', 'sh', 'ch', or 'ng'. So if we only teach the alphabet, we miss these sounds which are so important in words like thing and shush. Things get more complicated with our measly 5 vowel symbols, which are somehow required to represent 20 vowel sounds.

Secondly, our alphabet isn't organized well. If you learn the first 5 letters of the alphabet, there are only a few words available for you to read: bed,bad,dad,cab,dab,cad. Any more? Jolly Phonics has a different approach – they sequence the letters according to their frequency. So 's' is the most common sound in English. In their system, then, the first 5 letters (s, a, t, i, and p) give you plenty of words to read: it,is,as,at,sit,sat,pip,pit,pat,tap,tip,sip,spit,spat,taps, and so on. You can see that this approach allows the teacher to start blending and segmenting activities right from the beginning of the program. This allows letter-sound correspondence, blending and segmenting to be taught concurrently, creating a useful synergy that gets children reading almost immediately. Following the alphabet just doesn't have the same oughmph.

4. Phonics requires specialised and expensive material

Many teachers believe that in order to teach phonics, you need a lovely classroom and a massive budget. Indeed, there is a lot of specialised and expensive material out there for teaching phonics, but you don't have to have it to have a successful phonics classroom. Once you know your overall goals are letter-sound correspondence, blending, and segmenting, you can create a lot of fun activities from stuff you have lying around. For example, look at DadLab's idea for blending using flipbooks. You can get more ideas on how to make your own cool phonics material from trash (or rather, recyclables) from this really cool article by Sunee and her friends.

5. Phonics is a complete reading program

Some teachers are really sold on phonics, and believe it's everything that a beginning reader needs. To support this view, there is a lot of research to show that phonics speeds up children's ability to access written words.

Unfortunately, it's not true: phonics isn't everything a beginner reader needs. Phonics really helps, but knowing the rules of phonics isn't enough to deal with the eccentricities of the English orthographic system. Words like it, sit, spit, and split fit very well with a letter-sound decoding system, but vicissitudes, aunty, and sew don't. In case you haven't seen it, watch this hilarious Thai classroom spoof to see how using a phonics approach to teaching orthographically opaque words can go delightfully wrong

If you consider that common words like we, have, and do don't follow phonics rules, it is easy to see why it is not possible to read very much in English if we rely solely on a phonics approach. As a result, a phonics teacher needs to include a sight-work component so that the learners can identify words that don't fit the system. Back to Jolly Phonics: their first few sight-words are the rather important words I, the, he and she.

So, there they are – my favorite myths about phonics. If you hold one of these myths and my commentary didn't dispel your belief, feel free to add a counterargument. You can probably tell I'm I'm a fan of Jolly Phonics: have a look at this to find out why their system works, and read their published research. If all of the ideas about blending and segmenting are new to you, more on that and how to teach them can be found in Sunee's article in the HLT magazine.

Did I mention that Sunee has an awesome article on phonics?

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Can you please clarify the letters YL for me.

By Mariam Philip, Monrovia, Liberia (29th December 2022)

'Did I mention that Sunee has an awesome article on phonics?'

I saw Sunee not so long ago. I was glad to hear she's gone back to teaching only again. I remember when she was in charge of teachers at the agency and she really wasn't cut out for that. I always told her to get back to teaching as she was terrible at managing adults, ha ha. She won't be mad at me for saying that. She seemed really happy to be a full-time teacher again and good for her. I think the constant negativity about her poor teacher management skills was getting her down. I didn't envy her having that terrible job.

You should encourage her to write an article on here about teaching kids. Would be very insightful.

By Ian McKinsie, Thailand (9th March 2021)

Hey Steve,

I did a TEFL course with you many a moons ago. It was a great experience and helped me a lot, but you didn't come across as someone who'd be suited to teaching young children. How much real experience do you have teaching phonics etc to young learners?

I mean no offence by this. You were great with the adults, but I most definitely couldn't imagine you being able to be able to control and teach a class of 35 young learners. I'd just envisage pandemonium. And by the way, I gave it a try and never again. Only teaching adults for me, thank you very much.

