Tuesday, November 2, 2010

'Look and Say' vs. Phonics - The KSSR 'Debate' (Part 1)

I am in my hotel room at Borneo Paradise, Papar attending the state level KSSR course for English Language. Our trainers and facilitators are kind enough to give us an evening off. While my roommate is seizing the opportunity to go around town, I think I would rather stay in the room, to 'recharge my batteries'. It has been a tiring month of work and medical appointments and what not, and this KSSR...well, at the very least perhaps, I am just glad to be getting back on my feet again and do what I love doing the most - that is, learning new things.

KSSR seems to be the 'talk of the nation' among educators and those directly involved in the education system in Malaysia for the past few months, and I am grateful to be one of the few hundred thousand people who are lucky enough to get an early (though not so early) glimpse of what it is all about. I am not going to write about KSSR in detail in this post, although I do plan to do so in my future posts. For now, I am just feeling the need to share something that I feel so strongly about, and have all the intention to delve into more deeply in the near future. This whole thing started during our session on Phonics this morning, when in the midst of the learning session the speaker, a lecturer from IPG, suddenly expressed her own long-held view on Phonics and its efficiency in the teaching of reading. To cut a long story short, I would say that this very experienced and respectable educator can be grouped together with those who are a little skeptical towards embracing Phonics as 'The Method' for teaching beginning reading. It is from her that I learn about the ongoing debate among educators, parents and experts on the best way to teach beginning reading. To be honest, before this I was completely clueless about it, let alone aware that there is indeed a debate going on. (My bad!)

I find this small piece of information intriguing and it has driven me to do a little bit of reading on the subject. In a way, I am glad, very glad indeed. It opens my eyes to see the teaching of reading in a much broader view and perspective and it truly enriches and enlightens me as a teacher. I have not, of course, conducted an in-depth study on the subject yet (though this might very possibly become my next 'big project' - kononnya lah!). But from the few readings that I have done, I learn that there are four main approaches to teaching beginning reading, and they are:

1. Phonics
2. 'Look and Say' or 'Whole Language'
3. Language Experience
4. Context Support

(To read more, visit this: Four Reading Methods).

Though all four are valid methods and has proofs of success all over the world, it is interesting to note that 'controversies' do exist (!!! :-O), especially with regard to Method 1 and Method 2. Apparently, I am the last teacher on earth to be aware that such debate as 'Phonics vs. Whole Language' has existed since God-knows-when! (My bad!!! Again!!!). I would not want to write about it here, at least not now (it's 3.55 in the morning), but for those who are curious about it, I would recommend you to read what Wikipedia has to say about the two methods:

Phonics according to Wikipedia
Whole language according to Wikipedia

Opinions from educators and teachers are also worth looking at:

1. Halcyon House is a division of Educational Research Associates in the United States of America, a nonprofit research organization formed more than 30 years ago to help provide some information on the nation's educational system and issues related to it. This writing clearly expresses its view on the Phonics vs. Whole Language debate: Whole Language vs. Phonics

2. This is an interesting article by Dr Jon Reyhner of University of Northern Arizona that looks into each of these two methods of teaching reading from a psychological view point. Apparently, from the psychological perspective, the Whole Language vs. Phonics debate can also be viewed as the Constructivism vs. Behaviourism debate. Refreshing, isn't it? To read more: The Reading Wars

3. This particular site, Succeed to Read, is also worth visiting. Read its view on this whole 'Reading Wars' subject: Teach a Child to Read

There are, of course, many more excellent resources on this matter. All you have to do is do some Google search, and take it from there.

We talked about this matter over cold double cheese burger and soggy fries brought from town by my lovely roommate a few hours ago. After a few minutes of listening patiently to me blabbering away, Haniza finally asked me the inevitable question: "So do you consider yourself to be 'pro-Phonics', or 'anti-Phonics'?"

Hmm. That, my friend, is a question that I would love to answer. But not now. Not yet. In my next post, perhaps.

Till then. I have to catch some sleep.

Update: For continuation of this post, read Part 2 (click here).


  1. Since my uni years, where I was introduced to Phonics formally with all it's technical terms and yeah, the /l/, /s/ .. so forth, since, I have had a very bad experience in Phonetics, to be honest, I began to question whether or not there's another way to learn pronunciation.
    My dear friend Cynthia, I have nothing against Phonics but to be frank, that's the last method that I will use to teach pronunciation to my students.

    And I wouldn't say that you're the last person to be finally aware of such debates (found out about the other three methods when I was still in uni and the debates too) but, finally, I know somebody who sees this in another perspective. You!

