I am often asked if I teach phonics and I my answer is always the same. I have developed a phonetic system: one that is based on breaking words into sounds, but it is different from phonics because it is based on the sound/symbol relationship in our language, and starts with sounds, not letters.
Why is this important?
All good teaching starts with what a child already knows. But a young child will not be familiar with the letter c, before he is shown it. So showing a child a letter is not an ideal place to start to teach him to read?
Ask yourself another question: Is a child familiar with the sound c? Children listen to the sounds in their language from birth. In fact, they hear them while they are still in the womb. I would suggest, therefore, that every child already knows the sounds in his language. So that is where I begin: with the sound. In fact, I begin with sound c.
Literal Children are Easily Confused
There is another reason why I begin with the sound. If I point to letter ‘c’ and tell a child ‘this letter says c’, I might confuse him, because a letter on a page doesn’t actually say anything (it is a symbol). If a child is very literal, he will not understand what I am telling him.
Also, what do I tell this same child, when he comes across the word city in his reading? If I am teaching phonics, I have to say, ‘Oh in this word this letter says s.’ And my student might think ‘One minute you tell me it says c and then you tell me it says s. I’m confused.’
Listening for Sounds – the Key to Reading
If I begin by asking a child the first sound he hears in the word ‘cat’, he will be able to tell me, or he will begin a process, essential for learning to read: he will begin to listen for individual sounds in words.
When we have discovered the first sound in the word ‘cat’, I can show him the symbol (letter) c and tell him that this is the way we write the sound c in ‘cat’. This builds on his existing knowledge.
Later on, when I ask him to tell me the first sound he hears in the word ‘city’, he can tell me s! I can then explain that in the word ‘city’, we use letter c as a symbol for sound s. It will all make sense, even to a very literal child. After all, he will draw a cat in a garden and call it a cat. He will draw the same cat in a jungle and call it a lion. What’s the difference?
The English Code: more Complex than Phonics can allow
There are so many occasions in our language, when letter sounds in phonics just don’t work. How can we say ‘letter a says sound a’, when it represents sound o in wasp, sound ae in table and sound aw in water. Equally, we cannot say ‘ch says sound ch’, when it represents sound sh in champagne and parachute, and sound k in Christmas!
Phonics would be so much more effective, if we made just one change in the way it is taught. If the sounds were the starting point and they were always embedded in words. This would make sense to the most literal of children. It would also remove the need for rote learning – always shown to be ineffective by psychologists.