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I think I was very fortunate to have Mrs. Campbell as my grade 1 teacher, all the way back in 1959, in rural Western Australia, in a state school of about 100 pupils. In those days we still used what we called dip-and scratch writing instruments, although miraculously and thank goodness it wasn’t too long before we had the ubiquitous Bic biro.
The way that I was taught the written and spoken representations of English by Mrs. Campbell still holds good today. The course for people wanting to teach migrants under the Australian Migrant English Program, the Certificate for English Language Teaching to Adults (‘CELTA’) and current pedagogical preferences for English language teaching in the pre-primary and primary years all strongly support the principles employed by Mrs. Campbell all those years ago. I employ these in my teaching of English as a second language and I try to explain these in what follows.
I strongly encourage all new learners English, regardless of age or ability, to adopt these principles in their own study and practice of English.
I imagine Mrs. Campbell was pretty good in the numeracy department, but where she really shone for me was in the language area. I was a natural reader and loved reading and words, and found that the way that words could morph into other words was always really fascinating. Mrs. Campbell was a very systematic teacher, and taught us the names of the letters of the alphabet (A, B, C) which were represented by Upper Case and then the sounds of the letters: a as in apple, b as in bear, c as in cat and d as in dog, right the way through to z as in zoo, all represented by Lower Case.
This was a very important lesson for me because I learnt that if you added these sounds together you could make words, for example, the sounds of c+a+t when aggregated, could tell you how to say the word ‘cat’. That was fascinating, and suddenly the world of reading was open to me (or more open, because I could already read pretty well when I started year 1; in fact I consistently read all the books set for the year before school had started, so I was forced to sit next to the library shelf to stop myself going bonkers from boredom!!)
Along the way we learnt that the five vowels, a, e , i, o, u, could be pronounced in either the ‘short’ form ‘a’ as in ‘cat’, or the long form ‘A’ as in ‘gate’ and could be represented by other letters as well, such as ‘i’ in sky (which I now know is called a diphthong!) We didn’t have special lessons on these though; they just came along as our vocabulary increased.
As the years passed, we got into what I now know are what we call ‘blended’ sounds; for example ‘th’, ‘ch’, and ‘sh’, and more diphthongs, for example ‘oi’, ‘ere’ and ‘ow’, the role of the magic ‘e’, (‘fin’ becomes ‘fine’ –the short vowel sound becomes magically transformed into the long vowel sound when you add an ‘e’) and, of course, the sounds of the consonants that bookend the vowel sounds.
This last step was really crucial because we learnt how to ‘sound the word out’, that words could be divided into bits where the consonants in the word are, each bit sounded out, then those bits could be added together so we could work out how the word sounds. For example “En|glish” has two bits, called syllables, with the break between the ‘n’ and the ‘g’, although it’s a bit tricky because the ‘n’ is pronounced ‘ng’ as in ‘Hong Kong’, and something that Mrs. Campbell didn’t teach us was that the sounds of pronunciation themselves, called ‘phonemes’ could be represented, but that’s a story for another day!
If there is one point I want to get across it’s that it is absolutely essential for new learners of English to become familiar with the phonics of English as you learn the alphabet to provide you with the basic tools to help you read, write, listen and speak in the greatest language mankind has ever developed