This is one of two questions regarding teaching my child to read using phonics. The other related question is:

How to teach the difference between "go" and "got" using phonics?

I am a parent of a four year old boy who is starting to read at school (UK). The school is using a phonics system to teach the children to read.

We live in the north-west of the UK - Manchester, to be precise.

My wife and I are from New Zealand. While our New Zealand accent is not particularly strong, we have occasional trouble making ourselves understood with native english speakers who speak with a Mancunian accent. For instance, when I ask someone for a "pen", I occasionally get a confused look and a question as to why I should want a "pin". Sigh.

Phonics, as a teaching system, is rather alien to both my wife and me. However, we are both very keen to consolidate and reinforce what our son is learning at his school.

I anticipate problems when teaching our son to read using phonics, particularly when we are teaching vowel sounds.

Should I:

(i) not worry - peer pressure and teaching will overcome whatever his silly parents are teaching and how they speak, or (ii) try to emulate the sounds as he is being taught them?

  • Have you asked the school what they think? You ask a valid question which you are right to be concerned about and which needs to be asked; but I'm not sure whether this is the right forum for it.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 13, 2012 at 8:14
  • Lol. I can hear it now. Just wait tin years ;) My son's teachers and previous carers and favorite tv programmes all seem to be in Scottish. I am Danish and my wife is also not a native speaker. I am not worried about his british phonics at all. I emulate the phonics as taught as much as possible. So an e is an eh and not ih ;)
    – mplungjan
    Oct 13, 2012 at 8:30
  • If they teach phonics Mancunian style he'll be in trouble anyway. Not that I have any problem with that or any other accent. It seems that it's the concept that's flawed, not your accent.
    – Alan Gee
    Oct 13, 2012 at 9:27
  • 4
    Beware of any system called "Phonics". It is usually based on pious beliefs about the relation between spelling and sound in English, and almost never on reality. Teach them phonetics instead. Oct 13, 2012 at 13:00
  • @JohnLawler Unfortunately, phonics is mandatory in UK schools.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 15, 2012 at 8:41

2 Answers 2


(This is perhaps not directly responsive to your very important questions, but I'm going to post it anyway. You can put rant tags around it, or may of course ignore it completely.)

Your boy is not going to learn to read at school. This should not be taken as a slur on his teachers, who are doing their best within a system which channels most of their energies into effective babysitting rather than effective teaching. But the fact is, he will only learn to read by actual reading, not by classroom rehearsal.

So don't worry about "consolidating and reinforcing" what he's learning at school. Get him ahead of what's offered at school. Concentrate on teaching him to want to read. Read to him, read with him, provide literature that excites a sense of verbal play, funny stories and poetry, silly stuff, exciting stuff, stuff that's always just a little over his head. Make reading a challenge and a joy and the high point of his day, give him opportunity to read, and Guess what?—He'll teach himself.

That after all is how he has learned and is learning to speak: by wanting to take part in the conversation. Reading's the same thing, only the conversations are more unusual.

  • I'd add to this advice that it's also very healthy to practice read-aloud with your children. In Jim Trelease's excellent resource The New Read-Aloud Handbook, he points out that most children have listening comprehension levels far above their reading comprehension levels, so, even as they are mastering the art of reading, it's a good idea to read aloud to them – preferably from books that are entertaining, but likely outside their current reading level. This helps cultivate a love of reading and love of books, and helps sharpen the mind's ability to form mental pictures from words.
    – J.R.
    Oct 20, 2012 at 9:26

The answer(s) are (i) and (ii), but more of (i).

Studies have firmly established that language acquired during the language acquisition period below around ages 6 or 7, will be spoken without accent as respects the native tongue (wherever that might be), whereas, a foreign tongue acquired (or, as you put it, learned) after the ages of language acquisition will always be spoken with some measure of "foreign" accent in the adopted country. For example, a child who acquires both Mandarin Chinese and East London English, say, by the age of 6, will always speak "native" Chinese and "native" (dare I say it?) East-London-inflected English. You can take comfort also in the fact that you will never "lose" your own home accent even as, over time (with or without practice or mimicry), you come to make your pins and pens better understood. And your child will not "suffer" deprivation in any manner for your lack of facility with his (now developing) Mancunian accent.

By the weigh, is Mancunian a dialect that might tend to limit his opportunities one day? Will he be exposed to a standard dialect (educationally or otherwise) of a more UK universal sort? I would expect such a large city would produce speakers (and listeners) who could "fit in" anywhere, even among those speaking "Queens English." But I am not a Britisher other than by long, long-ago extraction (maybe just like you).

In this country people from some areas used to encounter career advancement problems, say for example, with Texas (or other Southern) accents--incidentally, if you wanted to hear perhaps the best modern version of Elizabethan (I) English, there was probably no better (or other) place to go than a certain enclave of Atlanta, Georgia--believe it or not; but I digress. (I grew up in the linguistic center of the U.S., so whatever accent I might have apart from standard, has travelled very well in this country.) With the spread of mass communications and the increased attainment of higher education in the populace, such problems of dialect handicap have largely evaporated...the U.S. is gradually blending into a single, national "accent." I would suppose something similar would be happening in England as well.

It is too bad...your encounter with Pen-less speakers; colloquialism and provincialism can certainly be a challenge, but one that grows more agreeable with time and patience. (For example, if Lord Baltimore could come back to life in Maryland, he would probably be appalled at what passes for English in, "Balmer Melan, his namesake city.)

All in all, the fact of your new neighbors' misunderstanding of a standard pronunciation should be an object lesson regarding an important truism of spoken language: that the principal "organ" of speech is not the mouth but, rather, it is the ear. So do not worry. Yours and your neighbors' "speaking" instruments will be in tune soon enough.

  • "Studies"?... citation needed. Oct 16, 2012 at 1:29

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