It’s always the teacher, not the method.

A teacher at the school where I will be consulting on synthetic phonics asks:

I really want to know what makes you think synthetic phonics can help local students; and in order to make this programme a success, what is the most important factor?

I do think that there are some ‘methods’ which are definitely ‘bad’ in learning or teaching a language. Examples:

– the post-elementary learner pointing his finger at every word while reading for comprehension;

– the teacher getting her students to write down the Cantonese transliteration for the pronunciation of every new word learnt;

– memorizing the contents of an entire dictionary;

– while writing, thinking of the target sentence in the mother tongue, and then translating the sentence into English word by word.

On the other hand, there are methods, techniques, etc., which are comparatively more effective. One example is, instead of learning word spelling and pronunciation by rote, learning sound-spelling patterns through phonics.

And then, between analytic phonics and synthetic phonics, the former approach, which encourages learners to discover sound-spelling relationships from words that they already know, has the advantage that it promotes self-directed, discovery, learning. However, learners have to have a large-enough stock of vocabulary in order to do the analyses.

Synthetic phonics teaches the sound-spelling relationships directly. Its effectiveness has been confirmed by research. The drilling (i.e., repetition; blending and segmenting practice) can be carried out through fun activities, alleviating the boredom that may arise from intensive practice.

Synthetic phonics is a choice. It is not a magic formula. It won’t solve all our problems. But if we want to complete a phonics programme faster, then it is an advisable option. But for it to ‘work’, the teachers concerned should understand the rationale behind, and be ready to innovate, and to revise their phonics programme and their teaching method in light of the students’ response.

Because not all schools, or classes, or students, are the same.

There is no single phonics curriculum, or method, or set of materials, which will work equally well with all classes, and all learners, in the world. That is why teachers play the most important part in any curriculum innovation. If a ‘method’ works, it’s because the teachers make it work.

No method will work if teachers simply follow a rigid set of procedures.

In any curriculum innovation, the focus should be on the teachers, not on the method itself. If teachers become more skilled in the process, their teaching effectiveness will improve, even if they are not following the ‘method’ closely.

For me, a curriculum innovation, say for example, synthetic phonics, is only the means. The end is nurturing better teachers, teachers who can make more informed curriculum and pedagogical decisions, and who are more effective in classroom teaching.

The English curriculum is a broad concept, and phonics, whether analytic or synthetic, is only one component. Good phonics teaching won’t solve all our problems. But if through working conscientiously on one component of the English curriculum, say synthetic phonics, teachers get to raise their overall teaching competence, then the students will benefit.


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