But where does that leave us with learning languages? As a child of the 70s, I too learned how to read using phonics and to this day I use “the baby alphabet” when I’m spelling in my head! However when it came to language learning, my experience was very different. Plonked into a French classroom aged 11, we were expected to read full words from the word go without any instruction in pronunciation apart from listen and repeat a couple of times. Being a bit of a perfectionist swotty type, I didn’t want to look stupid with my rubbish accent, so I would keep my hand down in class and wowed my teacher with my immaculate grammar and handwriting instead. In fact, I got right through a university degree in French and Education and a few years into teaching myself before I even heard of using phonics in MFL.
That strikes me as a bit wrong really!
I became interested in phonics when I became head of department and finally had full control over the MFL curriculum (insert evil laugh here! Mwah ha ha ha!) I even learned a thing or two. I finally began to see patterns and links between the written and spoken word I’d never been consciously aware of before. I was desperate to introduce some phonics work with my students but I needed to try it out.
Here enters the guinea pig husband…
So we sat down one afternoon and I told him a story. In French. Without telling him what it meant at all. This bothered him at first, but he went with it for my sake. Instead I taught him simply how to read it aloud in a lovely French accent. We went through different letter combinations and sounds, played daft games and he really enjoyed it. By the end of it, not only was he the proud owner of a lovely French accent, but he’d also worked out what the story meant due to the repetition. “Ha ha!” I thought, “a test!”. So I reached for my Collins/Robert and looked up random words in the dictionary. To my delight he pronounced pretty much all of them with a high level of competency. Even now years, countries, marriage and two children later (but no extra training) he can pronounce the words well enough to read French bedtime stories to his daughters. Voilà, mission accomplished.
I soon introduced it in school where I found that not only was it a popular and pleasurable language activity for the children, but it supercharged their confidence in the language.
Recent research suggest that we do our learners a disservice if we fail to give them a solid grounding in the links between sounds and spellings of the foreign language they are learning. If taught the phonics of the language, talented pupils will be able to learn more independently. What a gift to be able to sound correctly any new word they come across! Struggling learners' self-confidence grows if they can “sound right”. And 11-year-old me would have been much more lively in class, contributing more and actually speaking the language I loved from the start instead of waiting until I was 18 and an au-pair in Paris….that story’s for another blog!
By Angela Sterling
About Lingotot and Phonics…
Lingotot runs short courses for parents entitled “Phonics for Singing and Storytelling”. The aim is to make you more confident to share bedtime stories, silly songs and rhymes with your children. Children learn a language best when they are surrounded by people who speak that language and this is an ideal way for you to develop your skills to support their learning. A session is planned for Durham during the half term break in October. Please click here to register your interest for the event and find out more.