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Synthetic phonics, also known as inductive phonics, is a method of teaching reading which first teaches the letter sounds and then builds up to blending these sounds together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words. This article relates to the English language only.
Synthetic phonics methodology
What it is
- Synthetic phonics teaches the phonemes (sounds) associated with the graphemes (letters) at the rate of about six sounds per week. The sounds are taught in isolation then blended together (i.e. synthesised), all-through-the-word. For example, children might be taught a short vowel sound (e.g. /a/) in addition to some consonant sounds (e.g. /s/, /t/, /p/). Then the children are taught words with these sounds (e.g. sat, pat, tap, at). They are taught to pronounce each phoneme in a word, then to blend the phonemes together to form the word (e.g. /s/ - /a/ - /t/; "sat"). Sounds are taught in all positions of the words, but the emphasis is on all-through-the-word segmenting and blending from week one.
- Synthetic phonics develops phonemic awareness along with the corresponding letter shapes.
- Synthetic phonics teaches phonics at the level of the individual phoneme from the outset; not syllables and not onset and rime.
- Synthetic phonics involves the children rehearsing the writing of letter shapes alongside learning the letter/s-sound correspondences preferably with the tripod pencil grip. Dictation is a frequent teaching technique from letter level to word spelling, including nonsense words (e.g. choy and feep) and eventually extending to text level.
- Synthetic phonics teachers put accuracy before speed. Fluency (i.e. speed, accuracy,expression, and comprehension) will come with time, but the child's understanding of the relationship between the letter(s) and the sounds is the all important first step. (Pg. 13)
- Synthetic phonics involves the teaching of the transparent alphabet (e.g. /k/ as in "cat") before progressing onto the opaque alphabet (e.g. /k/ as in "school"). In other words, children are taught steps which are straightforward and 'work' before being taught the complications and variations of pronunciation and spelling of the full alphabetic code.
- Synthetic phonics introduces irregular words and more tricky words slowly and systematically after a thorough introduction of the transparent alphabet code (learning the 44 letter/s-sound correspondences to automaticity and how to blend for reading and segment for spelling). Phonics application still works at least in part in such words.
- Synthetic phonics involves a heavy emphasis on hearing the sounds all-through-the-word for spelling and not an emphasis on 'look, cover, write, check'. This latter, visual form of spelling plays a larger part with unusual spellings and spelling variations although a phonemic procedure is always emphasised in spelling generally.
- Synthetic phonics teachers read a full range of literature with the children and ensure that all children have a full range of experience of activities associated with literacy such as role play, drama, poetry, but the children are not expected to 'read' text which is beyond them.
What it is not
- Synthetic phonics does not teach whole words as shapes (initial sight vocabulary) prior to learning the alphabetic code (See the next section).
- Synthetic phonics does not teach letter names until the children know their letter/s-sound correspondences thoroughly and how to blend for reading and segment for spelling. Often when letter names are introduced it is through singing an alphabet song.
- Synthetic phonics does not involve guessing at words from context, picture and initial letter clues.
Typical Synthetic Phonics programme
- learning letter sounds (as distinct from the letter names);
- For example, mmm not em, sss not es, fff not ef. The letter names can be taught later but should not be taught in the early stages.
- learning the 40+ sounds and their corresponding letters/letter groups;
- The English Alphabet Code 'Key': 40+ phonemes with their common 'sound pattern' representations. (This is based on the British pronunciation. The number and mixture of the 40+ phonemes will vary for other English speaking countries such as Australia, Canada and the U.S.A.): Note: Although professionals in the field of "phonics" distinguish a "sound" from its letter(s) in a specific fashion (e.g. the "|ee|" sound), for the purposes of this article we will use the method employed by some official publications (e.g. the "/ee/" sound) because it is easier for the lay person to read.
- learning to read words using sound blending;
- reading stories featuring the words the students have learned to sound out;
- demonstration exercises to show they comprehend the stories;
Systematic Phonics is not one specific method of teaching phonics; rather, it is a family of phonics instruction that includes the methods of both Synthetic Phonics and Analytical Phonics. They are "systematic" because the letters, and the sounds they relate to, are taught in a specific sequence; as opposed to incidentally or on a 'when-needed' basis. However, it should be noted that, in most instances, the term systematic phonics appears to refer to synthetic phonics because of the specific instruction methods it uses. (In the United Kingdom, the term systematic phonics is "generally understood as synthetic phonics" according to the reading review which was conducted in 2006.)
