Phonics Guide

Teaching Phonics with RTL English

A guide to learning phonics with RTL English

Phonic sounds are taught primarily to teach children to read, to pronounce English words correctly, and as an aid to spelling. Teaching Phonics in every lesson has enabled the students to reach this goal. The definition of Literacy is‘having the ability to read and write’. RTL students learn to be ‘literate’by becoming familiar with Phonics and by using the sounds to read with ease and confidence. The structured, step by step, RTL system has always included the 44 phonic sounds, which teach and reinforce speaking, listening, writing and reading skills. This can be seen on pages 3 & 4 of 324 lesson books used throughout Kindergarten and Primary school. They continue to be used for decoding new words and pronunciation throughout Secondary school. We believe that the system is the reason for the student’s progress and confidence as evidenced by the excellent results for Trinity and Cambridge.

Parents & teachers often ask:

  1. What kind of phonics does RTL English teach?

Our aim is to teach students to read as soon as possible. Therefore, we teach both synthetic and analytical phonics. Words are decoded as soon as sounds are learnt.

  • Analytical Phonics:

This relies on the student being able to follow and understand the practice of‘onset and rime’, to understand that apple begins with ‘a’, to decode long words into smaller parts, to ‘match’words with pictures, to develop a reading list of‘sight’ words (some words just have to be memorised) like was; saw; rhyme; rhythm. We have a completely holistic approach and it makes a difference to the students’ speech and reading competence.

  • Synthetic Phonics:

This is the act of building up, or putting together, individual sounds. The children synthesise the sounds of the letters; they blend the sounds – just as synthesising music is blending musical notes. There are 44 phonemes (the smallest units of sound). Students begin with the simplest sounds and move gradually onto more difficult blended sounds.

Why does RTL spend so much time and effort teaching ‘Phonics’

We’ve been teaching phonics for 20 years, and the founder, Elaine Shannon was teaching phonics for 20 years before that. Our reason is as valid today, as it has always been: To enable the students to read quickly, to acquire good listening skills and to speak with clear pronunciation.

Is teaching phonics the only method of learning to read?

No, there are many traditional ways in which reading is taught. In fact not all words can be taught by using phonic sounds alone unless you are familiar with the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet); ‘was and saw’ are just two examples. Traditionally words were memorised and often associated with illustrations; at RTL we still include flashcards to practise this method. We call matching words with
illustrations -‘picture words’, as in ‘orange’and‘eight’. When the words cannot be matched with illustrations, they are called – ‘sight words’. An example for beginners would be‘colour’. Some reading methods only use flashcards; Cambridge University use flashcards for many of the words for Starters, Movers and Flyers. At RTL English we also use the method of ‘onset and rime’, which encourages children to look at the beginning of the words and ‘pick out’the rhyming patterns. We also teach them to recognise‘word families’as this is very helpful practice for correct spelling.

Is the RTL method of teaching phonics written specifically for ESL children, whose first language is not English?

No, it’s not written specifically for ESL students and was tested on 50 volunteer families in the UK. Children with English as their first language use it all the time – all children learn to read English in the same way, but it is a fact that younger children learn a second language more readily than older students. This is especially true when you consider that the youngest students at RTL are just three years old. However, the fact that Elaine Shannon has taught Chinese children for 35 years explains why she designed the RTL method to be a step by step approach. In her opinion ESL students benefit from a structured lesson plan, first language students find it a bonus and any students with learning difficulties find structure reassuring; all the students move confidently through the lessons.

What experience does the founder of RTL have in teaching phonics and reading?

Elaine Shannon’s earliest experience was understanding, and appreciating, the importance of ‘speech’. As a post graduate nursing sister in London she specialised in teaching deaf patients, and those, who after surgery had lost their ‘voice boxes’, to speak. This ignited her interest in the mechanics of speech and pronunciation, which proved invaluable when teaching pronunciation to Japanese adults in the early 1970s and later formed the basis of teaching‘the sounds of letters’to Chinese children for 20 years followed by 15 years as the founder of Ready To Learn. As the owner of RTL the founder was registered as a teacher in Hong Kong.

Can you explain more about the sounds?

