Today, I witnessed a superb synthetic phonics lesson for a P.1 class*. It was co-taught by Mr King, a NET and Miss Tam, a local English teacher, with Mr King taking a more leading role. I was amazed by the amount of synthetic phonics that the children had already learnt, and MASTERED, in less than two weeks. The lesson clearly showed that the children knew that they were learning the sounds represented by the letters, not the letter names. The lesson also showed that children as young as age six are able to blend sounds together to form syllables (even though we adults may suspect that that is too abstract for young children). In fact, while observing the lesson, I was also thinking that those people who still doubt and query synthetic phonics (some of these people are academics) would be totally convinced that it would work if they had the chance to observe the lesson.
I always tell my student teachers that contrary to their belief, Primary One classes can be the most difficult to teach. These young children have short attention span. They are still centred on their own needs, not those of the class or the teacher. They are spontaneous in expressing their emotions and sometimes could get overly excited about an activity. While we want to use a more activity-oriented teaching approach with these kids, they can also easily get out of control. Miss Tam and Mr King have done a great job in training the kids in proper classroom behaviour, and this ensured the success of the lesson.
There’s one thing I must add. Recently I was invited to answer a questionnaire for a survey that compared native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) with non-native-speaking ones (NNESTs). One of the questions asked whether NESTs or NNESTs would make better second-language teachers. I replied: There are only good teachers and bad teachers. In the Hong Kong context, not every NET is a valuable asset to their school (by the same token, not every local English teacher is a good teacher), but I must say that Mr King is a valuable asset not only to his own school but to the entire Hong Kong ELT workforce. He has painstakingly explored the methodology for synthetic phonics, and created a huge bank of teaching resources for the synthetic phonics curriculum. He is thorough and creative in lesson planning and materials design. In the classroom, he has superb classroom management and lesson execution skills. He handles the rhythm of the lesson marvellously, and captures the children’s attention and interest throughout. His teaching points and intentions are clear to the students, and he has good rapport from them. Mr King demonstrates what a professional, highly skilled, teacher of young children can achieve in the ESL classroom.
And there is one more thing I must add: The school* has a team of dedicated and enthusiastic English teachers who really care about good teaching.
*The school is Buddhist Lam Bing Yim Memorial Primary School.