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Phonological Awareness and Teaching Literacy
by Joe Barnett


Not all educationalists agree on which core subjects future English teachers should study as part of their training. The preferences of departmental heads and teachers in training colleges are influenced by such factors as their individual discipline, the subjects they are currently involved with (and hence provide their bread and butter), and contemporary trends in teacher training.

I would like to describe how I got involved in teaching Phonics, what I teach, and how I teach it. If it sheds a little light for colleagues on an area surrounded by obfuscation and mistrust, it will have succeeded.

Steven Pinker has written: "Language is a human instinct, but written language is not." Literacy is not a natural skill such as speech production and perception. It is a modern technology, which human beings are not biologically adapted to as they are to spoken language. This suggests that just about anything can have an effect on literacy. In other words, the methodology of teaching reading and writing might draw from any source in order to get children to understand the connections (far-from-obvious) between speaking and marks on paper.

The role of phonics is very controversial and has roused many emotions.

Phonics is a word-identification skill. As opposed to the Whole Word Approach, which is a 'top-down' approach, the Phonics Approach is 'bottom-up.' Whole Language proponents claim that the reader himself gives meaning to a text by bringing to it his own background knowledge and understanding. He forms hypotheses and makes predictions, and only samples the text occasionally to confirm his predictions. Advocates of Phonics, on the other hand, maintain that if a person can decode the text correctly, meaning and understanding will follow. In other words, the text contains the message, and the reader discovers it by means of the act of decoding.

A few years ago I was asked to adapt one of my courses from a Phonetics course to a phonics-based one in order to help our trainee teachers instruct their pupils in reading and writing (a basic literacy program). This would put special emphasis on spelling, which was considered a much-neglected field of study. The course title was left to me.

I was apprehensive about saying goodbye to the phonetics course I had been teaching and developing for over a quarter of a century. 'Phonics' sounded too pretentious at the time for a novice like me to profess to know anything about. 'Teaching reading' was also ruled out because it suggested just another reading comprehension course. Eventually I settled on "Phonological Awareness and Teaching Literacy."

One of my problems, from the point of view of a committed phonetics teacher, was how to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I would now have to teach spelling rules and swot up on phonics.

To teach myself phonics I relied on Unlocking Literacy by Marcia K. Henry (2003). As a basic textbook I chose LETRS Modules 2 & 3 by Louisa C. Moats. While this saved me, and provided the structure for my new course, I had several reservations. By the third time I taught the course many lessons had been learnt.

One obvious obstacle with this book is its 'cultural bias.' Designed for American trainee English teachers, it takes into account the reading problems of speakers of English as a mother tongue (usually from culturally deprived areas, or whatever the PC term is today) or as a second language (usually second to Spanish). As my own dialect is British and I teach RP (Received Pronunciation, i.e. BBC English), I needed to be 'bilingual,' in the sense that I had be aware of divergences in pronunciation between AmE (standard American English) and RP. A second disadvantage is the vast amount of text, which detracts from the speed and liveliness of the lesson, as well as its sense of practicality. More on this aspect later.

In my most recent class, about half the students, second-year English Department students at Michlalah-Jerusalem, were native speakers from the USA or Canada. The course began with a Pretest designed to establish what they knew. In the second lesson I reviewed the test without being drawn in too far; to explain everything immediately would entail teaching the whole course in one lesson. I wrote an action research paper about my course as a student, on a two-year in-training programme at MOFET last year.

An item analysis of the grades indicated their main difficulties, which were mainly phoneme identification, blends and digraphs. The students were more involved than I had anticipated and asked lots of questions and commented on the material. Their calibre was so high and their prior knowledge so wide that I spent less time explaining the main concepts dealt with in the test and more time on theoretical issues that were brought up, as well as pooling linguistic experience.

The American students were especially forthcoming, and we spent profitable time comparing accents and hearing authentic examples of regional variation: New York, California, Boston, Southern, as well as my British variety. The students also excelled at finding in which way ethnic and regional origins can be discerned by the way testees answer certain questions about rhyme and pronunciation when being tested on phonological awareness.

There is a dilemma in teaching pronunciation. On the one hand, one wishes to make students aware of the varieties of the language. With non-English speakers I have found frequent confusion over the differences between British and American pronunciation. First, I have tried to point out i) the main vowel discrepancies and ii) the difference between rhotic (where the 'r' is always sounded, even after a vowel) and non-rhotic (where 'r' is only sounded before a vowel) accents, and have encouraged them to pick one standard, either RP (Received Pronunciation, i.e. Standard British English) or AmE (Standard American English) and stick to it. On the other, the subject of differences can turn into a Pandora's box, since the differences also include almost every other vowel phoneme, several other consonant ones, a lot of word stress patterns, even intonation patterns, not to mention the differences in vocabulary. As a consequence, a perfectionist approach to detecting differences and painting a more complete picture can lead students into a state of confusion. The answer is clearly to find a happy medium, a daunting task.

The topics I intended to teach were:

  1. Count syllables in words.
  2. Find odd-word-out: Digraph /th/, which has two differing pronunciations - voiced and unvoiced depending on the word.
  3. Pronunciation of 's' plural as /s/ or /z/.
  4. Count phonemes in words.
  5. Recognize homophones.
  6. Spelling: Add suffix -ing.
  7. Spelling: Add prefix in-.
  8. Spelling: Add prefix con-.
  9. Recognize digraphs.
  10. Recognize silent letters.
  11. Recognize consonant blends and silent letters.
  12. Recognize consonant blends and digraphs.
  13. Pronunciation of 'c' as /k/ or /s/; and of 'g' as /g/ or /j/.
  14. Identify morphemes and count syllables.


Some of these were not covered and this influenced my writing a Final Exam based only on what I had taught. Towards the end of the course, a Class Project was designed and produced by the students. For this they worked for several sessions in our English Resource Room and found a lot of material through Google. Again, because of their high calibre and their high motivation they designed very professional lesson plans for what we called "Tasks for role play and practice" and from which we produced a booklet. The tasks were: Reading aloud: rhyme patterns and alliteration; Rhyme judgment; Rhyme production; Rhyme matching; Alliteration; Syllable blending; Syllable deletion; Syllable counting; Initial sound matching; Onset-rime division; Final sound matching; Final sound matching; Phoneme segmentation; Phoneme blending; Initial and final sound substitution; Initial and final sound substitution; Middle vowel substitution; Tracking single phoneme changes; Sound deletion; Transition to letter-sound correspondence; Spelling match game; Pig Latin.

Conclusions I drew by the end of the course about the role of the textbook and how my course can be improved included: (i) LETRS seems to be the best textbook in town, but I must supplement it with more extraneous material relevant to Israeli students, e.g. samples of their own students' writing. (ii) The textbook is useful only for guiding students through the schemata and exercises. The sound system should be taught in a methodical and systematic way without too much teacher talk. Students should be tested constantly, not necessarily for marks, just to keep their minds active in the subject. (iii) Reading aloud or asking them to read continuous text in class makes the lesson sag. They can read the text at home, and be tested on some of it.

I would add that the ability to teach young children to read does not follow from an understanding of phonics. I do believe, however, that phonics enables a teacher to be more aware of the many elements involved in basic reading, elements which native speaker competence keeps at an unconscious level. It also helps him to be more systematic, thorough and articulate about what he is doing.


Recommended Reading:

Unlocking Literacy by Marcia K. Henry (2003)
LETRS Modules 2 & 3 by Louisa C. Moats

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