Chris Jolly likes travelling. Which is just as well, as the Briton often finds himself setting off to Africa, the Bahamas, and other far-flung destinations as the managing director of Jolly Learning. He travels all over the world with "Jolly Phonics", a system for teaching literacy through synthetic phonics, using the 42-letter sounds of the English language rather than the alphabet.
Jolly, 68, was recently in Hong Kong for a conference directed at trainers from around the region, and local teachers keen to get this system into their kindergartens and learning centres. Synthetic phonics are already used in some English Schools Foundation schools and provide an alternative to the more traditional "whole language approach".
"K2 [four and five year olds] is our core market in Hong Kong," says Jolly. "By then, they're beyond the nursemaid stage, and their education is becoming very structured."
The whole language approach uses thematic texts and stories, and some traditional phonics, to teach children to read and write. The aim is to learn the context of the sentences and stories to help master the nuts and bolts of literacy. Jolly Phonics pulls the words apart into sounds before blending them together into the whole word. The idea is that students will then begin to automatically blend their phonemes.
"With the whole language [approach] there's a sense that reading and writing are just like speaking - we pick them up naturally, especially if the children have a lovely story book. But the problem there is that reading and writing are actually skills; Jolly Phonics teaches those skills in small stages.
"We teach every letter sound. After that, we teach children how to use them, and to blend and segment. It's as effective for children who have English as a second language as for those who have it as a first."
Back at the conference, trainer Beverly Sace shows some teachers how to teach the various Jolly Phonics sounds. She also demonstrates how Cantonese-speaking children struggle with the pronunciation of, for instance, "th".
"Show me your teeth!" calls Sace, as she bares her teeth and places her tongue behind them - "thhhhh". She moves on to digraphs - two-letter phonemes such as ai, oa and ee - and explains some of the confusions over sounds that occur here.
For young children, Jolly Phonics uses a variety of cartoon animals - Inky Mouse and her friends Bee and Snake - to drive the message home in a fun way.
The children also get a pen that reads out the words on their picture and word book. "So even if parents don't speak English," says Jolly, "they can still carry on learning with their children."
Jolly began as a small publisher of educational materials. As a student, he had taught in Malaysia as part of a Voluntary Service Overseas stint. Then, in the late 1980s, he was approached by a teacher, Sue Lloyd. She had been impressed by a system of phonics first put forward by Sir James Pitman, the grandson of Sir Isaac Pitman, who had created Pitman shorthand. Lloyd and fellow author Sara Wernham decided to use Jolly's name for their phonics materials.
Jolly and Sace emphasise that it does not matter if English is the first language when it comes to learning to read and write using Jolly Phonics.
Sace, who runs the Sunflowers Education kindergarten in Kwun Tong, cites the example of a boy from China in her K3 class. "Raymond was our best reader," she says, "but he didn't speak English".
Jolly and his colleagues face some problems in implementing Jolly Phonics in Hong Kong. Often teachers have not been trained in how to use their system, and just teach the sounds without blending them together. Some don't know how to pronounce the sounds and teach them incorrectly. Time spent by Native English Teachers in the classroom is also limited.
But historically, synthetic phonics has done very well. Britain recently introduced mandatory synthetic phonics in all state primary schools, after a trial in Scotland in which Scottish children did better than their counterparts in England at reading and writing.
"There were a series of very thorough academic studies," claims Jolly. "The children with synthetic phonics were a year ahead of their peers." It seemingly applies to all: "Boys do as well as girls, [and it works for] children from all backgrounds."
Yuceila Lo Man-sze, who has taught at the Vocational Training Council (VTC) for the past six years, plans to introduce Jolly Phonics to her students in the new school term. The children, aged 12 to 15, lack confidence in English, she says. She came across Jolly Phonics through the British Council, and has beenteaching her six-year-old daughter at home.
"I just [want to] introduce some basic things to help the students with their spelling, reading and writing, so they won't be afraid to speak English," she says.
There are also Jolly Phonics songs aimed at young students, but Lo doubts she could encourage her students to sing along to those.
Fellow VTC teacher April Tsui Mung-sze, 32, appreciates the method too. "We did some phonics at school but it wasn't systematic," she says, "Jolly Phonics have very well-made materials and are supportive of the teachers. These aren't the traditional textbooks that students have in local schools, which are normally boring and contain grammar that they don't understand. Instead, they have games and pictures."
Angela Iu An-kei, 50, a trainer in Jolly Phonics for the past two years, has been working with kindergartens in Tai Po to slowly introduce the phonics system - spending sometimes just 10 minutes a day with the local teachers. The results have been good, she says.
Jolly, who is also negotiating to bring Jolly Phonics into a school in Foshan, Guangdong, for a trial period, is excited by educational prospects on the mainland.
"Chinese people do not have any inhibitions about teaching English early in primary school," he says.