Young readers must learn to walk before they can skip
Ask North American parents of preschoolers about phonics, and chances are they may not know what you're talking about.
Ask Hong Kong parents of preschoolers about phonics, and chances are they will be able to give you a first-hand comparison of the methodologies used by phonics learning centres in town.
When Mem Fox, a retired Australian professor of early childhood literacy and best-selling author of children's books, visited Hong Kong last month, she gave a talk on parent-child reading to an enthusiastic group of mothers.
When Fox learned about the heavy use of phonics in Hong Kong preschools, she crossed out half of her prepared notes and instead devoted part of her talk to phonics.
Countries with the highest rates of early childhood literacy, such as Australia and Canada, do not follow a programme of phonics. From my own childhood in Canada, I have strong memories of 'readers', those little booklets with simple sentences that were used to teach children to read: 'This is Spot. See Spot run.'
Phonics exercises such as 'cat, bat, sat, pat' were taught as part of our writing programme in the second grade. While Fox stressed the importance of phonics, she made the interesting distinction that it should be used to teach children to write, not to read.
In her view, when a five-year-old child is struggling to learn to read (because he has not been read to by his parents and carers, she said), making that child sound out the words phonetically will not make him learn to read faster. In fact, it will likely further turn him off reading when he starts to associate it with struggle and not fun.
Fox's analogy is that reading a book is like driving a car. We don't learn to drive a car by memorising the how-to manual or learning vehicle construction. However, if we already know how to drive a car, or have spent time as a passenger in a car, we are able to learn better about driving and car construction.
My own analogy is singing a song. A child who has never been sung to will not understand the notes of the musical scale as quickly as one who has grown up around songs and music. And a child who can already sing on his own can figure out Do-Re-Mi even more readily.
That's how it goes for children learning to read. Phonics doesn't mean much to the child who has not been read to. When a child is read his favourite book over and over, he will recognise whole words. And a child who reads will be able to pick up the theory of phonics more quickly than one who does not read.
The danger of teaching phonics too early, that is, before the children can read, is that it may reduce their enjoyment of books and reading.
Learning phonics does play a role in a child's English language development, as long as parents and educators acknowledge that the order of learning should be reading first, then phonics and writing.
Just as babies learn to walk first before running and skipping.
Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong (bringmeabook.org.hk), a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy