Synthetic Phonics

Synthetic Phonics is a method for teaching reading which has increased in popularity in recent years.

This method for teaching phonics can seem a bit confusing to parents at first, particularly since we were probably not taught to read this way when we were younger. Here is a straightforward guide to what it is all about.

You could also try some phonics games, which are all about recognising sounds in words, blending sounds to make words and having fun with rhyming words.

There are more than forty phonic sounds in the English language. These are the distinct sounds that make up words. Each sound is represented by combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet. Synthetic Phonics systematically teaches each of these sounds and the letters used to represent them. Sounds can be represented by:

  • one letter eg /m/ in ‘map’

  • two letters eg /wr/ in ‘wrist’

  • three letters eg /igh/ in ‘light’

  • four letters eg /ough/ in 'dough'

Nearly every sound also has more than one way to spell it. For example, the sound /oi/ in ‘coin’ can also be spelt as /oy/ as in ‘boy’. This is one of the reasons why the English language is known as a difficult language to learn. Simple tables exist, such as the Alphabetic Code chart from Debbie Hepplewhite, which list each of the sounds (or phonemes) and their different spelling alternatives (or graphemes).

synthetic phonics

Children learn that speech is made up of a fixed number of sounds that never change and that these sounds are coded into letters or groups of letters. Children start by learning just a few sounds, then learn to combine these in order to read whole words. This is know as “synthesizing” the phonemes, or running them together, hence “synthetic phonics”. Children are soon introduced to more phonemes in a systematic way, and then learn different spelling variations for the phonemes they have already learnt.

Synthetic Phonics programmes started appearing about 100 years after the letter-driven Analytic Phonics programmes. In 2006 the UK Government recommended that all beginning readers should be taught using the Synthetic Phonics method. Synthetic Phonics is also the teaching method used in countries such as Australia, Germany and Austria.


Teaching Principles

  • Children begin by learning the most common spelling for each sound, which is usually represented by one or two letters. After the first few sounds have been taught children are shown how these sounds can be blended together to build up words. Later they are taught spelling alternatives for the sounds which include the three and four letter spelling variations.

  • The letter names (such as “em” for the letter ‘m’) are not taught initially. The emphasis is on the letter sounds.

  • There is a systematic, fast-paced introduction to each new sound and the corresponding letters used to represent that sound. One letter/sound correspondence is typically taught per day.

  • Children are discouraged from guessing words from whole shape, picture, context or initial letter cues. When they encounter tricky words, such as ‘yacht’, which cannot be entirely read phonically, they are guided to recognise the regular parts (the beginning and end in this case) while learning that the middle of the word is irregular.

  • Specific books with decodable words are used initially, containing only the spelling variations of the sounds which have already been learned. Once all spelling alternatives have been learned there is a free choice of books.

  • Children are often encouraged to trace and copy letters as they are learned and write correctly spelled words and phrases.


Advantages

  • The fast pace at which new letter/sound correspondences are learned means that children are less likely to get bored and can read simple books after 11 or 12 weeks. This fast pace is perfectly manageable when new sounds are accompanied by easily remembered and enjoyed stories and actions (as is the case in good teaching programmes).

  • Words which seem irregular in Analytic Phonics are usually regular in Synthetic Phonics.

  • Children learn sounds that are represented by two letters at the same time as those written with one. Therefore they are less likely to get confused when they see that individual letters sound different in different words. For example, they understand early on that an ‘a’ sounds different in ‘cat’ than in ‘rain’. They can also read words such as 'mushroom' and 'woodpecker' with just as much ease as 'cat' and 'sun.'

  • This method of teaching gives a logical structure to the writing system making it more transparent to learn than other methods.


Disadvantages

  • Whilst phonics speeds up the rate at which children can read words, it does not aid their comprehension of what the words mean.

  • Children cannot sound out every word forever. It is essential that they eventually recognise whole words for fluency which will then lead to comprehension and appreciation of the text.


Reading Programs

If you want to teach your child to read using synthetic phonics, there are a variety of different reading programs available to help you. Specific multisensory reading programs designed to teach synthetic phonics include Jolly Phonics, Phonics International and Read Write Inc. Alternatively you could use a handbook such as Reading Reflex or Step by Step Reading, which contain detailed instructions for how to teach your child to read using a this phonics approach.

In addition you can find other synthetic phonics programs here which meet the UK government recommendations for high quality phonics programs.


Reading Practice

To help your child practice specific phonics rules encourage them to read easy reader books based on phonics. Most of the words contained in these books, which have been written especially for beginner readers, can be sounded out using phonic rules. If your child comes across a word they do not know they can decode it by breaking the word down into units and blending together the sounds of each of these units.


Have Your Say

If you have tried teaching your child to read using this, or any other, teaching method, please do share your experiences - good and bad - with other visitors of this site.




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