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Synthetic phonics, also known as blended phonics or inductive phonics, is a method of teaching English reading which first teaches the letter sounds and then builds up to blending these sounds together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words.
Synthetic phonics refers to a family of programs which aim to teach reading and writing through the following methods:
- Teaching students the correspondence between written letters (graphemes) and speech sounds (phonemes). For example, the words me and pony have the same sound at the end, but use different letters.
- Teaching students to read words by blending: identifying the graphemes (letters) in the word, recalling the corresponding phonemes (sounds), and saying the phonemes together to form the sound of the whole word.
- Teaching students to write words by segmenting: identifying the phonemes of the word, recalling the corresponding graphemes, then writing the graphemes together to form the written word.
Synthetic phonics programs have some or all of the following characteristics:
- Teaching grapheme-phoneme (letters-sound) correspondence out of alphabetic order, following an order determined by perceived complexity (going from easiest to hardest to learn).
- Teaching the reading and writing of words in order of increasing irregularity, in other words teaching words which follow typical grapheme-phoneme correspondence first (e.g. ape and cat), and teaching words with idiosyncratic or unusual grapheme-phoneme correspondence later (e.g. eight and duck).
Synthetic phonics programs do not have the following characteristics:
- Encouraging students to guess the meaning of words from contextual clues (see whole language method).
- Encouraging students to memorise the shape of words, to recall them by sight (see Look say method).
- Teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondence on a "when needed" basis or as applied to particular groups of words, when these words arise in other forms of reading instruction (see embedded phonics in Whole language).
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, learners might be taught a short vowel sound (e.g. a as in cat) in addition to some consonant sounds (e.g. s, t, p). Then the learners 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. It does not teach whole words as shapes (initial sight vocabulary) prior to learning the alphabetic code.
Synthetic phonics develops phonemic awareness along with the corresponding letter shapes. It involves the learners 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. It does not teach letter names until the learners 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 teaches phonics at the level of the individual phoneme from the outset; not syllables and not onset and rime. Synthetic phonics does not teach anything about reading as a meaning-focused process. It highlights decoding and pronunciation of words only. Teachers are to put accuracy before speed, because fluency (i.e. speed, accuracy, expression), and comprehension will come with time.
Synthetic phonics involves the teaching of the transparent alphabet (e.g. c as in "cat") before progressing onto the opaque alphabet (e.g. ch as in "school"). In other words, learners are taught steps which are straightforward and 'work' before being taught the complications and variations of pronunciation and spelling of the full alphabetic code. It introduces irregular words and more tricky words (defined as words which cannot be pronounced phonically – English has a surprisingly large number of these, usually the commonest words of all such as 'to', 'of', etc.) 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. Teachers read a full range of literature with the learners and ensure that all learners have a full range of experience of activities associated with literacy such as role play, drama, poetry, but the learners are not expected to 'read' text which is beyond them, and the method does not involve guessing at words from context, picture and initial letter clues.
- learning letter sounds (as distinct from the letter names);
- For example, mmm not em, sss not ess, 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 United States).
- learning to read words using sound blending in which each individual sound is joined together to form a word (e.g. c - a - t= cat).;
- 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 methods such as synthetic phonics and analytic 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. In the United Kingdom, the term "systematic phonics" is "generally understood as synthetic phonics" according to the reading review which was conducted in 2006.
In Analytic phonics (sometimes referred to as Analytical phonics)  practitioners do not teach learners to pronounce sounds "in isolation" as is the practice with Synthetic Phonics. Furthermore, consonant blends (separate, adjacent consonants) are taught as units (e.g., in the word 'shrouds' the shr would be taught as a unit). Some analytic phonics programs (referred to as analogy phonics ) teach learners 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, analytic phonics teaches the learner to say sh - ip (ship) and sh - op (shop), whereas synthetic phonics, teaches the learner to say sh - i - p (ship) and sh - o - p (shop). In analytic phonics, learners 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.
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.
- 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: learners 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)
The teaching of reading and writing has varied over the years from spelling and phonetic methods to the fashions for look-say and whole language methods. In America in the eighteenth century, Noah Webster introduced spelling approaches with syllabaries and in England the use of James Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet was popular in the 1960s. Recently phonic methods have been revived.
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. It is not clear if all of the findings of the report are reflected in the Australian Curriculum. The report was critiqued by Phillip Cormack, University of South Australia, who states that the key to success in a reading lesson is the relationship between the teacher, the child and the material to be read.
Some of the findings of the report are:
- Among the successful schools visited, there were a number of key similarities. Three of those similarities are:
- a belief that each child can learn to read and write regardless of background;
- an early, systematic, and "explicit" (i.e. specific and clear) teaching of phonics;
- 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)
Dr Jennifer Buckingham, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Independent Studies, AU published a research brief in June 2018 explaining Systematic Synthetic Phonics and the evidence supporting it.
As of October 5, 2018, The State Government of Victoria, Australia, publishes a website containing a comprehensive Literacy Teaching Toolkit including Effective Reading Instruction, Phonics, and Sample Phonics Lessons. It contains elements of synthetic phonics, analytic phonics, and analogy phonics.
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 specifically adopted by any of these jurisdictions.
On the one hand, the curriculum of all of the Canadian provinces include some of the following: phonics, phonological awareness, segmenting and blending, decoding, phonemic awareness, graphophonic cues, and letter-sound relationships.
