Phonics a tonic, say NETs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am

IT HAS BEEN CALLED the PH factor and involves a family of words that are either educational jargon or crucial to the teaching of the English language, depending on whom you speak to.

Phonics, phonetics, phonology and a host of derivatives have to do with the sounds of spoken words and are at the centre of an international debate on language acquisition.

There is no better example of the PH dispute than in Britain where more traditional teaching methods underpinned the country's national literacy strategy until former education secretary Ruth Kelly made the teaching of phonics compulsory at primary school level in March this year.

Her move followed the publication of the report of an inquiry led by Jim Rose, a former Ofsted director, into why so many British children still failed to learn to read fluently after eight years.

Although phonics may be in the ascendancy in England right now, there are still arguments about the best way to teach reading, both there and elsewhere.

Phonics is popular as part of the early years of reading in Scotland and taught in Germany and Austria before children are introduced to books. It is also gaining ground in the US, with some states, such as Ohio, making its use compulsory at primary level, and others, such as Texas and California, funding research to judge its efficacy. There is also a groundswell against the prevailing 'child-centred' approach to early years education in France in favour of a simple-to-complex approach involving phonics.

In Hong Kong two native-speaking English teachers have no doubts about the importance of the PH factor. Even though they are dealing with the trickier business of teaching English as a second language, Neil Clarke and Janiece Moylan are so sure it plays a vital role they have written their own books to provide resources they claim to be missing here.

Mr Clarke said that when he arrived in Hong Kong in 1998 to teach in Fanling his students were unable to read words other than those they had memorised for tests.

'In my experience, about 75 per cent of students [in Band 2 and 3 schools] gave up in the first paragraph if they came across words they had never seen before,' he said. The Irishman, who has taught in Poland and Indonesia, claimed the missing link was phonics.

His belief was reinforced when speaking to local secondary teachers at North Point Teachers' Centre. 'I realised they knew very little about phonics. They don't get it in their teacher training,' he said.

Working at St Peter's Secondary School, in Aberdeen, Mr Clarke is aware of recent curriculum developments and the rush of new material being provided to teach reading and speaking. But he believes a mastery of phonics is vital.

'Students are being presented with material in Form Four and told this is the level they should be reading at.

'But they need to learn to read first. The problem is that the allocation of time [for English] varies so much from school to school. If you are only getting 10 minutes of phonics per cycle it's not going to do too much. They need a more co-ordinated scheme.'

All he could find was material that was written for younger students, which he said was inappropriate. 'Some students have no knowledge of phonics whatsoever by the time they are in Forms One and Two. I couldn't use stuff designed for three-year-olds,' he said.

He decided to write a scheme of his own and went on to produce text books to meet the needs of teachers who attended his courses at the teachers' centre.

'The feeing I was getting was that unless they had a textbook, there was no way this would get into schools,' he said.

Mr Clarke said he realised he could work his material into books that were marketable as well as useful, self-publishing the first of his two phonics texts called Sounds Good, which focuses on words of one syllable. He kept it simple. 'When you know how to do four basic things you can teach the book,' he said. 'Once you understand about short vowels, long vowels, consonants and consonant blends that's all you need to know.'

Each page represents a teaching session, with reading, spelling and assessment pages throughout. A reading test is provided to assess whether students need the book.

A second book follows a similar format with 15 hours of exercises covering multi-syllabic words. The whole course is designed to be completed in an academic year.

There is an optional CD and Mr Clarke, who is leaving his job to work full time as a phonics consultant, is working with local author Nury Vittachi to add readers to the scheme.

Dr Moylan, a NET at Pope Paul VI College, on the other hand, considers phonics to be only half the story.

She said that although students were learning the letters in a word like 'treat', for example, they had no idea how it should sound.

Dr Moylan, who also decided to write a resource to support her work, believed the teaching of phonics alone to be insufficient for students beyond primary school level.

'When second-language learners reach secondary school they require a frame of reference [phonetics] so that their learning of English is not restricted to the number of words and sounds to which they have been exposed.

'My programme,' she said, 'consists of both phonetics and phonics and covers every sound in the English language.' Dr Moylan uses the international phonetic alphabet.

'It is a set of symbols which represent sounds and is used in all dictionaries of the English language,' she said. 'For example the sound of the long vowel 'a' that sounds like 'are' is written 'a' and can be spelt in many different ways, 'ar' in the word card, 'ear' in heart 'er' in clerk and 'au' in laugh.'

An educator for 40 years, Dr Moylan, who has extensive leadership and teaching experience in schools in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, noticed the problems students were having coping with the demands of the English syllabus in her first six years' teaching at Kwai Chung.

Part of the problem, she said, was methodology. 'Many teachers seemed to assume that teaching English is the same as teaching Chinese. Therefore they thought students only had to memorise the alphabet and that is totally useless. When I explain to students there are only 44 sounds, not 16,000 characters, they don't believe me,' she said.

She began work on a programme beginning at Form One, resulting in a comprehensive scheme focusing on the sounds of the English language and letter patterns using phonetic symbols.

'The phonetics framework provides clarity to the second-language learner because each symbol represents one sound only. Once they have learnt the 44 symbols and the sounds they represent, they have a comprehensive understanding of the sounds and are able to pronounce any words they come across in the dictionary.

'I wanted to provide a framework for second-language learners to learn sounds and understand how to use phonetics to become more fluent readers, accurate spellers, confident speakers, able listeners and more mature writers,' she said.

Dr Moylan recorded the sounds of the range of different letters and their possible blends herself on to CDs. The resulting scheme, A Sound Foundation for Life, was published by Longman Hong Kong Education at the end of last month.

Although Mr Clarke and Dr Moylan claim there to be a 'phonics gap' in Hong Kong, Bruce Bolin, deputy project director of the Education and Manpower Bureau's language support section, counters that the EMB has been aware of the importance of phonics for some time and is providing support for its development at primary level through the NET scheme.

'It needs to come back [at secondary level] because we are teaching students who have a non-alphabetic language,' he said.

The fact that secondary NETs were still complaining that older students lacked phonological awareness was because it took time for improvements in teaching to filter through the system.

But he cautioned against an over-emphasis on phonics. 'It is not a medicine for every ailment,' he said. Materials such as those developed by Mr Clarke and Dr Moylan could be useful. 'But they need to be taken, adapted and used in context,' he said. 'We need to look at language development more holistically.'

He advised against teaching phonics in isolation. It should be used as a means of supporting the curriculum.

Mr Bolin pointed out that phonics worked differently for native and non-native speakers.

'For the native speaker once they can sound one word they can read another,' he said.

The second-language learner needs to know the meaning. 'Decoding does not help if you don't know the meaning of the word,' he said.

The English language curriculum did not prescribe that students learned either phonics or the phonetic alphabet. The latter, he said, was not essential, although there was no reason why it couldn't be used as a tool and could be useful for senior students.

'It is useful when they are using dictionaries. They can work out the pronunciation when working on their own. But teaching the phonetic alphabet is going to confuse lower classes, especially the less academically inclined,' he said.


Additional reporting by Katherine Forestier and Steve Cray.