* Phonics for Teachers

Paper presented at the QATESOL Conference Brisbane, October 2002


On the swings and roundabouts of educational fashion phonics has reappeared after a whole generation of teachers have missed its influence in their own school days and in their teacher training.

 So what is this phonics?  It's a system of linking the sounds of language to the symbols we use to represent those sounds in normal print texts.  It's not the more technical phonetics, the accurate international symbols which represent the sounds of every language.  It's far more rough and ready than that.  It links the spelling of English to the sounds and, since that link is by no means 100% consistent, then nor is phonics an infallibly accurate representation of the sound system.  However, it is useful about 80% of the time and therefore can provide our students with a huge improvement on unaided rote learning to decode and encode written English.

 Moreover, by focusing regularly and systematically on individual sounds and their written representations, we can at the same time enhance our students' listening and pronunciation skills.  Earlier this year I was teaching a low & slow level one class.  At the end of the term I tried to persuade an elderly, well educated Chinese woman that she was ready to move to the phase 2 level 1 class.  Through an interpreter, she told me she wanted to stay in the lower level class because she wanted "a strong foundation in pronunciation"; that is, she saw the regular, systematic phonics we were doing primarily as pronunciation.

 There are, of course, limitations to this method of teaching spelling and reading. 

·         As I said earlier, English follows the rules of encoding only about 80% of the time.  I describe the remaining 20% of words as stupid, a description which appeals to our students as they grapple with the inconsistencies of English orthography. 

·         Encoding and decoding individual sounds or even whole words is a long, long way from reading and writing in any meaningful sense.  We need to guard against the old barking at print syndrome by making sure we also use all the other tools we have in our armoury as teachers. 

 Mere phonics is not enough, but it is in my view one of the essential tools in the teaching of reading and writing.

 Phonics – the sounds of the alphabet

I use the alphabet chart on English Spelling CD, Vol. 1   A complete set of alphabet hand cards, plus wall charts to accompany the alphabet sound song are also available on the CD.

See Current Publications / Spelling Materials on this site.

 With every low level class I drill the sounds and the names of the letters of the alphabet, in order and randomly, every day.  In higher level classes I drill only the problematic ones weekly.

 Although we know these are not the only sounds represented by these symbols, they are by far the most common & students need to learn them.  In many cases they will have learned the names of the letters but have no idea of the sounds.  For students who use the Roman alphabet in their first languages, they will have learned an overlapping, but not identical, set of sounds which causes great confusion.

 I specifically drill the pairs which cause particular difficulty for specific language groups: l/r, v/w, a/u showing where to put the organs of articulation and practising regularly.  Charts showing these mouth positions can be found on English Spelling CD, Vol. 1.

Students cannot be expected to write down or say what they cannot hear.  Our job is to link the hearing, saying and writing overtly for them over and over again until it finally becomes automatic.


We have 26 letters but 44 sounds in English.  We cope with this by combining letters in what we can describe as "digraphs".  Unfortunately (or from another perspective of richness of vocabulary, fortunately) we have a language which is truly mongrel:  it is a mixture of a succession of languages – Old English, Teutonic from the Vikings, Celtic from those difficult Irish, Scots etc, Latin from the Romans, French from the Normans and so on.  We have unashamedly taken words from every language which has passed by or through England over thousands of years.  Sometimes we have tidied up the spelling a bit but, more often we have left it more or less as it was and adjusted the pronunciation to varying degrees. There have been many recent attempts to regularise the spelling but they all ultimately come unstuck because of the great variation in pronunciation throughout the English-speaking world and the humungous volume of print materials which use the existing spelling and which would rapidly become largely inaccessible if we were to change our orthography dramatically.  So, at least for the moment, we have to live with what we have and our students need all the help they can get to cope with this historic porridge.

 I introduce the digraphs gradually, at first with pictures to prod the memory.  (Again these appear in English Spelling CD, Vol. 1.)  I start with those which the students meet most frequently and move on to the less frequent.

