I have never taught phonics. Never have I even considered how I make the dozens (hundreds?) of sounds that come out of my mouth. For me, it was not until I began learning to read, write, and speak a non-Latin based language, in addition to teaching English to kids, that I have begun to examine the basic building blocks of any language, written or spoken.
Learning written and spoken Thai has demonstrated to me the absolute necessity of learning the visual and auditory basics of a language, especially when that second language is vastly different from that of your own and there are numerous new sounds. When learning Thai from a beginner's book, one will see sentences written three different ways- Thai script (ผมไม่ชอบกางเกง), transliterated Thai (phom mai chop gaang gaeng), and English (I don't like pants). How I read the Thai script will be different from how I read transliterated Thai, at least until I understand what it's attempting to say. Due to the fact that there are many sounds not shared between Thai and English, it is
difficult impossible to truly write one in the other language's alphabet.
From English to Thai, consonants get dropped (which you can read more about in a previous post here), many consonant blends get abused (e.g. th, tr, sc/k), and even tones are changed (I know, English "is not a tonal language," but if you wake up tomorrow and speak in a completely monotone fashion, I guarantee people will be confused with whatever it is you try to communicate... Beyond the fact you'll sound like a robot. Indeed, if you do choose to do this, please dress up like a robot. And record it. And sent it to me.). From Thai to English, tones are often misplaced or wrong (turning "come [here] slowly" into "dog tea") and the unique Thai sounds are bastardized (like ง- "ng," that can occur at the beginning of a word).
After observing my kids' English class when I first got to site, I immediately noticed that only a very small percentage of kids (approximately five? That even seems much too generous) were able to read English. Additionally, I noticed that those who could read English, also spoke it much better that those who couldn't (less processing time, better pronunciation, quicker comprehension). It was quickly agreed upon between Pii Aoy and I that English phonics would be a smart thing to teach.
Borrowing a curriculum very well put together by a fellow Thailand PCV, we have been slowly introducing the English alphabet to our students. While there are numerous practices and theories on how to best teach phonics, being that I had never taught them, and Pii Aoy likely has never seen them, we chose a straight-forward method to present them to the kids. Starting from A and moving towards Z we teach four letters at any given instructional time and review all the previous letters we've learned. We show a piece of paper with the letter and a word that begins with it. While saying the three elements (letter, sound, word), we also introduce some "total physical response" (TPR) as an additional way (kinesthesia) to commit the letters to memory. So, "B" might look/sound like this: "B, buh, bird," while the students touch their head during "b", then shoulders for the sound, and flap their arms for bird.
Phonics are a great way to warm up for the class because they're easy, give the kids a sense of satisfaction and confidence, and they're critical to English language learning. Of course, some classes have picked it up faster than others, with others have trouble with the vowels (since they can say many different sounds) and a few other letters that aren't easily replicated in Thai (g- zhe, "l," "q," "r," "v," "x"). We still have a few more letters to learn in all of the classes, but I wanted to experiment with aclass who is understanding the sounds and concept a little bit better than the others. I decided to quickly introduce CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words and share the concept of turning individual sounds into words.
For the record, I think a lot of kids really enjoy phonics in and of itself, but definitely did not understand that we would be expanding upon the sounds and manipulating them into words. So, for future English and phonics teachers, I'd consider explaining what phonics are, how they're used, and why they're beneficial, because I certainly missed that step, which led to...
A number of kids were, at first, completely baffled by the concept of "duh, aw, guh" yielding "dog." However, after a few examples, kids started to understand that they needed to recognize the letter, recall its unique sound, and then put them all together to generate their word. Many required prompting in the form of our TPR motions, but there were others who understood it immediately. And it was in this exact moment that I was most proud of an accomplishment- not mine, but theirs.
My eyes were on one of my favorite students, and I literally watched as the connections were made and he, in that instant, learned how to read English. His eyes were as big and bright as any sun, and his smile larger than I'd ever seen. "Bad!" "Cat!" "Fad!" "Tip!" He, and others, began reading every single CVC word I wrote on the board, quick as a whip. It is truly an amazing feeling knowing that these children entered class that day not knowing how to read English at all, but then were putting sounds together and embarking on what I can only hope is the road to English reading (and speaking?) fluency by the end of class.
I've heard from other PCVs that introducing phonics and helping kids learn how to read English is one of their biggest, and most sustainable, successes that they'll leave behind, and I absolutely now see why. Sure, over time, this boy and his classmates, would likely have learned how to read some English. But who knows when? Or how well? I'm very proud of my co-teacher and students to embrace such a program so quickly, as the students have a much better opportunity to become stronger English speakers in the future.