No phonics – 2 – How I teach English.

I don’t do phonics – 2

How I came to teach English as I do.

My aim has always been to lead young people to a situation where they can appreciate, understand and use their language as educated adults. In 1987, the last Chief Examiner for London University’s O-level examinations told his assistants to imagine successful candidates starting work in a solicitor’s office.  There they should be capable of taking a sheaf of solicitor’s notes and transforming them into a properly drafted, formal letter.


As a teenager I was always reluctant to do as I was told unless there was a good reason for doing so. Learning the phonetic alphabet, at the behest of my French teacher, in order to learn how to pronounce French words from the dictionary made no sense to me whereas my Spanish teacher’s refusal to use any language other than Spanish for the first eleven weeks of Spanish lessons was convincing and effective. He demonstrated the way the language worked and encouraged us to try it out. After those first eleven weeks he resorted to English when necessary in order to explain the workings of a language that we were beginning to appreciate.


At nineteen, I had to dismantle, overhaul and re-assemble a second-hand engine before installing it in an ancient Ford. In doing so I learnt how an engine is assembled and came to understand its functioning. When I taught beekeeping in school we started off by dismantling and examining a hive before trying to reassemble it correctly. In the classroom I had come to realise that students could learn to dismantle English in ways that showed them how it worked. From that it was not difficult to lead them to appreciate the importance of writing well in order that they could communicate intelligently and effectively.


And so I begin with sounds and the sounds that make up words. Then we can dismantle sentences and consider the different jobs that word can do. Next we look at words assembled: phrases, clauses and sentences, the different ways in which we can so this and the effects of assembling words in different ways. As we proceed there are questions and exercises, to establish understanding and skills, but my students are not troubled by thoughts of tests, assessments or examination. I have always believed that competence in the subject should be rewarded by any reasonable scheme of assessment.


As the competence and confidence of my students grow there is room for discussion, to draw them into a consideration of matters to hand and to encourage them to look and listen critically to others’ use of the language in order, eventually, to consider the way they use English. Increasingly, the material we read is literary material, prose, verse and drama, and we can enjoy the myriad wonders performed by good writers. Thus the study of language becomes a study of literature and vice versa.


As I explain things, and as students try to understand, it is inevitable that technical terminology becomes involved, but only when necessary to help their understanding. Without the means to distinguish between different types of words, parts of speech, it is difficult to analyse sentences in order to understand them. You can lecture students about the importance of accurate punctuation, for example, but until they appreciate its importance they will find it difficult to understand a mini-disquisition on the topic. Getting them to attempt to read aloud a piece of writing from which the punctuation has been stripped out is the way to achieve this.


Sometimes they will have been intimidated by text books and teachers concerning “rules.” If you can explain the difference between a convention and a rule and tell them that without the “rules” of grammar being hard-wired into their brains from birth they would be unable to talk to you, you will be doing them a big favour. These students are not training to become linguists, scientists of the language, any more than we are training to become physicists when we struggle as we learn to ride a bike.


Children can be bullied or bribed into conformity, into doing the right thing. What is important is to get them to see the significance, the importance of what we would like them to do and then they will continue to do the right thing, long after we have gone, because it matters to them.

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