Why I no longer teach Phonics

Phonics. I used to love phonics and teach it and require my students to memorize the phonetic alphabet. Used to. Now, like everything else, I teach for June. If you are concentrating on content rather than form, your students will naturally acquire your accent and possibly the accent that they hear on the comprehensible audio documents that you give them. Or the accent they hear on their favorite tv series. They will do this automatically, unconsciously and joyfully. If their pronunciation hinders comprehension, you will ask them what they are trying to say and pronounce the word you think they mean. They will grasp that to be understood they need to pronounce it like you. The focus is on meaning, not phonics.

Teaching phonics means concentrating on form and it only goes into short term memory , which basically means a lot of time and energy spent on very little gain. As Stephen Krashen says, “There’s an easy way and there’s a hard way. And the hard way doesn’t work.”

But what about their accent?! What about it? Accent is part of our identity and everyone has an accent that identifies them as belonging to a specific group. If you are training spies for the CIA, you might want to drill them in phonic exercises nine hours a day to eliminate their accent. Otherwise …. I often tell the story of a girl I had as a student that had a very thick French accent when she spoke Engliish. It was almost a caricature it was so thick.  Sheep and ship sounded the same, as did bell and bale. She aspirated when there was no “h” and didn’t aspirate when there was.  “Ze dog ad beeg tees.”  I drilled her class with phonic exercises, I had them do theater, I had them chant “The tip of the tongue, the teeth and the lips”, I corrected and pointed out all the classic pitfalls.  She did all the exercises, memorized her lines, chanted with the others, passed all the tests, and her accent did not change. Then suddenly one day it hit me. What would happen to this pretty girl with a gorgeous smile if she went to an English-speaking country? What do you think would happen? As soon as she opened her mouth every red-blooded boy within hearing distance would be madly in love. By teaching her phonics and eliminating her accent I would succeed in turning her into just another pretty girl. Hers was the last class that I had memorize the phonetic alphabet.

I have lived in French speaking countries since 1967, using French in my daily life more often than English. I have passed French university courses which required writing a dissertation in French. I have even passed the French agrégation. My French is not bad, I’ve occasionally been told it’s quite good. But I have an accent when I speak French. I don’t believe I’ve ever been taken for a native speaker. I used to feel guilty about this, thinking that I should make more of an effort to sound French. It was only recently, reading something Dr. Krashen wrote about heritage speakers, that I realized that deep down I have no desire to be taken for a French woman. For one thing, I’d have to explain why I’m not very chic at all. For another, it would feel very dishonest. I was born American and I suppose I will always be American. That’s who I am. So I will always have an accent.


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