What Our Teachers & Learners Are Missing in Phonics
Teacher: “C” as in /k/
Pupils: C as in /ka/
Teachers: “D” as in /d/
Pupils: D as in /d/
The above is a prevailing learning routine in 99% of our private schools, geared towards building early reading skills in the pupils, which is popularly called “phonics”
The Phonetic Approach of teaching was introduced in the 18th century and became more popular in the 1960s; recently, it has been revived, in-fact, a compulsory method of teaching in UK today. Linguistically & professionally termed Synthetic Phonics, it is a method of Language teaching (English Language as far as this post is concerned) that emphaises on blending phonemes (the distinct unit of a sound) with graphemes (the smallest unit of writing system e.g: A - Z), in such a way that learners have mastery of the 44 sounds. As a matter of practice, the graphemes are ignored at the early stage of language learning. The questions for us as schools, teachers, parents or learners are: “is my school teaching the core phonics? Are my teachers up to standard? Is my ward learning the right English phonemes? Do I have the required teaching skills?”
No doubt, the teaching of “phonics” has proven to be highly meritorious for the early generation of English Language learners, as it develops their reading skills, using the strategy called “sounding out”. Similarly, there is a tremendous improvement on their spelling confidence and high development in phonemic awareness. However, this English learning approach does not in anyway contribute to comprehension of the reading texts. While most of these pupils read, very few amongst them can explain what they have read, thereby resulting to mere cacophonous pleasure of recitation.
I have heard many pupils pronouncing the word “fork” as /fek/ all in the name of “phonics” when in the actual sense, it is pronounced /fↄ:k/ in standard British Received Pronunciation (RP) or /fↄrk/ in American accent. Just recently again, I heard my 5 year old baby, Femi, reciting “ah”, “bah”, “ka”, “de”, “fi”, “ge”… in a rhythmic succession and I asked him what he was reading and he said: “daddy, it’s the English Alphabet”. I was marveled. This I know has been experienced by most parents whose kids attend private schools. The truth is, attentions of parents, teachers and schools have shifted to accent and intonation rather than the core communications skills, which ironically hype-up the school, pupils and teachers as reputable, proficient and intelligent respectively.
The point is, nothing is wrong with the “phonics” or synthetic phonics but something is wrong with the modality for teaching and those teaching it. It is important to consider the academic background of the “phonic teachers”. So far that I have known, few of these teachers are English graduates, either at NCE or degree level – they are teachers whose certifications are acquired via a three month phonetic programme, thereby having a peripheral knowledge of the subject matter.
Synthetic phonics has reasonable numbers of paedagogical styles such as Analytical Phonics, Analogy Based Phonics, Embedded Phonics,… how many of our instructors know there usages and when to use them? Eventually, learners have problems decoding diagraphs (a double consonant forming a sound) or letters with complex pronunciations. Because early English language learners “generalize”, how will the phonic tutor systematically teach diagraphs like “ph”, “ck”, “wr”… when already they have been indoctrinated to imbibe “letter “f” as in /f/, c as in /k, “r” as in /r/ respectively or how would he explain “few”, “know”… when the pupils already learnt individual phonemes and would not pronounce the above as /fiewu/ and /knou/.
It is high time our schools be on the alert on the quality of teachers teaching “phonics” and stop the recruitment of 3 months certified phonic teachers and let the real English teachers take charge. It is also worthy of noting that the English graphemes cannot be ignored and should be systematically revived at later years of learning, as it forms the basis of English Language learning.