Not Jolly but Folly Phonics for China

I’m going to argue in this post that phonics is inappropriate for children learning English as a foreign language in countries such as China.

I was prompted to write this post by two experiences.

Firstly, I met the owner of a chain of language centres in mainland China who was in Hong Kong to purchase phonics kits from regional distributors of US/UK publishers. According to him, phonics courses sell very well in China.

Secondly, I read a balanced article about phonics on the BBC News website entitled Viewpoints: Teaching children to read To summarise the content, research evidence supports the view that bottom-up systematic phonics is more effective than the alternative ‘look and say’ method. However, it does have drawbacks and limitations and shouldn’t be relied upon alone to cultivate good readers. In other words, it is a necessary but not sufficient component of an overall approach to early literacy development. Those drawbacks and limitations are listed in the BBC article so I won’t repeat them here. The evaluation of phonics by the writer of this article was done with native speaker environments in mind.

I would, however, like to underline a serious problem with phonics in language environments such as China where English is taught as a foreign language to young children. Those children are likely to lack the oral skills in English that are an essential prerequisite to success in learning to read through phonics. This is because phonics teaches children to decode words by sounds. Once a native speaker child has successfully sounded out an unfamiliar written word, they can access meaning by associating it with the spoken version of the word that they already know. So, as one of the literacy experts interviewed for the BBC article, Lisa Morgan, points out, “children with good oral language skills are likely to become good readers”.

So why is phonics so popular in China?

Phonics kits, e.g. Letterland,  Jolly Phonics, etc. are packaged very nicely. Such good presentation alone can give the impression of professionalism and reliability and may be one of the reasons why parents of young children have faith in the method.  It is also systematic, encouraging the view that it is well-conceived. Moreover, repetitive learning is widely practised and accepted in China and phonics fits in well with this educational heritage.

Phonics may become effective after English oral skills and vocabulary have been developed adequately. But from what I observe, it is used at introductory levels of instruction with (very) young children.


Are you using phonics to teach young learners of English and, if so, what are your experiences of this method?


3 thoughts on “Not Jolly but Folly Phonics for China”

  1. I agree that phonics should be taught concurrently to comprehension, vocabulary, and even grammar skills. To say it is unimportant altogether is to say that pronunciation is not a requirement of conversation. I speak with language learners nearly every day of my life, and each time I encounter a new language I have to learn to listen and interpret their pronunciation. The really unfortunate part about that is I am an exception. Not all individuals have patience and concern themselves with the efforts of language learners with accents. One of my coworkers will judge another individual to be a NES speaker if she cannot understand the first few words from a language leaner.

    So to counter the general statement that the “Chinese should not emphasis phonics” I would say children who hear and utilize correct pronunciation before the age of puberty without an accent will be less inclined to have an accent as adults. Numerous researchers have identified this theory to be true.

    Likewise, children in America need balanced literacy to be fully knowledgable about reading. This requires phonics. We begin phonics instruction when they begin schooling – prekindergarten. Structured phonics or decoding programs have often been used to in remedial instruction for older students to remedy reading disabiltities in young learners. Conversely whole language instruction can be applied to a different population to remedy fluency or other reading disabilities. Ultimately I would argue balanced literacy is necessary regardless of language comprehension.

    All children require planned repetition. It is actually a strategy that is utilized in all forms of education or their would not be success. Statistically this year was my most successful kindergarten year. Every student I provided services for NES or LES made it to grade level this year despite their language learning needs. I used phonics in conjunction with sight words, vocabulary building, thematic learning, and lyrical instruction that repeated to memorize words, I taught the difference between a letter with sound and a words with sound. We sorted words based on the onset sound with “it sound like —-” or “doesn’t sound like —-.” We even focused on mouth formation to distinguish the sound the letter made when discriminating because not all students from different languages hear sounds the same. I had two weeks worth of instruction during 3rd quarter that focused on words that have sounds and words that I have to know (sight words). (‘See’ is a word with phonemes, but ‘know’ is a sight word for most kindergarten students because ow and kn are not phonetic structures taught in later grades.). I do discuss more advance structured for students who are able to take it in, but I only hold students accountable for the objectives I am working in for the general learners. Our students would not have understood words and language without the phonetic elements required to decode English.

    All things considered my brother-in-law who teaches English in China has mentioned how scripted the English learning processis are, and that ultimately comprehension is impeded by the rigid defined way learning takes place. He is a Caucasian, American citizen who has become bilingual by serving in Taiwain for two years as a missionary. He is now studying at a Chinese university while he is teaching English to native Chinese students of all ages. He has taught in the private and public sectors. Having had my own Asian students including Chinese speakers I agree completely with his perspective. English requires a balanced approach.


    1. Thanks for your insightful comments, Cora. It’s great to read of alternative perspectives on the use of phonics. I’m all for it in appropriate contexts, and as long as the students have adequate oral vocabulary to decode written words. In English as a Foreign Language settings, that lack a background English environment, my preference is to use IPA and the many techniques developed for pronunciation teaching/learning. FYI, there’s a discussion thread about phonics on LinkedIn Group TESOL. Cheers! Peter


  2. I agree I’m currently having to cover for a teacher that left because she was struggling to teach 3-6-year-olds English and when I read her notes she was trying to teach the phonics alphabet and kept complaining that they don’t know it. I thought to myself “why would they? The children don’t even know basic English words yet and this is the first time the kindergarten has had any formal English lessons with an English speaking teacher.” It made no sense to me to be teaching them this as they should be learning basic words and as they move up the grades they will start to learn phonics because hopefully, they will be more confident and proficient in their English skills.


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