Phonics for children


My name is Stephen Brivati, but everyone calls me Buri. I was kindly invited to do a presentation on teaching phonics (and other stuff) at an ETJ worksop in Aichi. I decided not to use handouts, but rather post my extremely crude, rough and ready notes on the Aichi chapters web-site. I hope what follows will be of some use, both to those who attended the presentation and those looking for some ideas for next April.

Teaching (phonics) at elementray school.

My overall aim is to dispel the misconception that phonics is kind of nice, useful but not central to a syllabus and cannot easily be integrated with other aspects of a class. Every presentation needs some theme running through it so I chose the PPP approach. Those of you who recognize this as Presentation , Practice and performance and are either feeling warm and fuzzy or want to walk out will need to take a new look. I am using these letters to refer to Phonics, Pairwork and perambulation as the key elements of successful language teaching in elementary schools. I hope this will become clear as we go along.

Much of what I teach has its roots in the teaching/teacher trainner prograns at David English House in Hiroshima. The approach and methodology of Finding Out has seemed to me to be the most effective way to teach currently avaible for elementary school kids, but no course is perfect and as you will see below, a great deal of other kinds of input is necessary.

So a lot of what I am going to talk about today is based on those ideas and materials blended with my own. I am very sorry if you do not use this approach but I hope you will find some useful ideas and activities to add to your own teaching ideas and classrooms.

PPP Phonics -Dealing with Phonics-
Why should we not use the whole word approach?
Why should we use phonics?
Is there a down side to teaching phonics?
How should we teach phonics?
Activities for teaching phonics
PPP Pairwork
PPP- Perambulation
A quick sample lesson plan


PPP Phonics-Dealing with Phonics-

What do you want to know about teaching phonics?

I began by asking this question because a few months ago I went to a presentation by a very senior member of the Gaijin teaching profession in Japan who occupies a very influential and important position in EFL Japan. He began in the very same way, and if you can't beat em, join em. The questions that were asked were quite disturbing to me for they suggested that the standard view of teaching phonics, even among teachers enlightened enough to give up their Sunday's to try and learn about teaching was/is out of date, lacking in creativity, and lacking any real sense of what the purpose of teaching phonics is, or even what they are.

What concerned me too was that the speaker seemed to share much of the same ideas and attitudes about phonics. This was exemplifed in the placing of was what was said to be perhaps the best definition phonics around. It was taken from the introduction to 'Mr. Bugs Phonics,' I cannot remember exactly what it said, but one thing stuck in my tiny mind: 'phonics is a method of teaching reading and writing.' This is not correct so it seems that even the most up to date EFL textbooks are not helping teachers as much as they can! One of the issues that I will have to briefly address today then is, what is the nature and purpose of phonics and how can they be integrated into a coherent and effective teaching methodology and curriculum.

In order to get a better understanding of what a phonics based approach is it is important to have some sense of a) what is currently being done in Japanese classrooms especially at junior high school level and b) other options. Traditional teaching in Japan is based on a kind of hybrid whole word/graded reading approach (by the way- it cannot be defined as grammar translation even if that is the term most frequently used by language educators.) This method of teaching is not appropriate in elementary schools. Nor is the traditional 'whole word' approach. Since most of the discussion about language teaching centers around the relative merits of this approach or a phonics base it is important to have a sense of the differences. It is not a question of rejecting one or the other in all cases.

The whole word approach begins with teaching the alphabet usually via the ABC song. Students are then presented with words and later text with the assumption is that they will analyze or break down what they are presented with and then use the knowledge acquired from that analysis to read and write.

A phonics based approach is the reverse: Ss learn the sounds of the letters of the alphabet and then combine in progressively larger combinations. We can call this process synthesis. By doing this students can figure out the pronunciation of words they have never seen before and if they have an aural match- up in their head then they can understand what they are reading. But even if they cannot understand the word they can at least decode the sound of the word from the printed page.

Why should we not use the whole word approach?

