Part of my job is to review textbooks and to try to figure out the logic behind them. Almost all English programs start with ABC and in that order, usually with an example word like “ant” even though later students have to figure out why the same letter is pronounced differently in “aunt”. Then, there is often a large leap to short sentences which might appear simple, but really aren’t. They look like essential things we all need to say, but we actually rarely say them. These are the ubiquitous, “This is…, these are…, that is…, those are…” sentences. Or how about the accusatory, “You are a boy.” The verb to be comes early or might even be the first lesson, as if all linguistic existence begins with it. I’d much rather confirm my existence by doing something like eating or sleeping.
I think I remember the first day I was taught to read in a US school. Wasn’t the text about the dog names Spot? I remember the comfortable rhythm of a three-word sentence and its inherent SVO form. I think I was conscious that the words were chosen for their digestible sizes of three-letter like d-o-g and r-u-n. The teacher used a picture book so even if we couldn’t read yet, we could at least follow along. Shouldn’t second languages be taught in this way?
After that first day, I don’t remember anything else about learning how to read because it felt like learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you get the hang of it, you just ride wherever you like. The key was unlocked for associating text with meaning. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone. For those who have trouble learning to read, the graphic and the aural don’t easily connect and that is why teaching through phonics has proven to help considerably.
The reason is because there are so many exceptions when reading and pronouncing English like “cough” and “island”. Those who are able to read quickly are not bothered by the ant/aunt inconsistency. Whereas many people have brains that don’t like to swallow things whole until something is convincingly consistent. There is a rhyme and a reason when teaching phonics, even if it simply means putting sounds and spellings into groups. Then, there is drilling and practice until the ears and the mind can make the print and sound associations.
When we learn a second language, we’re all challenged readers except for the super savant. We haven’t heard these sounds from day one and we might even be using a script we’ve never used before. So many ESL books are written by native-English speakers who seem to think, “Oh, they’ll get it soon enough.” Or by second-language masters who seem to think, “If they don’t know the verb to be, they can’t exist in this language.” Are we using phonics for second language learning?
When people start Japanese, they practically learn phonics by default because the consonant-vowel consistency reads as a simple chart that becomes an easily memorized rhyme. In other languages, such as those with tones and vowels that become long or short depending on the ending sound, teachers usually don’t teach phonics systematically because they can’t. We usually speak our own language without knowing how it works.
So much has been done on teaching English that the phonetic system has been pretty much ironed out. Now, all it takes it finding a good way to teach it. It’s not as dreary or mindless as people think. And delivering results, I’d much rather “See Spot run,” than to sit in existential confusion waiting to be.