On my first day at my new private school in Japan, I was shocked to see teachers teaching English phonics to children as young as two years old. Often, English teachers are frustrated with the policies that MEXT, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, has set out for English education in Japan. So, why should young children learn English phonics?
TEACHING ENGLISH PHONICS IN JAPAN
Despite starting English lessons from the third grade, MEXT has said that teachers cannot teach children how to read in English in elementary school. That responsibility is set aside for junior high school teachers. I am of the opinion that phonics is necessary for children to learn English. The sooner children learn the sounds of the language, the easier they’ll find reading and spelling.
I found MEXT’s policy frustrating when I taught in public elementary schools in Japan. “We’re a private school, so we can set our own curriculum,” the head teacher explained to me. “So, that’s why you can teach phonics,” I said, still astonished. My new head teacher smiled and nodded: “That’s why we can teach phonics.”
The Difference Between Phonics and Phonemes
Both phonics and phonemes focus on the sounds of the language, but, phonics focuses on the sound relationships in the written words. Phonemes are the sound elements of spoken words.
Phonics is important to study because it teaches children the relationship between the letters of the written language and the sounds of the spoken language.
Why Teach Phonics to Young Children
If you can’t pronounce the sounds of the language, you can’t speak or read the language. Phonics is essential for children to understand the relationship between English sounds. It will help them when they begin to write using the English complex spelling system.
When second language learners start to read in English, they will need to know the sounds of each individual letter, and how those sounds fit together to create words. Phonics helps (not only!) children develop vocabulary, reading fluency, and oral reading skills.
The sounds of the language can help second language learners with putting new sounds together, which in turn can help build confidence, even if they make mistakes! Allowing second language learners to rely on the information they already have to make linguistic decisions is an important step in linguistic development. Of course, second language learners will make mistakes when they speak, read, write, and listen in English. But, that’s okay! Making mistakes is how we all learn, develop, and grow.
Now that I am actively teaching phonics to young children, I am seeing a world of difference between them and the children I used to teach in public elementary schools. Phonics opens doors for young children – my students who grew up learning phonics now (from the age of about 2 to the age of about 8 plus) have very good pronunciation, try to write and spell English words without help, and enjoy reading English books. Set your children out on the right path, because small children should learn phonics as early as possible.