Phonics is a method of teaching English-speaking children to read and write English by connecting the phonemes (or sounds) of the spoken language with graphemes ("letters") or letter groups in the written language. Simply put, children learn
- that spoken words consist of a sequence of sounds (phonemes), e.g. cat:
- that some sounds correspond to a letter group, e.g.
/ʃ/ for "sh",
/tʃ/ for "ch";
- to decode written words with the above knowledge.
This approach contrasts with approaches that teach to recognise whole words.
A YouTube video by Dyslexia Australia says that, "Studies have shown that if a child is not proficient with phonics or decoding by the end of year 2, chances are that they never will be."
The British Department of Education promotes this approach; see for example its leaflet for parents (PDF). However, the article Five things about phonics (BBC News, June 2012) points out that:
The government's phonics-only approach is controversial, with many teachers and educationalists advocating a more balanced approach in which other reading strategies are also used.
"Some children will need more phonics-teaching more than others," says Andrew Lambirth, professor of education at the University of Greenwich.
The article also mentions that the debate about how to teach children to read has been going on for decades adn that there was a more balanced approach in the 1970s and 1980s.
The English Teachers Association NSW in Australia published a position statement that points out, among other things, that phonics is just one part of a bigger set of reading strategies that learners are taught. The position statement contrasts the Australian approach with the strong emphasis on phonics in the USA:
The USA through its national program, Reading first ,can be said to have effectively advocated phonics as the main method of reading instruction in US schools - with legislation reflecting a long history of phonics-based instruction in the US. In the 2003 international PISA test despite the "overwhelming scientific evidence" in favour of phonics-based instruction, 15 year-olds in the US scored significantly worse than Australia with its more inclusive reading instruction. Australia, in fact, was beaten by only one country - Finland.
The Australian position statement also quotes a paper by Stephen Krashen, which says, among other things, that the general public and the media in the USA support phonics instruction without being aware that there are several different phonics methods (intensive, systematic phonics, basic phonics, zero phonics).
Stephen Krashen briefly explains the differences between “intensive, systematic phonics”, “zero phonics” and “basic phonics” in a letter to Education Week (July 2005).
Get Reading Right has a webpage that explains the difference between Analytic Phonics vs Synthetic Phonics; in this comparison, synthetic phonics looks superior to the other approach.
The French Wikipedia article méthode syllabique mentions that the 18th-century Alsatian priest Jean Georges Stuber published a method similar to phonics as early as 1762 (Alphabet méthodique pour faciliter l'art d'épeler et de lire en français). The Wikipedia article does not mention the term "phonics" or how English-speaking children are taught to read. However, it mentions that, in 2005, the French minister of education Gilles de Robien had stated that the "méthode globale" ("whole language") should be abandoned once and for all.
I have not found evidence that phonics or the French "méthode syllabique/alphabétique" is used to teach children to read in a foreign language.
Here are a few links and references: