© 2017 Teach to Read
Synthetic phonics is about the English alphabetic code – how the sounds of English are represented by letters – and how we blend, or synthesise, those sounds to read words. For example, “c..a..t” is “cat” and “sh..ee..p” is “sheep”.
With synthetic phonics, pupils are taught that spelling is the reverse of reading. To spell, they are taught to listen to a word, identify the sounds in the word and write letters for the sounds. For example, they listen to “moon” and identify the sounds, “m..oo..n”. Then they write letters for the sounds. They learn alternative spellings for the same sounds. For example, they learn that the sound /ae/ may be spelt with ‘ai’ (paint), ‘ay’ (play), ‘a-e’ (make), ‘a’ (apron) and even ‘aigh’ (straight).
Pupils are taught:
Pupils are not taught:
To teach synthetic phonics, teachers need:
(e.g., chalk board, flip chart, dry-wipe board, electronic board)
(e.g. paper and pencil, slate and chalk, mini-whiteboard and pen)
More resources can be very helpful, but are not essential.
Pupils are taught the 40+ sounds of English and corresponding letters at a fast pace. They are taught to read and spell words with those correspondences from the first week (e.g., ‘s..a..t ... sat’). Within a few weeks or months, they are taught all the sounds of English and at least one common way to spell each sound. Within one to two years, they are taught all the common sound-letter correspondences, as well as common words with unusual correspondences (e.g., ‘to’). They always practise reading and writing words with the correspondences they have been taught.
After two or three years, children taught by this method have learned to decode most words accurately, automatically and fluently. After that, they are free to use their reading skills to access the rest of a broad and varied curriculum. They continue to use phonics to read unfamiliar words.
A systematic programme is needed for longer to teach more advanced spelling. As before, pupils are taught that reading and spelling are the reverse of each other and so they learn to read and spell the same words. A good spelling programme at this stage systematically builds on phonics and also teaches morphemes (prefixes, root words and suffixes, e.g., ‘re...turn...ing’) and the origin of words when that is helpful (e.g., for spelling ‘signal’ and ‘sign’).
Reading Texts and Decodable Books
It is essential that pupils practise and apply the skills they have been taught when they read texts. The teacher can invent sentences and texts that use only the letter-sound correspondences that have been taught. However, there are several series of books that have been written to support synthetic phonics and it is much easier for the teacher if these are available. Limited letter-sound correspondences are used and so they provide suitable and extensive practice in using the knowledge and skills pupils have been taught. As they progress through the books, the number of letter-sound correspondences increases, until there is no further need for specially written text. Effective books do not depend on pictures, predictable text, repetition or 'sight' vocabulary, as pupils are expected to work out new words using the phonics they have been taught. Guessing words is discouraged.
Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
Phonological and phonemic awareness develop as pupils learn to read and spell. With synthetic phonics, they are not taught separately and there is no need for pupils to be phonologically or phonemically aware before they are taught to read and spell.
Preventing Reading Difficulties
Children who find phonics difficult are identified early and given frequent extra lessons to help them keep up. They are not taught to use different strategies. When children are taught from the start to use only phonics to identify words, only a very few have reading difficulties later.
Older Students with Literacy Difficulties
Students who have not been taught phonics, or have found phonics difficult when part of a mixed strategy approach, usually rely on memorising whole words or guessing strategies. These strategies fail as more complex texts are introduced. However, with intensive systematic synthetic phonics instruction, these students can learn to read effectively.