  I start by drilling these, always emphasising clear articulation, in a systematic manner. 

Beginners' Digraph List

a-e (cake)
ai (rain – middle)
ay (tray – end)

 e-e (these)
ee (tree)
ea (leaf)
-y (puppy
     2 or more syllables)
-e (he – little)
ie (chief)

 i-e (kite)
-y (sky – little)
igh (high)
-ie (pie – little)



o-e (bone)
oa (coat)
ow (window)
-o (piano)
old (gold fish)

 u-e (mule)
ew (new)

 er (fern)
ir (girl)
ur (church)

 ar (car)

 ing (ring)

 oo (book)
oo (moon)

sh (ship)
ch (chicken)
th (thong)
wh (whip)
ph (phone)

 or (fork)
au (daughter)
aw (saw)
all (ball)

 oy (boy – end)
oi (boil – middle)

 -tion (station)

 air (hair)
are (bare)
ear (bear)

 With more advanced classes, I use cards without illustrations to test.

Note: The year after I wrote this paper, Dorothy and I published English Spelling Vol. 2 (in book form - see under Current Publications / Spelling Materials on this site).  In it you will find digraph hand charts, as well as a complet photocopiable booklet of English Sounds.

Then I ask students to write down 3 ways to spell the long a sound  (a-e, ai, ay).
I point out the patterns: ai/oi in middle; ay/oy on end;
-y in little  words; -y bigger words; y- at beginning;
ow/ow – no pattern ("English is stupid");
er/ir/ur – er most common.

 Not only do I drill these progressively, but I point them out as we meet them in texts.  In reading materials for low level students, I underline in pencil digraphs as students hesitate over unknown words.  The aim is to give another strategy for decoding new or forgotten words, a method of giving hope to those who feel English is impossible because it's too difficult to learn every single word by rote – and they're right, it is.  As native sp[eakers, we all have help, not only in our comprehensive knowledge of sentence structure and enormously greater vocabulary, but also in our conscious or sub-conscious knowledge of the sound-symbol relationships.  Just as we teach sentence structure and vocabulary, we also need to teach overtly and systematically the sound-symbol relationships.

 Do student object to all this repetition? No. In fact, many tell me that this is the most important thing they learn (along, of course, with the grammar which teachers hate so much!)  Not only do low level students appreciate it, but students up to and including CSWE level III value it in a less intensive and modified form. At CSWE level IV, I still sometimes drill some phonics and overtly teach spelling, depending very much on the class and their mastery of English spelling.

 Contrast between short & long vowels

I draw attention to, and exaggerate, the difference between short and long vowels.  I drill these contrasts regularly.  For this I use a table from English Spelling Vol. 2. (again photocopiable and designed to be enlarged)

  Polysyllabic words

It's relatively easy to see and hear the patterns while we deal only with single syllable words.  But we all know we can't sustain that for long.  And, as soon as we have more than one syllable, we have to deal with the demon of stressed and unstressed syllables and the dreaded schwa which effectively hides the true vowel sounds.  My method of dealing with this – and you may have a better one – is to enunciate slowly and clearly first:

le/mon in two distinct, equally stressed syllables.
Then I demonstrate fast and replace the short o
by schwa.

 In any spelling and/or vocabulary list, with classes at all levels, I follow this procedure to demonstrate both the spelling and the natural pronunciation.

We all do this to some extent when we disentangle any fast, natural utterance, such as, What are you doing?  And this leads us, of course, into continuous text which is merely an extension of the process I use with single polysyllabic words.


Phonics is not some magic wand but it can help you and your students to look at sounds and words more thoughtfully and see the patterns which exist.  However, to do this, phonics must be taught regularly and systematically – it's not enough just to circle the words which start with b or find several words which start with  cl or those which end with at .

If taught consistently, and referred back to whenever appropriate (Teach, then nag), phonics can also aid pronunciation and listening skills by heightening students' awareness of the sounds we make and how we represent those sounds on paper (or screen).