Analytical phonics practitioners do not teach children to pronounce sounds "in isolation" as is the practice with Synthetic Phonics. Furthermore, consonant blends (separate, adjacent consonant phonemes) are taught as units (e.g., in the word shrouds the shr would be taught as a unit). Some analytical phonics programs (referred to as analogy phonics) teach children to break-down words into their common components which are referred to as the "onset" and the "rime". In the word "ship", "sh" is the "onset" and "ip" is the "rime" (the part starting with the vowel). In other words, analytical phonics teaches the child to say /sh/ - /ip/ (ship) and /sh/ - /op/ (shop), whereas synthetic phonics, teaches the child to say /sh/ - /i/ - /p/ (ship) and /sh/ - /o/ - /p/ (shop). In analytical phonics, children are also taught to find the similarities among words (e.g. man, can, tan, fan, and ran). Whereas synthetic phonics devotes most of its time to learning the letter/sound relationships (i.e. grapheme/phoneme).
Synthetic Phonics uses the concept of 'synthesising', which means 'putting together' or 'blending'. Simply put, the sounds prompted by the letters are synthesised (put together or blended) to pronounce the word.
The Scottish Executive Education Department 2005 report, which compared these approaches to phonics instruction noted that synthetic phonics has some of the following characteristics:
- The sounds that the letters make (e.g. "sss" not "es", and "mmm" not "em") are taught before children begin to read books.
- Often, the sounds of the most commonly used letters (i.e. /s/, /a/, /t/, /i/, /p/, and /n/) are taught first. Then, children are taught how these sounds can be "blended" together to form many three letter words (e.g. sat, tin, pin, etc.).
- Consonant blends (e.g. bl, cl, dr, st, etc.) are not taught separately because they can be "sounded out".
- However, digraphs (i.e. two letters that make one sound such as /th/ and /sh/), are taught as the separate sounds that they are.
Some common terminology used within this article includes:
- alphabetic code (in synthetic phonics): The relationship between sounds (phonemes) and the letter/s (graphemes) that represent them are referred to as a "code". For example, the sound /ay/ can be represented in many ways (e.g. cake, may, they, eight, aid, break, etc.). See also: Alphabetic principle
- decoding skills (in phonics): Without the use of context, to pronounce and read words accurately by using the relationship between the letter(s) and the sounds they represent. (i.e. "cat" is /k/-/a/-/t/, "plough" is /p/-/l/-/ow/, and "school" is /s/-/k/-/oo/-/l/. "Encoding skills" (i.e. spelling) is the same process in reverse. (Pg. 76)
- Direct instruction (also known as Explicit Instruction ): A teaching style that is characterized by "carefully designed instruction" that usually includes a fast pace, small steps, demonstrations, active participation, coaching, immediate correction, and positive feedback. (Pg. 85)
- intensive instruction: teaching or tutoring that include some of the following: more time; peer-assisted strategies; and instruction in small groups or one-on-one. (Pg. 209)
- peer-assisted literacy strategies: Children work in pairs (taking turns as teacher and learner) to learn a "structured sequence" of literacy skills, such as phonemic awareness, phonics, sound blending, passage reading, and story retelling. (Pg. 33)
- supportive instruction: teaching or tutoring that supports the student both emotionally and cognitively. This includes encouragement, immediate feedback, positive reinforcement, and instructional scaffolding (i.e. clear structure, small steps, guiding with questions). (Pg. 209)
In December 2005 the Department of Education, Science and Training of the Australian Government published a report entitled a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading. The report recommends direct and systematic instruction in phonics as the foundation of early reading instruction. Some of the findings and recommendations are:
- Among the successful schools visited, there were a number of key similarities. Three of those similarities are:
- 1) a belief that each child can learn to read and write regardless of background;
- 2) an early, systematic, and "explicit" (i.e. specific and clear) teaching of phonics;
- 3) the phonics instruction was followed by "direct teaching".
- Students learn best from an approach that includes phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension. (Executive Summary)
- A whole-language approach, "on its own, is not in the best interests of children, particularly those experiencing reading difficulties". (Pg. 12)
- Where there is unsystematic or no phonics instruction, children do not perform as well in such areas as reading accuracy, fluency, writing, spelling and comprehension. (Pg. 12)
- A recommendation that teachers provide "systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction".(Pg. 14)
In Canada, public education is the responsibility of the Provincial and Territorial governments. There is no evidence that systematic phonics (including synthetic phonics) has been adopted by any of these jurisdictions. However, systematic phonics and synthetic phonics receive attention in some publications.
- In 2003 the Department of Education for the government of Ontario published a report entitled Early Reading Strategy - The Report of the Expert Panel on early Reading in Ontario. The report appears to support the use of systematic and explicit phonics instruction. It suggests that instruction in phonemic awareness be followed up with "systematic and explicit instruction" on the relationship between letters and the sounds they represent. (Pg. 17)
- In 2009, the Department of Education for the province of British Columbia posted a discussion paper on their Read Now website entitled Reading: Breaking Through the Barriers. The paper states that explicit and synthetic phonics needs to be taught directly in the classroom because it works "for all students but are particularly helpful for students at risk for reading difficulty". (Pg. 8) There appears to be no evidence, however, that systematic phonics (or synthetic phonics) is a part of the teaching pedagogy.
