How does phonics work for Papua New Guineans?

Phonics teaches children which letter combinations make which English sounds.
Teaching phonics in the Eastern Highlands.

IN THESE monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond.
This month we are looking at phonics and how useful it can be for Papua New Guinean students. In Papua New Guinea as in many other countries, teachers are turning to phonics to help their students learn to read and write English. But how does phonics work for Papua New Guineans and other people for whom English is not a native language?
Phonics is a method developed in Great Britain and North America to help children there learn to read and write in their own language, English. It works by systematically teaching children rules for sounding out words that they see.
Most languages written with alphabets, including Tok Pisin, have a regular correspondence between the sounds of the language and the symbols used to write them. In those languages children just have to learn the system and then they can write or read out any word in their language, even if they have never heard or seen it before. After a year or so they can spell any word in their own language.
English is different. Some sounds can be spelt in different ways: think of the “f” sound that can be spelt with “f” (“finger”), “ph” (“elephant”), or “gh” (“enough”).
But “p”, “g”, and “h” are used for quite different sounds as well. The system is so complicated that one person has suggested we spell the three sounds of “fish” as “ghotis”: “gh” as in “enough”, “o” as in “women”, “ti” as in “station” and silent “s” as in “island”. It is no wonder that even well-educated adults who speak English as a native language need to check a dictionary sometimes to see how to spell a word.
At various times teachers have just given up on teaching rules on how to sound out words and have taught each word individually. Children learning this way have to memorise the hundreds of words they encounter in their reading. Children do have an amazing capacity to memorise, but to memorise all the hundreds of words they encounter in their reading is a great burden.
Moreover, this way of approaching English ignores the fact that there are patterns to English spelling. If you learn those patterns, you may not always know how to write a word correctly, but you will be able to sound out the correct pronunciation of 90 per cent of the words you come across. This cuts down the burden of processing reading immensely. Phonics is a way of organising these patterns and explaining them to children.
Phonics was developed for children in English-speaking countries and works on the assumption that the children already speak English. This means that phonics books use vocabulary that children who grow up with English already know. More importantly, it assumes that they and their teachers have an unconscious knowledge of the sounds of English and just need to map those sounds on the spelling system.
The situation for most Papua New Guinean children is, of course, quite different. In most cases they do not know English when they come to school and are presented with the task of learning how to read and write in a language they do not yet understand. Many of the phonics materials prepared for overseas children use vocabulary that doesn’t exist in a PNG environment, such as “train”, “elephant”, and “snow”. Teachers need to explain these new concepts first, then teach them how to say the words in English, and only then teach the phonics patterns they need to read and sound out the new English words.
The sounds of English are difficult not only for children, but also for teachers. For phonics to work, the teachers have to be able to model the sounds of English correctly. If not, they will only confuse their students.
In many Highlands languages, for example, there is only one sound for English “j” and “z”. If the teacher does not have a good pronunciation, imagine the children’s confusion at learning that there is a letter “j” for “jewel” and “jacks” and then being told that there is a letter “z” for a different sound—but the teacher doesn’t make a different sound and is pronouncing “zoo” like “Jew”!
Similarly, very few teachers make a difference between the words “taught” and “thought” or “duh” and “the” because the two “th” sounds do not exist in many languages besides English. For teachers to explain to children that these combinations of letters produce different sounds but then not making the difference themselves will make children confused. Worse, it can make them think they are too stupid to follow classroom lessons and they will slowly give up on the idea of trying to be successful at school.
Teachers using phonics must therefore work hard to develop a clear and correct way of pronouncing English. One good way of doing this is to make lists of words that differ in only one critical sound, such as “sin” and “shin”, or “dot”, “thought” and “taught”. Then they can write those words on cards, mix them up, and read out the cards to another teacher to write down.
If the second teacher can write the words down correctly, the first teacher is probably making the correct sounds. If not, one of them has a problem with English pronunciation and should work with someone with a good pronunciation to improve the way they produce English sounds.
For children to get the maximum benefit from phonics, they should already speak English before reading with phonics is introduced. This means that in a PNG environment, they should have many hours of intensive spoken English before they are introduced to reading. These intensive English speaking classes should continue throughout their primary school years so that children are not introduced to new vocabulary in their reading unless they have already learned the words in speaking.
Phonics can be a useful tool to unlock the bewildering world of written English. But teachers need to remember that phonics was developed for native English-speaking children, so to use it effectively in Papua New Guinea extra care and preparation are needed. This means teachers must not only prepare lessons, but they must always be continuously preparing themselves as well.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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