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The role of phonics teaching

You are probably aware that phonics teaching is all the rage at the moment, at least in the UK. Systematic teaching of sound-spelling correspondences is being encouraged both for first language pupils in primary schools and for second language learners at Key Stage 3. This blog post is an extract from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier: Teaching Language Learners How to Listen (2019) in which we discuss the role of phonics teaching....

There has been much debate about the value of teaching synthetic phonics (i.e. a structured course of sound-spelling instruction) in L1 teaching during early schooling. Some argue that while phonics teaching may help with recognising and pronouncing isolated words, including invented words (also known in the literature as pseudo-words, nonsense words or non-words), it does little for reading comprehension (e.g. Krashen, 2001, who cites a range of studies) and Huo and Wang (2017) who looked at 15 studies on what they called phonological-based instruction in EFL lessons for primary school children. They found that phonemic awareness and reading of non-words improved, but word recognition and reading comprehension did not. Torgerson et al (2006), in a major meta-study on L1 phonics teaching, concluded that phonics teaching improves reading accuracy, if not comprehension, and recommended that teachers include it “…in a judicious balance with other elements” (p.49). From this it appears that while phonics teaching has benefits, it does not clearly improve L1 reading comprehension.  Can it improve listening performance? Research is unfortunately thin on the ground.

There is good evidence, however, that sounding out whole words makes them more memorable. What psychologists call the production effect suggests that we remember items better when we say them aloud. Forrin and MacLeod (2018) carried out a study to compare how well college students recalled words depending on whether they read them silently, heard someone say them or read them aloud themselves. The words they read aloud themselves were more easily recalled two weeks later. The researchers concluded that when the students spoke the words this provided more engagement with the word, helping to make the words memorable. As they put it: “…oral production is beneficial because it entails two distinctive components: a motor (speech) act and a unique, self-referential auditory input” (from the Abstract).

Other researchers, such as Baddeley, Gathercole and Papagno (1998) have argued that when a student learns a new word it needs to be repeated aloud in order for sounds to be assigned to the word, a process which helps the word find its way into long-term memory. Woo and Price (2015) have suggested that if students are not given the chance to say a word or phrase several times they may assign the wrong sounds to the word before it is transferred to long-term memory. Service (1992) found that phonological short-term memory (reflected in the ability to repeat words accurately, i.e. being a good mimic) correlates with future L2 learning performance.

Finally, an influential review of language teaching pedagogy in England by The Teaching Schools Council (Bauckham, 2016), which involved observations of lessons and interviews with teachers, strongly recommended a planned approach to the teaching of phonics.

With this type of evidence in mind, together with our own long experience as teachers, a number of general points can be made:

·    L2 phonology differs from L1 and students often apply their existing knowledge of L1 phonics to L2. This leads to poor pronunciation and a greater likelihood that words will not be recognised in speech. It is therefore important to model correct pronunciation and sound-spelling links, and have students shadow it, i.e. say or whisper it out loud after you.


·   Although sound-spelling links will become established through general work in the four skills, students will benefit from being taught explicitly which sounds and syllables correspond to which spellings, notably where these spellings are in contrast to the L1 orthography. This may be of particular benefit to lower-attaining students.


·    Language-specific issues may need special treatment, e.g. ‘silent letters’ and elision in French or the role of accented characters in French, German and Spanish.


·    Although perception tasks such as distinguishing between minimal pairs (e.g. in French des chats versus déjà) are useful, saying sounds and words aloud adds an extra element in reinforcing memory. If we train students in accurate repetition this will help with their general proficiency.


·    Rather than prepare a time-consuming structured phonics programme which has the potential to be tedious for students, we recommend you intersperse your other communicative work with short bouts of phonics practice. But keep in mind the areas which will cause most difficulty for your students. Whether teachers deal with phonics in a systematic or more incidental manner may depend on their preference or practical issues such as time available.


·   Pronunciation of segments longer than individual phonemes is likely to be more engaging for students. Adding meaning to a task makes it more enjoyable as well as productive.


·     Unusually able language learners with excellent mimicry skills may require little phonics training at all.



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