Phonics - Overhyped or a Necessity?
|   Oct 13, 2015
Phonics - Overhyped or a Necessity?

The younger one reads upside down. No, not the book. The book is perfectly straight. The boy on the other hand is half on the sofa and half dangling from it.

'Oi! Do you know phonics?' I asked.

'Eh?' The younger one, still upside down, screwed up his eyes to look at me. 

'You know how the sounds of the words work and all that?'

'Seriously? I AM reading right now! How do you suppose I am doing that without knowing the words? Are you feeling all right, Ma?' 

'Yeah, yeah, I am good. But don't you find pronouncing new words difficult? You know, since you do not know the rules and all that.'

'There are rules? Umm, there is this big fat book that I have. It is called a dictionary. Are you sure you are feeling well?'

That was my cue to let things be and let the boy read like a bat. Upside down. Without a dictionary by his side.

Ten years ago, when the boys were at the stage of discovering the language, phonics wasn't really a rage. One just picked up the language. A decade later, it is being projected as a prerequisite to understanding the language. The question of whether or not to send a child to a Phonics class invariably pops up in conversations. First of all we need to get the definition out of the way. To quote the Internet, "Phonics is a method for teaching reading that focuses on the relationship between sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes) in an alphabetic writing system. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language but not necessarily a single letter, for example, ‘oo’ in look is a phoneme."

A worldwide debate is raging over Phonetics versus the Whole Language as a system, and we cannot stand on neutral grounds anymore thanks to the gazillion Phonics classes that have mushroomed across cities. There are certain issues central to the choice of Phonics as a system:

1. Decoding over meaning?

Phonics relies on decoding. In a bid to decode, the real text stands threatened. Reading is not just putting together of sounds. There is meaning, there are personal memories that might be stirred, and there is pleasure. When have you decoded the sound while reading? Chances are never. We care about reading far more than the sound. We want to understand what the words mean rather than how they roll off our tongue. That bit we learn as we go along.


2. Why is it crucial to get all pronunciations right early on?

Not being able to read big words doesn't hinder a child's interest in reading or effect the language development. I have a friend whose two-year-old daughter can barely tell A apart from Z, yet while conversing she uses abstract words like 'probably' and 'troubled,' fluently. Sometimes her pronunciation is utterly adorable and we giggle at the recordings for days at end. The knowledge of words at her stage is coming form the 1082 books that she gets her grandpa to read at bed-time everyday and the endless conversations that happen.


3. Headstart? Why?

There is a time for everything. Why are we in a hurry to get the bud to open up all the petals at breakneck speed? For each reading level, there is whole world of books that would take several lifetimes to get through. Then, why are we in a hurry to get the child to 'progress' to the next reading level? And in any case, research proves that late-readers that usually start at lower reading levels quickly catch up with their peers' level, and are not forever disadvantaged.


4. Our generation grew phonic-less and we are fine.

From reading classics to enjoying poetry, we have done it all. I do not remember thinking of words in terms of the length of 'a' in them. Think back. How did we read as children? We never fussed over pronunciations since we were not reading aloud to an audience and the meaning was mostly according to context if a difficult word was thrown our way. Hell, I do it even now. Sometimes, we were the proverbial good child, and consulted the dictionary. But mostly guessing worked just fine. As long I was at the edge of the seat and chewing my nails at the right points it didn't matter if I was faltering at a few pronunciations or guessing the meaning. 


5. Family of readers versus non-readers

Being born in a book haven undoubtedly helps. But that doesn't mean that families who have not invested in books or are unable to do so, will raise non-readers unless they enroll them in Phonics classes. I have seen that happen. All it needs is accessibility to books and lack of alternate channels of entertainment. My mum has a basket-full of picture books that got the children whom she helps with schoolwork, curious. They started with flipping a few pages and gawking at pictures, and gradually warmed up to reading, often asking her for help with the bigger words.


I might have stirred a hornet's nest here. But the fact for me and quite a few others that I know - readers and non-readers alike - remains the same. Phonics is overrated and at best can be used as a supplementary tool in the wider world of reading. There are a million ways of putting the child off reading. Lack of Phonics awareness is not one of them.


I know of a 12-year-old who recently took to reading and he is unstoppable now. There is also a certain two-year-old whose imagination gets our jaws to drop on the floor and stay there. So let life take its course. Let the child linger on picture books way beyond his years. Let him find books when he wants to. Just make sure that when he reaches out to grab one, he gets an armful.


Back when the older one was just beginning to find words in a phonic-less world, he used to refer to Pyjamas as Chabana. The younger one called them Jamamas. It was far too cute to be corrected by decoding it. The boys tower over me now and, at most times can be found devouring books, sitting in their respective chabanas and jamamas. 

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