The alphabet has 26 letters, but the letters, when pronounced as single sounds, can be‘long’or‘short’! They can be joined and said as one different sound or they can be blended with the sound sliding from one to the other. The 44 standard sounds cover most examples of pronunciation. They are known as: phonemes, both vowels and consonants, digraphs, vowel digraphs, diphthongs and triphthongs. At RTL English we pay particular attention to the blended consonant sounds, found at the beginning and the end, of many words. These are not ‘extra’ to the 44 basic sounds, but the act of blending or sliding one sound into another sound (and the difficulty encountered by many students) makes it necessary to practise regularly! From 35 years of experience, Elaine Shannon has found that ESL students find the most difficult sounds to pronounce are these consonant blends. We teach 22 beginning blends and 15 ending blends. Therefore we are teaching a total of 44 basic phonemes + 22 beginning blends + 15 ending blends.

Is there anything else I should understand about the way in which RTL English teaches phonics and reading?

  • Yes. As soon as possible we teach the students to read. In practice this means after they have learnt 5 vowel sounds and 2 consonants they can read two words by themselves:‘kick, cock’. We then introduce 1 more consonant -‘t’; the children can then read‘tick, cat, cot’. This gives a tremendous boost of confidence.
  • It has always been the practice of RTL to teach the vowels first and then the consonants in the order needed to read simple words. We have never taught the phonic sounds in alphabetical order.
  • We also teach the students how to decode words, so from the very beginning they can see new simple words and know how to read them.
  • RTL has an exclusive story, especially written for the students based around a village called Woodbridge. The students begin reading the story for themselves in Level 3 and end in Level 15. The map and illustrations help the student to identify with the characters and main plot and sub-plots. There is a story in every lesson. New words are identified, decoded and taught in every book.

At what age do you stop teaching the students phonics?

The simple answer is: We don’t stop! Students continue to learn, and practise phonics throughout Kindergarten, Primary School and Junior Secondary School: RTL Levels 1 – 12. We continue to use them to teach pronunciation during Senior Secondary School: RTL Levels 13 – 15.

IPA: What is the International Phonetic Alphabet? Do you teach it at RTL?

It’s a collection of symbols that refer to the 44 main phonetic sounds and other pronunciation symbols. The sounds are obviously incorporated into every phonic exercise. The chart is used to demonstrate the nuances of speech to students, and adults, who wish to correct their pronunciation. The IPA symbols are most often found in dictionaries, and particular, in those that translate English to another language like Chinese for instance. IPA is rarely taught, if ever, to children or students who have English as their first language.

The RTL guides often refer to the word ‘decoding’, what does it mean? How is it different to ‘sounding out’?

Decoding is the practice of separating words into recognisable ‘units’of sound. For example: sheep would be written as sh + ee + p. The important thing to remember about decoding is that the student can recognise the word when the sounds of the units are said aloud. Sounding out is useful for single sounds, as in c a t, because the sounds can be easily put together and they are instantly recognisable. But it is very confusing when used for a word like o r a n g e – the single sounds cannot be recognised as words.

What are the 44 sounds?

  • These are the 44 phonic sounds divided into vowels, consonants, digraphs, diphthongs
  • A Phoneme is the sound of vowels and consonants
  • A Grapheme is a written unit of sound (but not the IPA symbols)
  • A Digraph has two letters that have one different sound.
  • A Diphthong has two sounds that slide from one vowel to the next with emphasis on the first sound, and a definite change on the second.

Where are the sounds taught in the RTL English Levels?

The following chart gives an overview of when the phonic sounds and new words are taught in the RTL Levels: The following examples, showing Pages 3 & 4 from the RTL books, show how the sounds are incorporated into every lesson.

Do the students have to learn all the sounds first before they can read?

No, as soon as new words are introduced, they are decoded by using the phonic sounds already known, plus any new sounds needed. Examples of this are given later. Page 3 is divided into, a) phonic exercises and, b) the decoding of new words. The following pages give an outline of the Phonics taught throughout the RTL English Levels.

Which RTL English levels & stages teach phonics?

What vowel sounds does RTL English teach?

How about phonemes & graphemes?