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  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19812961 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.

Question

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