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Let’s not overdo the phonics, eh?

Phonics, to be clear, is not just teaching sounds and pronunciation; it is about explicitly pointing out and practising sound-spelling relationships. The theory goes that by teaching phonics, either incidentally or in a planned way, we will produce better decoders, pronouncers and readers.

At a recent presentation I gave about teaching listening I asked the roughly 50 teachers present how many taught phonics in a very systematic (planned in detail) way. A couple said they did. Most said they taught phonics in a somewhat incidental way. I confess that I rarely did at all, preferring to spend more time on just reading aloud and pronunciation divorced from spelling, i.e. repeating individual phonemes, words or chunks without the spellings in view.

The 2017 TSC (Teaching Schools Council) report on MFL pedagogy in England recommended, among other things, phonics teaching. I believe that many primary teachers, used to teaching phonics to L1 leaners, enjoy doing the same with their second language learners. Young pupils generally enjoy playing with sounds so that may be all well and good. One secondary teacher recently posted on Twitter a phonics test they tried out with a class which included nonsense words (as they do in primary schools for English). I questioned if this was time well spent.

Is there a danger of over-doing phonics? Could it be another promising solution which becomes a blind alley?

For mother tongue learners I read that, although some children learn to read successfully without any attention to phonics, the evidence for systematic phonics teaching is overwhelming. The recently publishes international PIRLS data (reading tests) suggested that the government’s introduction of the primary phonics test may, stress may, have had a small effect in raising the reading attainment of young readers in England. Young learners, however, do phonics as a tiny part of their diet of reading and general use of English at school and home. In a secondary MFL classroom where time is limited to say, two or three hours a week plus homework, should phonics take up much of that precious time?

You see, my issue is this: phonics teaching can end up, if you aren’t careful, being talking ABOUT the language rather than USING it in interesting communicative activity. The bulk of second language acquisition research suggests strongly that learners acquire a second language by hearing and reading comprehensible input and by interacting with other speakers. Most scholars agree that teaching of grammar and attention to the form of the language (including phonics, I presume) help, but are far less important.

In a one hour lesson, therefore, how much time might you want to spend on explicitly teaching about sound-spelling relationships when there is so much else to do?

My own humble suggestion would be this. By all means, point out and practise particular problem areas specifically, e.g. in French some of the letter combinations which correspond with the ‘o’ sound or what nasal vowels look like when written down. Do some tasks or games to reinforce these awkward areas to preempt difficulties students might have. But spend much more time just reading aloud both chorally and individually so that pupils pick up sound-spelling links “under the radar”, unconsciously as it were, while your main focus remains on meaning rather than form. Do lots of intensive input-output work with written texts so that every single lesson students are picking up phonics as they go along, in the context of communication. This should correspond more closely with the consensus view of how we acquire a second language - using it, not analysing it.

So let me be clear. This is not to criticise phonics teaching per se, but to suggest that it is far from a panacea and may be best taught in great moderation. My own experience with pupils of generally above average aptitude was that they became good linguists (including confident readers aloud) without much specific phonics teaching at all. They just got through hours and hours of language exposure and use together with frequent opportunities to read aloud or follow others, including me, reading aloud. My slight hunch is that explicit phonics teaching may be of more use to lower-attaining pupils, but I have barely any evidence to support this!


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