i‑Learner Education Centre

Steps to Success » Listening Skills

Listening, Looking and Phonics

Growing up in England, I wasn’t taught phonics. The ‘whole word’ approach to reading was popular when I was young, which left many of my classmates with spelling and reading issues that remain to this day. These early experiences informed my approach to teaching, and I’ve been happy to find that it’s never too late to teach phonics. I’ve taught many primary and secondary students – as well as adults – who have benefitted from advanced phonics courses.

This is important because phonics is the code we use to crack the puzzle of language. Though we think about it as a tool for reading, it’s actually much more than that and sets us up for spoken communication too. Being able to identify individual sounds in spoken words gives us a greater chance of identifying that word. As most of us know from trying to identify song lyrics, this is notoriously difficult, even in our native language! Improving our phonics skills makes us better communicators because we improve this ability to segment and comprehend the sounds we hear.

To help with this, it’s useful to integrate the listening and speaking aspects of phonics whenever possible, and not just limit it to reading. In fact, we can also use another sense to make our phonics work fully effective – sight. Far more of our brain-function is dedicated to sight than hearing. I always find that students who look at the teacher’s mouth when listening are much more effective listeners and also faster learners. This is particularly true for the sounds that aren’t present in a student’s first language. For example, students who speak Cantonese as a first language can find it harder to fully produce the two ‘th’ sounds in English. Copying their teacher’s mouth movements and practising this in a mirror is very helpful. Students need to look for the tongue sticking between the teeth when making these sounds and listen to whether a word contains a breathy ‘th’ (as in ‘bath’) or a buzzy ‘th’ (as in ‘with’).

Leveraging our powerful eyesight is the most important tool we have available for applying our phonics knowledge to the art of listening. Bringing these senses together helps us make the simple tool of phonics a lifelong aid to our communication skills.