The cheap shot answer is that it does not work. However, to be more precise, this approach works when students are exposed to a large number of classes per week, and English outside the classroom. The more English a student is exposed to the less phonics they need. In an immersion system phonics would in theory not be required at all. In practice I have noticed that some immersion system students would benefit from a very limited study of phonics.

Why should we use phonics?

In my experience, a phonics based course does the following:

1) sensitizes the ear to the different sounds of English

2) develops speaking ability as students learn how to say the component parts of words.

3) develops reading ability quickly.

4) Develops writing ability.

5) Develops learner autonomy. That is students can study text on their own.

6) Develops massive confidence in the students.

7) Provided just the right amount of material that a beginning student of a language can handle (with a few extras!)

Is there a down side to teaching phonics?

Only if they are taught using the traditional ideas associated with them. There is unfortunately, good phonics teaching and bad, or even very bad phonics teaching. Where is assumed that phonics is for reading and writing the activities tend to be very boring and students do not come emotionally involved with repeating after the teacher single letter sounds.

Here is an example book that would need to be rethought. (Gives many examples of words using specific phonic sounds simultaneously with pictures, words written underneath- if students are looking at pictures they are not really processing the letters) This is an example of a traditional phonics teaching book that it is actually the whole word approach disguised as a phonics approach becuase it basically presents lots of words and hopes for the best! Phonics is not concerned with meaning but the connection of sounds with specific letters and their internalization for maximum efficiency. You do not need to teach words to begin teaching phonics. In fact the traditional approach which associates more than one word with a particular sound is also very much less efficient than practicing only one word with one sound. That is controversial but my experience has been that it is better to have one sound -always- associated with only one word.

There is another kind of phonics teaching that crosses over with the whole word approach. That is the ABC song and chants such as AAA is aaa are used. I cannot stress too strongly that this is not the best way to go about teaching phonics. The reason is that presenting students with both the name of the letter and its most common sound confuses students. Many Japanese teachers (and foreign) tell me that this is not true and that students are well able to cope with that kind of ambivalence, indeed they have to cope with kanji that have more than one reading. Well, I am very sorry, but although I am rarely dogmatic or arrogant in my opinions about teaching (not) in this particular case I have a huge experience of both teaching this way and teaching only the sounds and it is 100% consistent that students who learn only the common sounds at the beginning learn faster and better.

Okay, so how would a teacher typically use this book? Please repeat after me while looking at the pictures. Okay, can anyone think how to make this more meaningful?

1)Cards on the table.- Play slam or concentration

2) Pictionary.

3) Charades.

4) Separate the words and pictures and then do matching exercises.

However, these are merely more creative ways of using an ineffcient book.

How should we teach phonics?

1) One sound one picture.

2) Lots of vowel work.One of the most important things to teach which I suspect teachers do not spend quite enough time on is the vowel sounds. I teach them using this song from Finding Out. But we should not use it for two or three lessons and then forget about it. We should repeat it many times and later we can use it for cv and vc combinations. It is indeed a song for all seasons.

3) A lot of time should be spent on double vowel sounds and sh/ch We can repeat the mulberry bush song in every lesson for months if necessary

3) No letter names.

4) Ss should do a lot of writing practice. this might include using fingers and other body parts in the air, writing in sand, or an electric torch on the ceiling.

5) Blending - have students hold fists in front of them representoing individual letters. As fists are brought together the sounds are brought closer together until they are said as one blended unit.

6) Flip charts- these can be ordered from DEH and are excellent for focusing attention. Ss usually like them a lot.

Activities for teaching phonics

1) Running around room. Cards are placed around the room. Ss make teams which run to the letter that is called by the teacher.

2) Kim's game- using Gattegno's technique first. point to the cards on the Bb and have students read differnt words they have never met before. Then have them play Kim's game- that is, removing one card at a time while Ss have their backs turned..

