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Fun with Phonics | Charlotte Rance | OUP

Phonics dictionary entry with OUP logo

If I asked you what the hardest part of learning English was, how many of you would point out the relationship (or seeming lack of a relationship) between how English sounds and how it is written?

My social media feeds are full of jokes about English spelling, like the famous poem ‘The Chaos’ by G. Nolst Trenite, which uses rhymes to point out that

“Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.”

Ahead of my forthcoming webinar Fun with Phonics next month, let’s go back to basics with phonics and think about how it is relevant in the young learner’s classroom.

What is phonics?

English is not spelt phonetically so reading and spelling in English can be challenging even for native speakers. Phonics is a system that was developed to help native speaking children learn to read in English. It involves linking the 44 sounds of English (phonemes) to the possible ways they can be spelt (graphemes). There are three main types of phonics: Analytic, Embedded and Synthetic.

  • Analytic phonics takes whole words and asks learners to analyse them. Students are taught to compare sound patterns, for example identifying what is the same about the words pet, purple and potato, or noticing the similarities between words with the same ending like book and cook.
  • Embedded phonics teaches phonics as and when it is needed. For example, if a student is having particular difficulties with a new word. It is not a systematic approach, and students are only taught what is needed so not all phonics elements are covered.
  • Synthetic phonics is the most widely used approach around the world. This is because it is the most effective. This method takes a systematic approach to phonics, teaching children to sound out words to ‘decode’ what they say, or blend sounds together to ‘encode’ them in their written form.

As Synthetic phonics is the most widely used, we will look at this further during the webinar.

Why does it matter to English language teachers?

As a native English speaker (and reader) I clearly remember receiving phonics instruction as I navigated English spelling. I remember working through levelled reading schemes in school, and reading with my Grandmother as she challenged me to find all the words in the newspaper with “oo” in them while we experimented with the sounds they make. More than 30 years on and phonics has become a buzzword in the English language classroom.

However, phonics doesn’t just help children to associate the sounds and spelling of English. Through focusing on the sounds of English, young learners can develop confidence when they tackle new words. It can also help them to improve their spoken and written English and develop their learner autonomy. We’ll be exploring this further in the webinar.

How can I teach phonics?

In 2018 there are plenty of great phonics-based reading schemes that can be used in our classrooms.

There are those such as Floppy’s Phonics which is designed for the first language English speakers, but which is increasingly used in the second language classroom. Then there are schemes such as Oxford Phonics World which is developed specifically for learners of English. Phonics can also be seen embedded in young learners’ coursebooks such as Family and Friends, where children learn phonics while they learn English.

Of course, having the right materials is only half of the battle. As with anything else in the classroom, success with phonics will also depend on how well you implement the ideas into your lessons. If you are new to phonics and you are interested in picking up a few hints and tips for your classroom, why not register for the webinar? I look forward to seeing you online!

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Charlotte Rance is a freelance teacher trainer and educational consultant based in Brighton, UK. She has been working in the English Language Teaching industry for over a decade, and her key areas of interest are young learners and the use of stories and reading as a tool for language learning. Her main goal as a trainer is to provide practical advice and strategies that teachers can implement in their lessons.


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Double Trouble (or Accommodating doubled consonants in English)

Road sign: Unnecessary noise prohibited

Image courtesy of Jack Dorsey via Flickr

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the anomaly of double consonants in certain English words.

The presence of doubled consonants in certain words can present a great challenge for students attempting to get to grips with English spelling. The sound of a word will often give an idea of whether a single letter or a double is required, but it is quite possible for two words to sound alike and yet for one to be spelt with a single consonant and one with a double. Why is there only one ‘b’ in habit but two in rabbit? Why should there not be a double ‘l’ in auxiliary when the letter is doubled in ancillary?

Examples like these might suggest that students will look in vain for any rational pattern. But, in fact, English spelling is not entirely arbitrary; it is just that the spellings of English words reflect the origins of the words rather than their sounds. Rabbit is spelt with a double ‘b’ because it comes from a Flemish word robbe; habit has one ‘b’ because it comes from a Latin word habitus. English has taken its vocabulary from a variety of languages, and each of these languages has its own spelling patterns. The presence of words from different languages side by side in modern English leads to some apparent inconsistencies in its spelling.

So, my first point is that any information you have about the origin of a word can be useful in determining its spelling. This information may come from thinking about the spellings of other words within the same word family: for example, if you can think of perennial and millennium as being members of the same word family as annual (they are all derived from a Latin word meaning ‘year’), you can be confident that these words will be spelt with a double ‘n’.

Some learners may even be able to apply knowledge of the language from which the words came into English. (This is why contestants in spelling-bee competitions sometimes ask for word origins before giving an answer.) Loan-words from Japanese or from Polynesian languages, for example, do not usually have doubled consonants, whereas words from Germanic languages are more likely to have them.

For most students, however, the origins of English words are even more obscure than their spellings. So a more practical strategy for remembering tricky spellings is to learn or make up a little phrase that acts as a reminder. I still remember how to spell necessary from being told that ‘it is necessary for a shirt to have one collar and two sleeves’ (so I think of it having one ‘c’ and two ‘s’s). Here are a few more memory guides along the same lines:

This accommodation has two double rooms and two singles (double ‘c’ and ‘m’, single ‘d’ and ‘t’).

A committee should have as many members as possible (double ‘c’ and double ‘t’).

The show was a success and they doubled their money (double ‘c’ and double ‘s’).

I find such devices to be a powerful learning tool. Not only that, but the model is entirely flexible, so that students can devise their own memory guides, using their own native languages and employing contexts that are meaningful to them, as a way of remembering tricky spellings.

What useful phrases have you taught to your students to help them remember tricky spellings? Share them in the comments below.


