Are you as troubled as me about teaching your child of 5 to 6 years old to read or speak better English? If so, I hope this blog post will help clear the air for you.
What is a Phonemic Chart? It is a Chart (or summary) showing all the sounds in English Language. In simple words, it is a chart showing all possible sounds (phonemes) in the spoken language.
Phonics is a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbols. Letters of the alphabet are used as the symbols. Letterland and Jolly Phonics are two of the very popular phonics methods used in pre-school in Singapore. The Kindergarten which GerGer, BoiBoy and BayBee attends uses Letterland. The challenging issue for phonics is that many letters can represent a number of different sounds. For example, the letter ‘o’ can be read as /ɒ/ as in pot, /əʊ/ as in most, /uː/ as in do, /ʊ/ as in wolf, or /ə/ as in button. Vice versa, the same sound (phoneme) can be represented by many different symbols (or letters). For example, the sound /k/ (as in king) can be represented by the letters ‘k’ in king, ‘c’ in cat, or ‘ch’ in Christmas.
I never learned phonics in my school days. So to help my children with their homework, I picked up phonics on my own. Naturally, I started with Letterland phonics. I purchased three of Letterland’s books (1) A B C, (2) Beyond A B C, and (3) Far Beyond A B C and read them whenever I had time. After going through the first two books again and again, I got familiar with the Letterland Characters (the symbols that were used in the phonics method) and the sounds they made.
It was only this year that I felt GerGer needed to learn beyond what her teachers taught her in Kindergarten, just as she completed her pre-school education this November. I am guilty of not spending regular reading time with GerGer. When I do read with her, I found difficulties using her Kindergarten materials to teach her to pronounce many words. For example, one of the spelling tests had a word “door” and she asked me why isn’t it pronounced as “d-oooo-rrr” and I could not reply her in a logical manner. Well, I know that there are many other methods to teach reading and a quick way to reply her was in line with sight-words methods. I told her that it was a very special word, and that taught her to remember the correct pronunciation. Such incidents occurred for many times this year, because her spelling tests were not aligned to her phonics lesson materials. Her spelling tests were mostly on commonly known sight-words. Another important reason I felt I should teach GerGer more, was the absence of end-of-words sounds in her school work materials.
I began my research on the internet, and in the library, on how I should proceed recently. I get confused many times. The most convenient way was of course to purchase advanced phonics books from Letterland. I saw on the internet that they contained end-of-words sounds, like “ble” as in marble, and ‘ll’ as in fall. I procrastinated because the book I was about to buy looked really thick and it was highly possible that I won’t be able to absorb everything from the book and teach them to GerGer in a short time (I wanted to better prepare her for Primary One next year). During one of my brain-freeze moments, I recalled about a reading program, called the Phono-Graphix® when I was at the library earlier this year. (I read the US-English version of the book, and couldn’t get hold of the UK-version). The program claims to solve challenging issues faced by phonics method; many letters can represent a number of different sounds, and the same sound can be represented by many different symbols (or letters). It sounded like “the method” I should apply moving forward, until I read an article about how a group of children did well in the Phono-Graphix® assessment even though they were only taught Letterland. I was completely baffled at that juncture. What should I do? My children will be as confused as me if I do not clear my doubts soon.
A previous DISC personality test told me that I am a “D” person. Pondering upon this, a light bulb lit. I needed an ‘executive summary’ or ‘summary chart’ (some-what like a ‘periodic table’ in DeeDee’s words), about all the sounds, and all the ways to represent each sound. I figured that this idea is some-what related to how the Phono-Graphix® was based on. Using the book to teach was not suitable for me because the exercises covered were mainly on “basic” phonics; the sounds which GerGer already know. The book had a chart showing all the sound, and the various ways to spell each sound. In fact I found out that many websites had similar charts (e.g. Debbie Hepplewhite’s Alphabetic Code charts.) I did not use readily available charts for two reasons, (1) I couldn’t get hold of the UK version of the Phono-Graphix® book from the local library, and (2) the “sound pictures” (or letters representing each sound) were not something familiar to GerGer because she learned Letterland.
