My 5 yr old daughter is learning to read using phonics at school, where I did not learn that way. Her school enforces the use of phonics not just in English lessons, but in all subjects (like Environmental Studies/EVS.)

While it looks like a better way to learn to pronounce words, I have noticed that English is not a perfect language in terms of phonics rules. So I'm concerned there might be some confusion when my daughter needs to learn words like elbow where w is silent. They have not talked about silent characters yet as they are at an early stage. Also I've noticed that many words appear to be inconsistent (like cow) which has a different pronunciation at the end.

I am thinking child may learn / memorize words, but they will not completely grasp the pronunciation of words (like cow and elbow above). Am I overthinking this or are these differences shortcomings of the teaching method?

  • I've reworded your question as it's picked up some downvotes without any real explanation, if I've changed the meaning or got something wrong feel free to roll-back or make further changes. Apr 18, 2016 at 15:34
  • I'd say you're over thinking it. English isn't the only thing that makes no sense in life, but you figure out the exceptions. Elbow kind of does make the W sound. Better example would be knife. or that the word phonetically isn't even spelled phonetically. But like all things, we sort of just get used to it. Are you suggesting that her lessons are totally failing her because the phonics direction leaves her confused and she is retaining nothing? Or just that it seems kind of dumb so you assume it is inadequate?
    – Kai Qing
    Apr 19, 2016 at 1:11
  • @KaiQing, It is not a matter of failing her as she is only 5 yr old and have lot of time to actually learn language. I just thinking if forcing phonic way may confuse when she learn similar words with different pronunciation like my example where cow have more clear pronunciation of w than elbow which more alike snow. But yes I may overthinking if she able to memorize words when confusing scenario comes. Apr 19, 2016 at 10:51
  • A proper phonics program starts with the words that are phonetic, then moves to edge cases that still can be made into a system, then moves to exceptions. Sadly, the most common words used in daily English are either edge cases or exceptions. This does not mean that phonics does not work, it does. I suggest purchasing a good phonics book and flipping forward to see how these exceptions are handled. Of course, there are better and worse programs, but overall phonics is a proper approach to learn English, while Whole Language / Balanced Literacy is not.
    – Rusty Core
    Sep 7, 2020 at 22:05

2 Answers 2


Written English is not a Phonetic language; you need to understand that before you go any further. As a result, while phonics are a useful aid to beginners in reading/comprehension, they will always be imperfect just like any shortcut.

If you look at the etymological breakdown of English, it contains words which we can mostly trace back about equally to either a Latin, Greek or Germanic root (there are a few others as well, but those three account for over 75% of English words.) Because Written English is not an alphabetised phonetic language each imported word retains many of the spelling rules from it's parent language.

Take the two words you've compared.

  • Elbow is an Old-English word and is rooted in the 'alinobogan' language which underpins Dutch and German but is neither.
  • Cow is German rooted, but only came to Britain after a great deal of change in the German language and has different spelling rules as a result.

Differences like this which occur all over the language make it impossible for any rule to be universal unless we threw out all our spelling rules and used phonetic English. That isn't going to happen because Spoken English is wildly divergent; consider Glaswegian or Cockney. If they were to write the way they speak communication would become very difficult.

Essentially 'synthetic phonics' is thought to be the best method currently available for teaching English and claims give a correct or 'good enough' pronunciation of around 85% of English words, plus it is relatively quick. There is also another phonics system called Analytic Phonics which is considered slower and tends to place more emphasis on phonemes at the beginning of each word.

In the 1960's an alternative system was trialled in British schools called Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) and it was used to teach children up to age-7. The idea was that as children became fluent that they could read clearly and could learn the correct spellings later when they had more confidence. While this worked for some children, for the most part they didn't and there are many adults now who find spelling incredibly difficult.

Your child will pick up words that do not fit the phonics patterns as they go, and the teaching materials at the school are correct. If you would like to work with your child and understand more about what they're doing then why not ask the teacher to explain what phonics system they use and how you can help?

  • 1
    "...why not ask the teacher to explain what phonics system they use [?]" Good idea! This would help the OP to better evaluate the appropriateness of the method and it's likelihood to help the child.
    – anongoodnurse
    Apr 17, 2016 at 13:18

English, unlike many alphabetic languages, is not written in a perfectly transparent fashion. You cannot necessarily pronounce a word correctly just by looking at it. This makes learning to read through phonics trickier than it might be in a language with stricter pronunciation rules. However, phonics are still the most effective technique for teaching English reading skills. While there are many exceptions and irregularities in pronunciation, phonics can still be a highly accurate guide in many instances.

As children are first being taught phonics, the focus will be on generally short words, for which there are not so many pronunciation oddities. One of the expectations is that, as part of this process, children will come to memorize most common words anyway. (The instruction process may or may not have explicit lists of "sight words" that students should know without sounding them out.) As children get older, they will be exposed to longer words and less common words, for which the pronunciation may not be as easily decoded using phonics. However, by that point, they should already have basic reading ability, and at that point, other methods of learning difficult words will become more useful.

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    "Using phonics to teach basic reading skills leads to great confusion in little heads." compared to what? and therein lies the problem... Apr 17, 2016 at 15:49
  • My 5 year old daughter is not confused by phonics. She can read above her grade level. Possibly because we read to her and work things out. I have always pointed out the mysteries of english by comically asking her "Why is there a silent k in knife? who knows. Just is" and continue from there. Granted she is not multilingual, but that doesn't look like part of this question. Just that she went through phonics lessons like everyone else and didn't get hung up when it came time to integrate next level words.
    – Kai Qing
    Apr 19, 2016 at 1:15
  • "longer words and less common words, for which the pronunciation may not be as easily decoded using phonics" — quite the opposite, many common and short words are not pronounced phonetically, while rarer and longer words are usually strictly phonetic or otherwise can be spelled according to known rules.
    – Rusty Core
    Sep 7, 2020 at 22:09

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