• Paul Wade

When Phonics Fails You

Well here we are once again – it’s been quite a while. Apologies for the break in posts - I've been a bit tied up with my own school. Hopefully the first set of posts gave you lots to be getting on with and now we're back on track with a few more Helpful Hints for Home Learning to see you through the summer term. Today I want to look at the problem the English language has with phonics – i.e. that much of the time, words in English totally fail to follow phonics rules.


Wait! What? “But you spent two whole posts helping us to understand phonics and helping us to teach our kid to read!” I hear you say.

Photo byJosh Applegate on Unsplash


Well, yes. The UK government and many other educational organisation the world over hold that the best foundation for teaching young children the basics of how to decode, read and spell words is through synthetic phonics. And in many countries, they are absolutely correct. Czech, Polish, Serbian, Russian (mostly), German (usually) Finnish, Swedish – all of these language are largely or completely phonically regular. They sound the way they look, almost all of the time.

So why doesn’t English do this?


Well, to put it crudely, English is a bastard. No, really, it is an illegitimate child of several different languages and no one really knows who the father, mother or any of the grandparents are. Britain, as an island, doesn’t really have an indigenous population or language. Instead, it has been repeatedly invaded and colonised over the past several thousand years or so by a host of tribes, conquerors and raiders who have left their mark on the language. Words in English come from multiple different sources. Be it mug (Celtic), dictator (Latin), burn (Anglo-Saxon), rotten (Norse Viking) and grand (French/ Norman) all have their origins in different bits of British history and have all ended up in the English language via different routes.


Which is fine for phonically regular words such as those above. But then we have a problem. A Latin speaking Roman might have picked up some Celtic or Pictish dialiect, but would not have known quite how to say the words they learned. So these got lightly corrupted, and then those same words entered the Anglo-Saxon lexicon and took on a slightly Germanic twang, only to then be pronounced differently by the Viking invaders and then totally up-ended in the French-speaking court of the Norman kings. What you end up with are words that have been through the linguistic grinder and come out not following any of the phonetic rules by which most of the rest are governed.

Photo byHans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

But it can’t be that many, right? Wrong – about 25% of the English language is made up of phonically irregular, or ‘sight words’.


OK. Let’s take few real examples, to make this a bit more concrete. The following, very common words, do not follow standard English phonic rules: said, people, his, to, they, were, do, and know.


Let's dig into this a bit:

  • said – should use the ‘ai’ sounds in main. But the ‘ai’ ends up making a short ‘e’ sounds like in bed.

  • people – well, as the e and o never appear together in English then we would expect each to be sounded out as individual short vowel sounds and the rogue ‘e’ on the end just shouldn’t be there at all.

  • his - under phonic rules, there should not be a lone ‘s’ at the end of a three letter word with a vowel in the middle. There just isn’t a phonic rule for it. It ought to be a double ss and thus make it hiss, like a snake. But it isn’t, so it has ended up being hiz, instead.

And so on and so on.


But if we cannot use phonics to teach these words to kids, how on earth are they supposed to learn how to decode, read and spell them? Well, first up – they can’t decode them. Or mostly they can’t. There are a few sets of mini-rules – to and do, go and so – where pairs of words follow the same rule. There are also words that appear so commonly that they just sink in – I (first person capital), the, is – and seem to mostly get learned by sheer force of frequency. However, the rest defy decoding. They also defy learning to spell by construction through phonics rules.


Which leaves us in a bit of a bind. We clearly need something else.


Yes, we need to rely on human memory and its amazing capacity to just learn stuff. Essentially, with these words, kids simply learn by sight. They see them, over and over again, embed their unique and often weird spelling patterns (example is one the few English words where the RP version actually stretches the a without changing its sound) until they just sort of…stick.


So it just happens, right?


No, of course it doesn’t. Don’t be silly. There are loads of different ways in which children learn and can be taught the various sight words, how to recall them, say them and how to spell them.


Schools will use flash cards, matching games, voice overs, call and response, videos, working walls (I will explain this another day in a post on displays), dictation, handwriting practice and many other strategies to get these nigglingly difficult little (and big) words to stick. So what can you do in your remaining few weeks of home learning?

Photo byTim Gouw on Unsplash


First, make some flashcards. Following the link at the end of the post, with the most common 100 sight words, get your child to copy out each one, in their best big print writing, onto some post-it-notes or index cards.


Now try these four games as starters for ten:

  • Flick through 20 or so each day, saying them, showing them to your kid, getting them to say them back and so on. After a few repetitions, make them go first and then correct any errors verbally.

  • Which of two – using the flashcards, show your child two of them. Say one and get them to pick which one you were saying.

  • Make a duplicate set. Lay 10-30 pairs face down on the table. They need to find the right one, saying it as they find the matching pair (this embeds pattern recognition as well as spotting the words).

  • Cut some of the flashcards in half. Lay out 10-15 word endings on the table and give your child the word beginnings. Say the whole words and get them to rebuild each one in turn.

These games need less than 10 minutes each time to play and need minimal adult effort. But with plenty of repetition, they will help the basic words to stick. Of course, you will still need to point them out when reading stories, stick them up around the house for reference and remind your child about seventeen million times that the first person ‘I’ uses a capital letter but still makes the same sound as the letter name for the lower case ‘i’. But you will get there. And before you know, your kid will be back in school again and these will be games for the evenings, weekends, holidays and first thing in the morning when neither of you can sleep.

So remember:

  • Phonics doesn’t always work

  • Sight words need a lot of repetition in order to stick

  • Simple flash cards can be a great ally

  • They will take months, or possibly years, to get some of the apparent basics

Which leads me neatly on to the next post in which I will be dealing with the oft encountered problem of “Why don’t they just get it”. You can see the answer, you know how to solve the problem – so why can’t your kid.


Until then people, happy home learning. And remember – you will lose most flashcards down the back of the sofa.


Here’s that link. Thanks to Marlow Elementary School for this one.


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