Phonics and pronunciation

In the question and answer session at the end of a workshop I’ve just done in Seville for teachers at International House schools in the area, somebody raised the issue of using phonics with very young learners. The last few years have seen a certain phonics fever in Spain, and I suspect that this might be the case elsewhere in the world, too.

I’m in no position to question the effectiveness of a phonics approach to reading in the UK or the US, although from what I can see it’s a controversial issue in both countries. I also have colleagues here in Northern Spain who have used a phonics approach very successfully with 3-4 year olds in their own school for some years now, although despite their own success,  they also have reservations about adopting a phonics approach without adapting it to the local context. It was interesting in this respect to discover that one of the teachers in Seville had adapted phonics to his local context when he was working in Hong Kong, and that the outcome had been very successful.

There are dangers to adopting phonics uncritically which tie in to pronunciation. The overriding issue for me here is the fact that phonics was designed to teach reading to native-speaker children, and not pronunciation to second-language young learners. Children in the US/UK will come to phonics with complete mastery of the sound system that phonics aims to relate to the written form of words. This is not the case with children in Spain, or any other country where English is taught as a foreign language. In all such countries, children will come to the phonics class with a complete phonological system, but it won’t be that of English. In the case of Spanish children, they will be coming to class with a vowel system that is considerably less complex than that of English, UK or US. They will also be ‘missing’ certain consonants, notably /dʒ/, and will articulate others in ways that are signficantly different to English, such as the plosives /b/, /d/, or /g/, which are actually pronounced as the fricatives /β/, /ð/, and /ɣ/, respectively in most contexts in Spanish.

There is a similar problem with the teachers of these VYLs. The vast majority of primary teachers in Spain (and elsewhere) are not native speakers of English, and the majority of those I’ve worked with in Spain have problems pronouncing the 44 sounds of English that methods like ‘Jolly Phonics’ are based on. If  teachers are unable to adequately and confidently model the different sounds of standard phonics approaches, what will happen when they use the same sound in class for graphemes that are supposed to represent different sounds. I remember sitting in a workshop some years ago that was being given by the then leading authority in phonics in Spain. She repeatedly conflated /ɔ/ and /əʊ/ even in her explicit demonstrations of the two sounds. Not unnaturally, this left the teachers immediately in front of me confused. What would this do to a class full of 4-year-olds?

There are other issues that worry me as an ‘outsider’ to phonics, such as the time required to implement of full phonics approach, the suitability of some of the vocabulary, the possible conflicts with the teaching of reading to children in their L1 (which will be happening at the same time as they are learning to read in English through phonics), the rush to get these VYLs to write the letters in English and, again, the possible conflicts that this might have with the teaching of writing in the L1, and the risk of children learning to pronounce words written in English without knowing what the text is actually saying. But, as I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not an expert in phonics nor a YL teacher, and I know that is is being adopted and adapted successfully here in Spain, and also beyond. However, I came across this blog on the British Council website a couple of days ago, and it suggests that my outsider’s concerns are shared by some insiders, too.