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, children are taught that spelling is the reverse of reading.
To spell, children 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:
how sounds correspond to letters,
to read words by saying the sounds corresponding to the letters and blending them,
to spell words by identifying the sounds in the spoken words and writing the corresponding
to read and spell “tricky” words (words they cannot be expected to read or spell
using the correspondences they have been taught), by first noting the “tricky” parts
of the words.
to form letters
Pupils are not taught:
letter names for reading,
to memorise words before they can read them by blending the sounds,
to guess words from pictures, context or initial letters.
To teach synthetic phonics, teachers need:
something to write on that everyone can see and something to write with
something for each pupil to write on and something to write with
(e.g. paper and pencil, slate and chalk, mini-whiteboard and pen)
a programme to follow
More resources can be very helpful, but they 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
children 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 children are expected to work out new words using the phonics they
have been taught. Guessing words is discouraged.
Phonological awareness develops as pupils learn to read and spell. With synthetic
phonics, it is not treated as a separate subject and there is no need for pupils
to be phonologically 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.