I’m very fortunate to have grown up in a household where different languages are spoken. I’ve grown up listening to Urdu, Punjabi and English. My father also speaks a bit of Farsi and my mother’s early education was in Sindhi. Being Muslims we all read the Quran which is in Classical Arabic.
I was taught to read Urdu and Arabic phonetically. The Urdu books which I was taught from had pictures as well as words. The Arabic ones didn’t. Do pictures help? I don’t think they do. Consider this picture
What would you say if I asked you, “What is this picture of?” You’d say orange. You may think that looking at the picture and the whole word, “orange” will help the child to “read” the word orange. This doesn’t work in Urdu. This picture may be of سنگترا or نارنجی or مالٹا depending upon the variety. So, unless you can “read” the word, the picture won’t help you. Fruits aren’t the only things which have more than one name in Urdu. Another example is names for relatives.
In English you would say this was a grandmother and grandfather playing with their granddaughter and grandson. In Urdu, however, it could be نانا and نانی playing with نواسا and نواسی or it could be دادا and دادی playing with پوتا and پوتی as there are different names for paternal and maternal grandparents and different names for the grandchildren too.
The other reason why it’s important to know the sounds of letters is that letters may look slightly different depending upon their position in the word. naureen written in Urdu looks like this نورین As you can see the “n” at the beginning looks slightly different from the one at the end.
We then come to Arabic. The Quran has no pictures so one needs to be able to read the words without the aid of pictures. Muslims all over the world learn to phonetically “read” the Quran in Arabic but not all can comprehend what they read without the aid of a translation.
Some of the debate on Twitter on phonics and reading seems to suggest that looking at pictures and knowing what’s happening is “reading”. In my opinion, it isn’t. Picture books and picturebooks have a place but they cannot replace teaching children to read using phonics. Once the phonics knowledge is sound (no pun intended!) comprehension is aided too as it reduces cognitive load when reading, especially when new words are encountered.