Welcome to the world of Phonics

I hear sounds in my head. Letters float around in the air in front of my eyes and anytime the bump into each other, they make a sound. Ay, oy, ar, ow, ey.

I wake up and I immediately feel restless. Another dream about sounds. I sit up although it’s way too early to wake up and think about what is happening. Words in English that once seemed so simple now haunt me. I search for the correct sounds day and night. I draw buttons and boxes to try to make sense of the words in a way I had never before. “Welcome to the world of Phonics!” I say to myself before laying back down hoping to get some more rest.

Back in the day in England teaching children to be literate seemed to happen through a mixture of different strategies that didn’t depend heavily on decoding a single word[1]. Now that is all in the past. It has been since 2006 when the government introduced Phonics as a part of the national curriculum. For me however, the world of English only shifted dramatically last July when I was introduced to the world of Phonics that has haunted my days, and some nights, ever since that.

It was last July when I was sitting in the first Phonics training given to the new staff at Central Primary school, that I realised that at the age of 30 I would have to learn a language that I felt quite confident in, again. As the teacher in front was talking about phonemes, diagraphs, sound buttons and alternative spellings, half of it just sort of flew by. I thought back to my obligatory linguistics courses at university and I felt overwhelmed. Let’s just say that even back at university phonetics really was not my cup of tea.

But life takes you to weird places and there I was sitting in a classroom staring into a whiteboard trying to get my head around the theoretical framework behind phonetics but also memorise the key 40 sounds in the English language, their alternative spellings and the actions that go along with them. It was back then that I heard about the national Phonics screening test that Year 1 children take in June, when I realised that this time around I didn’t really have a choice. Now Phonics really had to be my cup of tea.

Phonics, although it can make you look and sound silly, is actually very serious business. It is the key to both reading and writing, but also opens up a completely different framework for learning a language that can guide you for the rest of your life. With the rules that you learn in Phonics, you can make sense of some of the peculiarities in the English language, that we all know that exist. The knowledge you gather in Phonics can improve spelling as diagraphs can be key to spelling rules, and knowing if a word has a stressed or unstressed vowel is always useful.

So what is it that we teach to the children then, when we are teaching Phonics? It all starts with a letter and a sound, just like my dreams. And so it’s not a coincidence that at Central, as well as at majority of the primary schools in England, teacher’s follow the Letter and Sounds Phonics programme provided by the government[2]. It starts with the key 40 sounds in the English language. To identify and remember the sounds better we also teach the children an action for each sound. These actions are part of a Jolly Phonics programme, which indeed makes learning English a lot more jolly[3] because as an example you get to play that there are ants on your arm for the letter a. And so you have opened the door to a whole new world of English that makes you speak with gestures instead of sounds.

It all seems easy enough to start with, but just wait when we reach the so-called split-diagraphs and the alternative spelling that certain sounds have. And soon you are faced with a problem of how to teach that the letter y on its own can make four different sounds like in the words of yard, cry, rainy and gym, and on top of that make a diagraph ay and oy with two more sounds, and that’s when things start to get confusing.

After you learn all the actions and sounds for the single sounds you then move on to diagraphs and trigraphs and learn to recognise those from a word by putting sound buttons on it. After that you sound out the word and blend it together to make the final word. On top of that you still have the non-decodable words that just don’t follow the rules that you just have to learn by heart. And just so things wouldn’t be too simple, you also introduce the children to pseudowords, which are words that do not exist but children need to learn to sound out and blend by using their phonics.

Now these pseudowords wouldn’t normally be such a big problem, but in a school where over 90% of children have English as their additional language, majority of all the words they read are alien to them, because they don’t know what they mean. This essentially means that they can’t really tell apart the alien words from the real ones. What happens through Phonics is that we teach children how to sound out and blend any decodable word in English without actually having to know what that word means. Now is that a good thing or not is not really for me to judge. But it is going to help them pass their first official and national testing next week.

As we prepare for the screening next week, I think back to last July. I embarked into an exciting but draining adventure and there was a time when I felt that the more I learned about Phonics, the less I actually knew. Luckily, the dreams are mostly in the past, but the sounds, the sounds I’ll never forget.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2006/mar/20/schools.uk1

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/letters-and-sounds-principles-and-practice-of-high-quality-phonics-phase-one-teaching-programme

[3] http://jollylearning.co.uk/gallery/jolly-phonics-actions/


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