I was crazy enough to spend time doing up my own version of the Chart showing all the sounds, and the ways each sound can be spelt. I used Letterland Characters to represent the sounds. Well, I basically married the Letterland Characters with Phonemic Chart! This was an extremely ‘organic’ and time-wasting way, I reckoned. I figured that once I get it over and done with, it can help everyone of us, including DeeDee and BayBee’s Mummy, in our continuous English learning, and reading journey.
For a start, I needed a table or an existing chart to refer to. After many days of pondering, I decided to use the UK version of Phonemic Chart. More than ten years ago, the organisation I worked for sent me for an English course at British Council, and over two days we were taught how to use the Phonemic Chart to check pronunciation. At the end of the course, I learned the correct pronunciation of a few words (e.g. tuition), and that was about all. Phonemic Chart was too difficult or too dry for me to retain any interest.
I was revisiting the Phonemic Chart with immense interest with better knowledge (or more confusion?) about phonemes. Over many weeks, I listed the 44 sounds taught in Letterland books, and painstakingly mapped them to the 43 sounds in Phonemic Chart. It was awful. I felt as it I was writing my thesis during my university days. I persisted.
The mapping process brought me more bewilderment. Some websites claimed that the letter ‘W’ is a semi-vowel, others say it is not at all. In Letterland, the letter ‘U’ has two vowel sounds, a short /u/ sound as in umbrella, and a long /u/ song as in uniform, but I read elsewhere that long /u/ sound is not a vowel sound. My children were taught about the /qu/ sound with the Letterland character Quarrelsome Queen, but I found out that there are two sounds in the letters ‘Qu’. ‘Q’ is actually /k/ sound (represented by letters k or c), and the letter ‘u’ that always follows behind ‘Q’ is usually pronounced /w/ as in wet. Mister Fix-it Man from Letterland whom my children has grown fond of, is actually not one consonant sound. It comprises of two sounds /k/ and /s/ sounds. Well, the process had ended on a good note. Many confusion were cleared with more research in the process, and I was more confident about phonemes, and the ways they can be represented.
Filled with pride, I looked at my self-compiled Phonemic Chart after many weeks of hard work. It spanned over two A4 pages, because I attempted to list all possible ways to ‘spell’ a phoneme, based on my online research.
I did not stop there. I modified the elements in the chart and make palm-sized phoneme cards. Hopefully the children will find it useful to use as reference when I am not around to teach them how to read unfamiliar words.
I guess to many parents out there, teaching reading or phonics may be an easy feat. It is a very difficult task for me (I never learned phonics in school). That may explain why I’m not good in all my languages (English and Chinese), and why I struggle to write each and every blog post. Oops!
If you are interested to get a copy of my self-compiled Letterland-based-phonemic-Chart or the Palm-sized Card Stacks, for your own use (not commercial use), I’m willing to share it, for a token, for my time spent on the research, the compilation, the printing, cutting, lamination, punching and binding. The only caveat is that I am doing this for my own children, and I don’t down a publishing house, so I am sure some mistakes, which I might not have spotted yet are present. If you are familiar with Letterland, and if you think it’s worth, do drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org for a chat.
Once the children are familiar with all the vowels, diphthongs, and consonant sounds, I may start to make sight word cards with associated sounds mapped for the children to learn the next level. Although GerGer already know how to read some of the sight words, mapping the sounds for her will only improve her pronunciation, and no harm will be done. An example of the sight word “all” is shown in this picture. In Letterland (advanced), there is a story about Giant All and how we call him “all”. I really like the story, but due to time constraints as I mentioned above (which applies to all Mums, working or SAHM) I think word cards will be more practical for us.
1) “Letterland ABC” – by Lyn Wendon (ISBN: 978-1-86209-609-7)
2) “Letterland Beyond ABC” – by Lyn Wendon (ISBN: 978-1-86209-790-2)
3) “Letterland Far Beyond ABC” – by Lyn Wendon (ISBN: 978-1-86209-784-1)
4) Phonemic Chart (http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/phonemic-chart)
5) “Reading Reflex: The Foolproof Phono-Graphix Method for Teaching Your Child to Read Paperback – August 19, 1999” by Carmen McGuinness (Author), Geoffrey McGuinness (Author)
6) Cambridge Dictionaries Online – http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/