- Dr. Robert Savage, of McGill University, concludes that, with respect to remedial programs, we should not wait for children to fail before using phonics programs. He also recommends the teaching of such skills as segmenting and blending alongside the "explicit teaching" of letter sounds. He also says there is a need for more Randomized controlled trials in order to produce more definitive conclusions.
During the period of the Labour Government 1997-2010, research showing that "Systematic Phonics Instruction" increased the literacy of all groups finally received attention.
In 2006, The Department of Education and Skills (U.K.) released a review of the research literature on the use of phonics on teaching and spelling. The review concluded that systematic phonics instruction had a "statistically significant positive impact" on reading accuracy. However, the review goes on to say there was no statistically significant difference between synthetic phonics and analytic phonics because "only three randomized control trials were found". The report concludes by suggesting that a larger study would help to clarify the relative effectiveness of systematic synthetic phonics versus systematic analytic phonics.
For a period of time Systematic Phonics was used as part of a mixture of methods, however, during the period in which Ruth Kelly was the responsible minister, this was replaced by an imperative to teach Synthetic Phonics "first and fast". As of 2007 Synthetic Phonics is the favored method of the UK government. As a result of a review of the primary curriculum that was undertaken by Sir Jim Rose at the request of the Department for Education and Skills While the report often uses the term "Systematic Phonic work", it appears to support "Synthetic Phonics" as evidenced in the Rose Review. In fact, to be clear, the U.K. Department of Education uses the term "systematic synthetic phonics". The following is a summary of the report's observations and recommendations concerning phonics:
- The skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing are used by (and are supported by) what it refers to as "high quality, systematic phonics".
- Young children should receive sufficient pre-reading instruction so they are able to start systematic phonics work "by the age of five".
- High quality phonics work should be taught as "the prime approach" to teaching reading, writing, and spelling.
- Phonics instruction should form a part of "a broad and rich language curriculum". Note: critics of this report point out that the report does not explain what they mean by this, nor does it offer any details on how to achieve this within the framework of synthetic phonics' instruction.
Critics of the report
- In a report dated April 2007, professors Dominic Wyse and Morag Styles conclude that the evidence "supports" systematic phonics, however, the Rose Report's assertion that synthetic phonics should be the "preferred method" is "not supported by research evidence". This criticism is based on the way the research was conducted and how the results were interpreted.
- In October 2011, The National Campaign for Real Nursery Education web site (U.K.) comments on the U.K. government's intent to impose a specific type of phonics teaching (i.e. systematic, synthetic phonics) in the nursery and reception years, and suggests that this decision was not supported by the "research evidence". " However, the site does not appear to cite any specific research. The parties appear to be concerned about "the loss of some early years grants".
Developments following the Rose Review
- Following the adoption of the phonics approach in its schools, the U.K. Department of Education provided a great deal of online support for teachers wishing to learn more.
- In March 2011 the U.K. Department of Education released its White paper entitled "The Importance of Teaching". In the Executive Summary, item 12 of the curriculum section states their commitment to support "systematic synthetic phonics, as the best method for teaching reading." 
The United States has a long history of debate concerning the various methods used to teach reading, including Phonics. In 1999, The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.A.) appears to conclude that systematic phonics programs are "significantly more effective" than non-phonics programs. It also concludes that they found no significant difference between the different phonics approaches, while suggesting that more evidence may be required.
The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) has come out in support of phonics instruction. The institute conducts and supports research on all stages of human development. The institute conducted a meta-analysis and, in 2005, it published a report entitled Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read. Some findings and determinations of this report are:
- Teaching phonemic awareness(PA) to children was "highly effective" with a variety of learners under a variety of conditions. (Note: Phonemic Awareness/PA is the ability to manipulate phonemes in spoken syllables and words. Phonemes are the smallest units composing spoken language. For example, the words "go" and "she" each consist of two sounds or phonemes, /g/-/oe/ and /sh/-/ee/.)
- Reading instruction that taught PA improved the children's reading ability significantly more than those that lacked this instruction.
- PA helped normally achieving children to spell, but was not effective in helping disabled readers to spell better.
- "Systematic synthetic phonics" instruction had a positive and significant effect on helping disabled readers, low achieving students, and students with low socioeconomic status to read words more effectively than instruction methods that lacked this approach.
- Systematic Phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell. Poor readers experienced a small improvement.
- American English
- Auditory processing disorder
- British English
- Reading for special needs
- Whole language
- Note: This article uses British Received Pronunciation.
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- A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code
- Articles about Synthetic Phonics
- Four main methods learning to read (method 1 phonics)
- International Reading Association Position Statements
- Phonemic Chart from the BBC
- Teaching Phonics - U.K. Department of Education