By Nick, Bangkok (5th March 2021)

Sorry, Steve, but you've completely lost me on this one.

Phonics for children is about grasping the basic sounds. The long and short vowels, even diphthongs, etc. The words that we teach children to spell out are basic (and most importantly, relate phonetically to the way they're pronounced). It helps them learn much more quickly.

Young children are learning to spell words like dog and hat - not 'colonel' or 'thought'. It isn't about being able to spell out the more obscure words with Greek or French origins, etc. These kinds of words aren't relative to a young learners' vernacular. That's why spelling bee masters are so good at spelling. Once they know the origin of the word they can usually figure out its spelling. We laymen don't have that luxury.

The English language is a bastardised (notice the use of 's' and not 'z') language. A lot of time it has no rhyme or reason - that's why it's such an amazing language to convey ideas or thoughts with. Some call it convoluted (which language isn't?) and some say it's the language of Shakespeare, meaning it's majestic.

As a phonics instructor, I find phonics to be extremely important for young learners. At the end of the day, there are over 600,000 words that are defined in the English language. We live in the era of Google - there are no more excuses for poor spelling.

P.S, my advice for teacher trainers; get back in the class as often as you can. Studying is great for furthering your career, but the best way to become a great teacher trainer is to 'actually teach'. And I don't mean teaching teachers. I mean teaching genuine young learners and applying this invaluable experience in other areas. Also learning about putting up with the shit that comes with the job. I feel those who teach to teach become stale, forgetful, and stubbornly arrogant. And that's the last thing you want from any kind of teacher.

By Michael, Thailand (24th February 2021)

Excellent. A post with some meat on it.

By Bob Dobbs, Church of the Subgenius (16th February 2019)

The Schwa sound is the most.common not s. There is a connection between phonemic awareness and listening/speaking.

By Erich, Thailand (14th February 2019)

I teach prathom 4-6 full-time at my Thai school, and I teach mainly young Chinese learners online in the evenings. My Thai school doesn't teach phonics in prathom one & two ,etc. I'm not sure what my kids do in the kindergarten school but it seemingly isn't a lot of phonics.

When a kid in one of my classes asks how to spell a word, I'll of course help them. If it's a difficult word that isn't spelt as it's written, I'll usually just write it on the board for them. If it's a simpler word that's pretty much spelt as it sounds, I'll elicit it from them. It's amazing how badly many of kids get it wrong. I'll try to help them with the sounds of the letter in the hope they can guess the letter but most struggle with the sounds. I feel phonics from an earlier age would most definitely have helped significantly.

My online Chinese kids have their weaknesses and strengths. They're typically better at reading and spelling. They all do phonics and I can see a big difference compared to my older Thai kids. Admittedly, my Chinese kids are learning extra, but many of my Thai kids go to centres at the weekend and evenings, too.

I've been teaching kids in Thailand for over 7 years. I've been teaching kids online for 3 years. From my experience, I can see first hand how beneficial phonics are for the kids I've taught. I could well be wrong, but from my first-hand experience, it absolutely works for me in terms or improving their reading and writing skills.

Stephen, it would be interesting to know how much experience you have of teaching young children first-hand here in Thailand, or anywhere for that matter. Even more interesting would be to know how much experience you have of teaching kids who've been taught phonics and kids who haven't.

Sadly for me, this may well be a case of, "I don't know how to do your job, but the manual says you're doing it wrong".

By Simon, Thailand (14th February 2019)

This is an interesting conversational style discussion of the phonics phenomenon in pedagogy. A few thoughts came to mind though. The vast weight of research in early years supports the teaching of phonics. As teachers we must respect the current state of literature in the field.

The words that are exceptions to the phonics system are called tricky words and taught differently. This is a key feature of the Jolly phonics system (which extends into the excellent Jolly Grammar system) and anyone who has taught with it will be aware of this.

While I don’t agree, you make some valid points. There is far too little professional debate in Thailand amongst teachers about teaching methods so thanks very much for putting your time and thought in to this.

By Jay Maxwell, BKK (14th February 2019)

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