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A word about "phonics"

Synthetic phonics (known as blended phonics in the USA) is the approach recommended (enforced upon, actually) by the DfE to English primary teachers for the teaching of early reading. It is a method of teaching reading which firsts teaches the letter sounds then builds up to blending these sounds to make words.

The opposing approach is sometimes called the "whole word" or "whole language" approach which does not aim to analyse individual letters or phonemes. By this approach children become good readers by recognising whole words and by reading a lot.

A brief look around the internet reveals that the empirical evidence for the success of synthetic phonics is mixed. Stephen Krashen argues that studies supporting it really show that it may only lead to improvement in reading of single words or made up words. He claims that it is extensive reading which makes children better readers. Give children access to interesting books and they will improve.

We don't know for sure, but it is a reasonable hypothesis that children vary and respond to methods in different ways.

Some MFL teachers like to work systematically on what they sometimes call "phonics". By phonics I think they just mean what I would call phonology - how to pronounce sounds correctly. I doubt that it a systematic approach to blending sounds to form words. In this case the aim is less to do with teaching reading, more about pronouncing and spelling accurately. I have to say this was not an approach which particularly appealed to me.

Firstly, it has to be said that German and Spanish may lend themselves more to a phonics style approach since it is easy to predict from spelling how a word will be pronounced. In French, as in English, the sound-spellng relationship is often unpredictable.

But having said that, although playing with sounds can be fun and I, along with most French teachers, would find ways to work on awkward sounds such as the uvular "r", nasal vowels and vowels in generals, I never really considered doing it in a structured way. I rarely did "phonics lessons". This is why: I liked to keep the focus on meaning and communication as much as possible. To construct lesson plans around the pronunciation of sounds seems to focus on analysis at the expense of meaning.

Sure, practising sounds is fun. Classes almost always enjoy it. But I would sooner that it were done "organically", working it into lessons which focus on meaningful exchanges of language. Following this approach I found that students usually developed sound, often very good, pronunciation habits. Systematically divorcing sound from meaning seems to me to be unnecessary.

However, if you don't take this view - for example, you might argue that phonics is more necessary with students of lower aptitude - here are some links provided by Rachel Hawkes:


  1. "A brief look around the internet reveals that the empirical evidence for the success of synthetic phonics is mixed."

    Only if you are unable to distinguish between evidence and opinion. Would you have said "a brief look at the internet shows climate change isn't real"?


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