  2. Thanks for sharing your view, Ned. I appreciate what you have shared with me over coffee the other day. It is often easy for us teachers to force one method upon our students without realizing what impact it could bring on them, especially if that particular method is unsuitable. The impact it could bring towards a child's self-esteem and his/her view towards learning as a whole, more often than not, are sadly not what a teacher would have in mind when imposing (or experimenting) with any particular method or approach. This is a sad, sad fact but many teachers nowadays care more about 'grades' and 'achievement' as opposed to educating.

    Having said that, I have to confess that all these while I have been more of a 'Look and Say' practitioner. I have never really applied the Phonics method, not because I don't believe in it, but because I am not well-versed in it just yet. Heheh. But I must say that with the dissemination of KSSR, I am somewhat eager to try it out. KSSR provides me with an opportunity to see whether it could work or not with my students.

    However, I would ensure that my approach would never be in anyway robotic, or 'unhuman', or in any way force my students to do something that would hurt their self-esteem or kill their willingness to learn.

    For that, Ned, I have YOU to thank.

  3. I was just passing by till I found this utterly interesting piece... I knew about the debate regarding look and say and phonics during my uni years.. and believe me it wasn't a pretty sight. Well since the day that I was posted I always believe the look & say view because I found that students have hard time in absorbing the phonics symbol as well as pronouncing it. Thus never occured to me to teach it any further.

    Then I attended the KSSR English state level, they taught us phonics. IN a funny way I counldn't help feeling some of the pictures and the phonics taught are not really acceptable.. not that I'm an expert but I'd imagine how would students react if they saw such things... hahahha i mean u wouldn't say /e/ when you saw a spider... u would probably jumping up and down screaming mommy!!! so my point is... it's kinda hard for teachers to do it let alone students.. Well even when it come to implementing it we still have to do it...

    Now I'm sitting in a middle of a hall with the lecture regarding the Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah is goin on thinking... why now? change is good but why now?

  4. Anonymous, I can totally understand your sentiment. Believe me, you're not the only teacher in Malaysia who must be thinking of the same thing.

    For me, instead of fighting the current, I try to make peace with it by going with the flow, but not without my own personal modifications.

    The key is to adopt and adapt. You may want to read my next post (Part 2) regarding this subject: http://cindyjbj79.blogspot.com/2010/11/look-and-say-vs-phonics-kssr-debate_14.html

    Feel free to give comments and tell me what you think.

  5. interesting cindy.. lets hang out one day.. we could exchange ideas..

  6. Thanks, Shirley. I say, why not? I would love to hang out with you. Just drop me a line and we'll set the time and place. Heheh. ;-)

  7. hi cindy...your comments on kssr really widen my view on the subject..i didnt go for the course( someone else went)and yet the BOSS asked me to take the classes next year..i am quite blur..actually very blur on the subject..do u have any sample of daily lesson plans or what so ever..it would really enlighten my day..:)

  8. Hi Lynn,

    I do have some materials on KSSR from the course that I actually intend to share, but haven't had the time to get around to it yet. I hope I would have the time to do it very soon.

    In the meantime, I hope you would join us (the Kunak English Language Teachers) on Facebook so that I would be able to notify you of any updates easily. You could find the link to the Facebook page below. Once I've uploaded all the materials on the Internet, I would post a notification on the Facebook page for everybody to see.

    You may also want to read through the second part of this post (Part 2) for some information on Phonics, Look and Say and a glimpse of how KSSR differs from KBSR.

    I also intend to write a Part 3 on this subject (which I hope to do very soon). I hope you would feel free to keep coming back and check this blog out for new posts.

    Thanks for visiting, and keep in touch. ;-)

  9. thanks cindy..i appreciate what u have done here in this blog..it has been so informative and useful not only for me but to others as well.i will surely join ur facebook page..:)

  10. Hi Cindy,
    I like what u write. I'm a phonics practitioner for more than 20 yrs and also the co-author of Readeasy Phonics. I would like to draw ur attention to the phonics used in the new Eng KSSR syllabus - it is synthetic phonics. If you surf the net on synthetic phonics you will realise that it is a proven method. For the last few years, phonics practitioners all over the world are celebrating their success in teaching reading to kids. Me too. For the past 9 yrs i've seen kindy kids from Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, read in eng. Do visit my blog www.readeasyteachersclub.blogspot.com

  11. Hello Mdm Nik,

    Thanks for stopping by. I've been to your blog, it is most interesting. I've shared the link with my fellow teachers.

    I'm learning all I can about Phonics in order to help my students learn to read better. Thanks for pointing out synthetic phonics to me.

    I can't thank you enough.


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