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Ten things you might not have known about the English language

Mystery boxAlex Hammond writes for ESL – Language Travel. In this guest post, he reveals a few little-known facts about the origins of the English language.

Hey, English speaker! Congratulations. You speak a language that straddles the globe like nothing before. Statistically, English is unlikely to be your first language and you are likely to be from an educated background. Again, congratulations.

Here are ten things that you may not have known about this wonderful language of ours:

1. It is the only major language without an academy to guide it

L’Académie française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. Part of its job is suggesting alternatives for the English words that are pouring into French. That’s how email became courriel, for example (although you will still hear it called e-mail in French).

For Spanish there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no equivalent to L’Académie for English. Of the 10 most-widely spoken languages in the world, only English has no academy guiding it.

There are political reasons for this. The closest Britain ever came to having a language academy was at the start of the eighteenth century, when Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift was lobbying hard for an academy because “our Language is extremely imperfect… its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions (and) in many Instances it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Queen Anne supported the idea but died before a decision could be made, and the issue was largely forgotten.

In the USA, a bill for the incorporation of a national academy was unsuccessfully introduced into congress in 1806. Fourteen years later, an American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres was launched with John Quincy Adams as president, but broke up after two years after receiving little political or public support.

Nowadays, the only English-speaking country to have a language academy is South Africa. Because the English language has become so ubiquitous without any guidance, there is little prospect of anyone starting an academy any time soon. Where would it be? In Britain, the home of the language? Or the USA, where the largest English-speaking population lives?

2. More than 1 billion people are learning English as you read this

According to the British Council, around 1 billion people around the world were learning English in 2000. This figure is now likely to be significantly higher.

3. 96 of the 100 most common English words are Germanic

Of the hundred most frequently used words in English, 96 have Germanic roots. Together, those 100 words make up more than 50% of the Oxford English Corpus, which currently contains over 2 billion words found in writing around the world.

Surprised? The most frequently used words are the meat and bones of the language, the essentials that make communication work, including I, you, go, eat, and so on. Old English developed from various Germanic languages that came to the British Isles in the second half of the first millennium AD.

Whereas the language has changed almost unrecognisably since then, including the grammar, the basic words have remained.

4. …but most words that have entered the language since 1066 have Latin origins

If English is your first language but you find French or Spanish easier to understand than German, you are not alone. This may seem strange when English and German are on the same branch of the Indo-European language tree.

The Renaissance, which started in Italy and reached England via France, was a massive source of new vocabulary. New ideas, or old ideas rediscovered, started flooding out of the southern cities but there were no words to describe them in English. So the language adopted or adapted the Latin words. During the Renaissance, the English lexicon roughly doubled in size.

The shift away from the Germanic languages, however, had started much earlier, because…
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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 2: Spelling

Pre-teens at a spelling beeIn this second post, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, discusses the peculiarities and difficulties of teaching English spelling to students in Libya.

If you missed it, read Jon’s first post about teaching The Alphabet.

After we had taught the letters, it was time to start creating short words and introducing students to spelling.

Vowels were a particular challenge – while vowel sounds may be shown in Arabic using marks similar to accents, Arabic largely has no need to mark the vowel, as the order of consonants is enough to transmit meaning.

Clearly the first task was to lend a value to each of the vowels, so ‘a’ became / æ / as in cat; and o / ɒ / as in dog and so on.  Words were set out on flash cards and taught alongside visual images. Many words can be built phonically and students would get tremendously excited when they managed to decipher what was written on the board. Eventually we moved onto writing full sentences of language that had been introduced far earlier. For instance: ‘Hello, my name is Ali’ and so on.

When people talk about the difficulties of English spelling they often cite rare words like plough and all the different sounds that the combination of letters –ough can make. (Think of ‘enough’, ‘through’, ‘though’ and so on.) Believe me, the problems are much more basic than this! We had to start with far more basic concepts.

One of the early tasks was to introduce and teach the simplest digraphs – one sound from two letters – such as –sh for / ʃ /, –ch for / tʃ / and –er for / ə(r) /. We covered wh– for wh– questions very early on. Later on we showed how the final ‘e’ in a word could sometimes make the preceding vowel take on its full alphabetic value (think of ‘Tim’ / ɪ / and ‘time’ / aɪ /). The multitude of ways of realizing the same sound was another area that students always found perplexing. The long / iː / could be represented be as in ‘be’; –ee as in ‘see’; –ea as in ‘please’, and so on.

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Correcting dyslexic spelling

Teacher helping two young studentsIn this guest post, Joanna Nijakowska, author of Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom (2010), explores the difficulty of spelling among dyslexic learners of English, and how the use of the red pen only enforces incorrect spelling.

Spelling mistakes constitute a notorious feature of dyslexic writing. Teachers often highlight or circle the mistakes (especially with a red pen) bringing them to the surface of the text but in that way students focus their attention on and consolidate the erroneous forms instead of learning the correct spelling.

In similar vein, writing the words on the blackboard and asking students to compare them with their own spelling attempts does not work very well with learners with dyslexia.

The occurrence of mistakes is sometimes indicated on the margin in a given line of the text; however, if we do not specify where exactly the mistake is, we make the correcting task much harder for our students with dyslexia.

Another technique is to simply count down the mistakes and give the total at the bottom of the text, often with no indication of the exact position of the mistakes. Unfortunately, even very careful looking at words and searching for mistakes cannot guarantee identifying the misspelled ones, just the opposite, it happens that perfectly well-spelled words get ‘corrected’ mistakenly.

It proves much more effective and less time-consuming to cross the misspelled word and write the correct spelling above or next to it. In that way it is the correct form which is made visible and, hopefully, integrated.

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