And what about “phonics”?

Phonics is a system for teaching English-speaking children how to read and write using conventional spelling. Phonics was the way I learned how to read English when I was a little boy: how, now, brown, cow. I could already speak English. Nobody needed to teach me how to say the sounds of English. They did not push it too far, English spelling being so irregular. And I soon learnt to recognize the words in books immediately. Looking back on it, learning written English is a bit like learning Chinese: “look and say” is really the only way. It could even be argued that the open-minded intelligent child will soon notice that English spelling is silly and that phonics is a bit of a sham, resulting in viewing teachers with distrust.

Phonetics is not the same thing at all. It offers a way of representing the sounds of a language with corresponding special symbols, in a similar manner to that by which music can be represented with a set of notes. Simplified Standard Sound Symbols (S4) is a set of such symbols just for the sounds of American and British English. It is "phonemic" in that each of its symbols represents a sound that needs to be distinguished from another one in the set to convey meaning as, for instance, in the case of 'ship' and 'sheep'. It is a complete system that provides the EFL teacher with a reliable and logical framework for teaching students to accurately say and recognize the sounds of English.

This is what Professor John Wells has to say about phonics:

Learning the sounds?

Synthetic phonics, according to a Sunday Times “briefing”on dyslexia (18 Jan., main section, p. 20) is a system in which children are taught the 43 sounds of English and how to blend them.

Oh no it isn’t. It is a reading scheme. English-speaking children who are ready to learn to read and write already know the sounds of English. What they need to learn are the letters and the letter combinations that correspond to them in writing.

True dyslexia (if it exists) involves the inability to identify letter shapes. If a b looks to you like a d, or you can’t reliably tell apart a p and a q, then you do indeed have a special problem in visual perception.

Synthetic phonics very sensibly concentrates first on the regular spelling-to-sound correspondences. Rather than the rival whole word schemes (“look and say”), children first learn to spell out C-A-T = cat (which they can already name as a /kæt/). The cat sat on the mat.

As explained in Wikipedia,

Synthetic phonics emphasizes the one-to-one correspondences between phonemes and graphemes. In synthetic phonics programs students say the sounds for the graphemes they see and orally blend them together to produce a spoken word. In the context of phonics, the wordblend takes on a different meaning from its use in linguistics.

(In phonics, a blend is a letter combination, such as sh = ʃ.)

But English-speaking children learning to read experience a special difficulty: the irregularity and inconsistency of our spelling-to-sound correspondences. Learning to read and write imposes an extra burden on the memory not required of, say, Swedish- or Polish-speaking children. It seems reasonable to conclude that some cases of supposed dyslexia may be due to difficulty in surmounting this extra hurdle.

After all, there are very few adults who are entirely confident in their ability to spell every word they need. Most adults make occasional spelling mistakes, and many make lots.

Many years ago I was engaged to teach some elementary phonetics to teachers of reading. I was astonished how difficult they, of all people, found it to distinguish between speech (something you can hear) and writing (something you can see).

I encountered one teacher who honestly believed that θ as in thing consists of a t-sound followed by an h-sound.

It looks as if the anonymous Sunday Times reporter may be guilty of the same confusion.



Every EFL teacher needs to consciously know the sounds of standard American and British speech
Back to top of page