4) Rope game.Ss stand on a rope. One side of the room has some cards and the opposite differnt cards. Tt calls a card and the Ss jump into the correct half of the room. A flexible game that can be used in many different ways. One side of the room could be 'true, the other 'false' for example.

5) Slap game.Write single letters, combinations or word on the Bb. One person from each team comes to the front and tries to hit a letter that the teacher calls out using a rolled up newspaper

6) Balloon game- Ss stand in a cricle and have to take turns keeping a balloon in the air while saying a phonic such as a-apple..

7) Pairwork slap (especially a and u). Ss write two big minimal pairs on a piece of A4 paper. they have to slap the correct letter the teacher says.

PPP Pairwork

So, can we spend the whole of the Ss first year or two studying only phonics?

The answer to this question is a resounding no. I also think it is worth reminding ourselves of a rule that the author of lets go, Ritsuko Nakata is very fond of citing- Ss should spend 80% of their classroom time speaking. That is a very ambitious target and also would cut down on writing time. The only way to achieve this laudable target is to do lots and lots of pairwork. So, everytime you plan a lesson just keep saying to yourself pairwork. Then look at your finished lesson plan and say pairwork and then re-write it with more pairwork

So the question is"What else can we add to our syllabus. Well, straightway I would say that you need a list of basic questions that function as mini conversations. Ss learn these very quickly and they can be used every lesson. I use the following:

What's your name?

How are you?

Where do you live?

How old are you?

What color do you like?

What animal do you like?

What's your phone number?

These questions provide a solid source of language practice and give students a feeling that they are learning English conversation!!! Ss can and will practice these every lesson for a year, but they will become a little bored with this at some point. there is not too much one can do about this. One useful activity I have found that does help is:

1)THE BANANA POO POO GAME. One student comes to the front and is bombarded with the questions by the whole class. they have to answer Banana Poo without smiling. If they smile they sit down and another student has a go.

2)Another possibility is to have the questions jumbled up on cards and students work in groups to re-arrange the words in the correct order.

Although children have a unique capacity for memorizing these language chunks the chunks themselves do not provide a model of language that students can use to construct their own mental model of language with and keep modifying it in a systematic way. In other words, they are essentially random. That is why an adequate syllabus must also include structures that develop systematically and logically. The Finding Out series does this extremely well. A majority of other best selling textbooks do not. They rely on a child's unique capacity for memory in reproducing language chunks but such an approach is ultimately doomed to fail.

If the structures follow on from prior knowledge then students can very quickly learn to participate in large language events. Let me give you an example of what I mean. I always teach the question:What is it? Right at the beginning of the course. The function I give it is slightly off- that is to say it basically stands for the normal meaning plus 'How do you say this in English?' Within a few weeks students have learnt to use this question and can practice two very simple activities:

1) Pairwork looking at the book.One students points to a picture and asks the question, the other answers.

2) Find someone who? Use the magic cards- these are the very small pictures used for phoincs. They are avaiable from DEH .

After a little more time students can naturally make the switch to IS IT A BANANA? YES IT IS/NO. Notice that this could not have been done easily or naturally using the more standard question WHAT'S THIS? which is very hard for students to hear and contains a wider range of referential meanings that may confuse students at a later date. This leads to the following activities.

1) Pairwork pointing to pictures in book.

2) Cards on head: Is it 'sh-ship?' No it isn't.

3) Find someone who...


I would now like to jump to a feature of Finding out that is very useful and students enjoy a great deal. These are skits.


I think these kinds of skits are basically in the previous category of random language chunks but they really can brighten up a class. And they to serve as an important reminder to the teacher that language learning with movement is the most effective learning.

This is really my third key point of the presentation after 1) phonics, 2) Pairwork and 3) Perambulation.

PPP- Perambulation

Phonics does not in itself represent a total language learning experience but can be a dynamic thread through everything that you do in the classroom. I have identified some other lesson content with activities (language chunks, structures and skits).

