When teaching phonetics or phonology, the biggest question I have seen teachers
face is whether to teach a bottom up approach based on graphemes and blends, or whether to use a top down approach based on sight-reading. The grapheme/blend approach may lead to a more solid and comprehensive understanding of the underlying phonetic structure of english
, but it requires an input of time and energy that some teachers
don't have. On the other hand, the sight reading approach can provide quick results, particularly in countries where the native language is based on a non-phonetic memorization such as japan
, but may leave the student unprepared to accurately pronounce new and unfamiliar words.
Both approaches clearly have their weaknesses. An approach based purely on one or the other leaves holes in the student’s knowledge that can lead to problems down the road. If a student is taught solely using a sight-reading approach, they may quickly master a number of basic words. But they are left with little in the way of resources for tackling unknown words down at a later time when the instruction has ended. That student lacks the necessary skills for decoding and when they encounter an unfamiliar word. Furthermore, they may learn only to look at the beginning and end of a word and simply read based on those letter patterns (the most common example of this I have encountered is reading any word starting with “oct” as “October” even when the word is “octopus” or “octagon” because they are only recognizing the initial pattern and filling in the rest without looking.)
On the other hand, a student who has had a purely phonetic approach would have to wait ages to begin to cover the rare phonetic rules covering words such as “one”, “come”, “talk” and other such words that fail to follow the most basic precepts of phonics.
Faced with such circumstances I have found that the most effective approach is a blend of both styles. This means using sight-reading to cover the most common but un-phonetic words, while still covering the most common graphemes and blends allowing students to begin to make educated guesses at the pronunciations, and at the same time, begin to guess at the spellings of words that they hear.
When teaching basic phonics, one of the hardest aspects for students, in my experience, are the vowels, because there is such a subtle difference to many non-native speakers. Nevertheless, the payoff in being able to distinguish between them in both listening and speaking is almost invaluable. Thus it is worth starting with these sounds and providing consistent practice and reminders regarding these sounds. I generally start with the short vowels, as they are the most common sounds in simple CVC words. At the same time, it is important to remember that there is nothing compelling you to teach the consonants in alphabetical order. Rather, if you are teaching phonics, it makes more sense to base the order on frequency, starting with common sounds such as “t”, “s”, “b”, “d” and “r” (which would allow such CVC combinations as “tab”, “bat” “sit”, “sat”, “red” “rub”, “rob”, “sob” etc. These may not be vocabulary that is common or familiar to the student, however it is a foundation they can build upon to begin decoding other longer words.
After covering the common pronunciations of single letters, it is time to move on to common blends such as the “ou” of “house”, “mouse”, “sounds” etc. or the hard and soft “th” (“three”, or “this” for example). These combined with the previous graphemes will give the students the ability to read a wide range of common english
words. In total, I usually teach “sh”, “ch”, “th” (hard and soft), “ou” and “ow” (same sound), “ee” and “ea” (again same sound), “oo” (long and short), “ing”, “kn”, “ai”, “ng” “wh”, “ir”, “ar” (the last two due to the students native language being japan
ese where the “r” of “ar” or “ir” becomes an open-ended “ahh” (for both so that “bird” and “hard” rhyme) as well as the magic “e” sound of “time” or “home”).
However, at the same time it is important to cover the common un-phonetic words without which accurate reading would be impossible. Words such as “said”, “one”, “the”, and “who”, which should be read “sayd”, “oh-ney”, “theh”, and “woah”, need to simply be remembered by sight.
In my experience, a blended approach to phonetic instruction has been the most effective method of giving early learners a solid basis in english
reading. The ability to read with confidence not only broadens the students ability to study english
, it provides them with the tools needed to begin studying on their own; in particular it allows them to seek out materials and topics of study that are of interest to them personally which will only help to increase their motivation to study.