In order to learn these things most effectively students should be involved in the process of playing a game rather than a distinct, teacher centered situation in which students sit waiting to be fed information. Most of these games already involve movement (c.f. Find someone who) but they do not actually relate movement to specific language items. This can be done very easily using JAZZ CHANTS and stories. The JAZZ CHANTS book I recommend is Holiday Jazz chants. One of the main criteria for using such a book is that you have to be willing to make fool of yourself!

One thing we can do is blow these chants these chants up as posters. If you don't have the machine to do this then tough luck. You might want to make you own big posters. Why are such posters useful? They have the advantage of focusing the students on the front of the classroom and they can BE USED FOR TEACHING PHONICS.

What we do is have students begin to read almost from the beginning of the course by picking out words that they may be able to decode from all their experiences with phonics.

One of my favorites is about Halloween. I taught this chant with gestures to the first grade of elementary school and they can repeat all of t from memory 1 and a half years later with all the gestures if I do the following action:

Raise my arm and shout Ching!

This is the sound the tape recorder makes before that chant begins!

Some of the chants might seem a little boring to start with. For example, autumn leaves, but with a little creativity they can be very exciting for everybody. In this case I gave the Ss a piece of paper with two leaves drawn on it and asked them to color the leaves. The students could then hold up the leaves everytime they heard the words and right at the end they could all drop their leaves on the floor together.

Okay so now I'm going to put some charts up ion the wall and suggest you get in groups. Take a few minutes to make up an appropriate dance to show the rest of us!

Notice that I use the timer for this. Often teachers make good lesson plans with good materials but somehow their lessons are not as effective as they could be because students are all doing things at different speeds and the teacher has no feeling that she is in control of events. Times can rectify this problem and it is a good idea to get students used to this kind of regulation right from the beginning. They do begin to enjoy the challenge.


Finally I would like to add that as well as Jazz Chants students should be read to at the end of almost every lesson. Once the phonics kicks in, especially double vowel sounds, which I may not have emphasized enough in this presentation you will be amazed at what the students can read. Here is an example. THE TAIL.(Sunshine reader- some of these are very good indeed)

Of course many of the students may not actually be reading while they are staring at the page and reproducing what is there. In many cases I suspect what has happened is that the phonics foundation is sufficiently strong that repetition of the story is easy. They have been highly sensitized to the sounds of English and are confident in speaking, something that is not true of students who may have already completed six years of whole word/translation and memorization at junior and senior high school.


A quick sample lesson plan

Finding out 2- lesson 2. Old mcDonald

Note that Ss find it very easy to learn the alphabet as phonics but have more trouble with double letter sounds so a great deal of time must be spent on them. Therefore use Mulberry bush song from book 1 and Old mc Donald from book two.

A lesson using Old McDonald.

1) Greetings/songs etc.

2) Remind the Ss of double letters by showing them the picture on the flashcards first and then the letters (this is a useful technical point)

3) Put cards around the room and have students in two groups who run to cards.

(Note that this shows which cards students still cannot read well. They have problems with ar car versus ou house for example- so minimal pairs games such as side by side slap and hand slap could be very useful)

4) Write any sequence of double letter sounds on the Bb for Old McDonald- preferably the ones that students had trouble with in the preceding activities.

ou ar ou ar oo etc.

Draw animals, sing song etc. Go to book and ask questions about what is on the page. This is an essential part of the lesson and gives you a chance to review grammatical structures from book one such as 'Is it a ....? No it isn't. What is it?'

Also break the words that the animals say doen into double vowel sounds I.E.

ow- ee- eeow- meeow. This is very focused reading practice.

5) Do the skit on page ten with the teacher being knocked down. This is to provide some light relief.

6) Write the sentence You are a pig on the Bb. Have students read it together. They can at this stage. Do substitution drills with names of animals.

7) Go to page ten. Ask questions to review grammar structures. Introduce new questions- What does a ...say?

8) Students write answers in books.

9) Finish with an exciting game.

Play rope game using double vowel sounds.

The little fox is still.
The dogs of war have made their kill.
(Langston Hughes)

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