On the other hand, some of the practices of whole language are evident, such as: "use language prediction skills to identify unknown words"; "using three cueing systems: meaning, structure, and visual"; "reading on, omitting words, rereading and making substitutions"; "predict on the basis of what makes sense"; and "a wide variety of sight words".
Yet, systematic phonics and synthetic phonics received attention in the following publications:
- In 2005 the Ministry 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 and Early Math Strategy. The report states "This Expert Panel supports the position of the National Reading Panel (2000) that phonics instruction should be integrated into a comprehensive and balanced reading program. Instruction in phonics and decoding should not be conceived of as a total reading program, but neither should it be neglected." Pg 104
- The Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network published a report entitled Foundations for Literacy: An evidence-based Toolkit for the Effective Reading and Writing Teacher. It is a practical toolkit helping teachers to a) understand research in order to keep informed, b) understand how children develop reading and writing skills, and c) understand how to use effective instruction techniques. It also includes explanations of phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle (including systematic phonics and synthetic phonics instruction).
- In 2009, the Ministry 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.
- In 2010, The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat of Ontario, Canada published a report entitled Capacity Building Series: Reading Fluency that offers practical strategies to teach reading comprehension. This includes Automaticity (the ability to automatically decode words), Phrasing (reading phrases not only words), and Expression (moving from a monotone delivery to a natural rise and fall in pitch, tone and rhythm). In the section about decoding it discusses the importance of Phonological Awareness (hearing words in sentences and individual sounds in words), Alphabetic Letter Knowledge (identifying, naming and writing letters), and the Alphabetic Principle (understanding that letters represent the sounds of spoke language). In the latter, in addition to other suggestions, it is emphasized that teaching should include instruction in segmenting and blending alongside the explicit teaching of letter sounds.
- Dr. Robert Savage, formerly of McGill University and now at UCL Institute of Education, University College London, 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. In another report about effective early reading instruction and inclusion, Dr. Savage states that "a heavy and early structured approach to early reading intervention focused on mastering the use of the alphabetic principle to decode as a self-teaching mechanism is enough to allow many children to take off into reading without further focused support beyond good regular classroom teaching".
- In 2011, Dr. Janette Pelletier, OISE, University of Toronto published a paper entitled Supporting Early Language and Literacy that outlines several key findings from early literacy research, including the importance of teaching phonological awareness and the "knowledge of letter names and letter-sound correspondences" also known as decoding.
A review of the teaching of early reading was undertaken by Sir Jim Rose at the request of the Department for Education. While the report often uses the term "Systematic Phonic work", it appears to support "Synthetic Phonics" as evidenced in the Rose Review in 2006. In fact, the Department of Education, England 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".
Developments following the Rose Report
- Following the adoption of the phonics approach in its schools, the Department of Education, England provided a great deal of online support for teachers wishing to learn more about effective phonics teaching strategies. In 2010, the U.K. Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) released a report entitled Reading by Six - How the best schools do it. It reported that twelve successful schools employed common methods of teaching reading using systematic phonics with features such as; having a clearly defined and incremental approach to the correspondence between the letters and the sounds; applying the blending of the sounds all through the word; and segmenting the phonemes (sounds) to spell the words.
- In March 2011 the Department of Education, England 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."
- As of 2013, all (local-authority-maintained) primary schools in England have a statutory requirement to teach synthetic phonics in years one and two. In addition, any pupil who is struggling to decode words properly by year three must "urgently" receive help through a "rigorous and systematic phonics programme".
- In 2014 the U.K. Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) updated their guidance for school inspectors to include practical tips on how schools should teach reading with systematic phonics, including "Getting them Reading Early". It describes "The simple view of reading" as the word recognition processes (recognizing the words on the page, free of context and using phonics) and the language recognition processes (understanding the meaning of the language). It also includes some videos to illustrate its principles.
- The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2016) report was released in December 2017. It reports on the reading abilities of students aged 9 and 10 in 50 countries, and shows that England has risen to Joint 8th place in 2016; its best since 2001. This confirms "that our approach is working", according to Minister Nick Gibb. PIRLS 2016 has a summary of England's Language/Reading Curriculum in the Fourth Grade that shows the increased emphasis on "phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words until automatic decoding has become embedded and reading is fluent".
- In 2016 the London School of Economics published a paper that supports the teaching of synthetic phonics to disadvantaged children because it helps to close the literacy gap.
- Some critics continue to raise concerns about how Systematic Synthetic Phonics is being taught and assessed, and whether it puts too much emphasis on decoding at the expense of other factors such as vocabulary and "learning to read".
- In 2018, The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), as part of its curriculum research has produced a YouTube video on Early Reading. It states "It is absolutely essential that every child master the phonic code as quickly as possible ... So, successful schools firstly teach phonics first, fast and furious." As of September, 2019, the Ofsted inspections will focus more on what is taught and how it is taught, and less on the test data.
- While there has been concern expressed about the phonics screening test at the end of year one, some report that phonics is especially valuable for poor readers and those without English as a first language. In January, 2019 Ofsted published a report entitled Education inspection framework: overview of research that further supports systematic synthetic phonics together with phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
Education Scotland found that explicit, systematic phonics programs, usually embedded in a rich literacy environment, give an additional four months progress over other programs such as whole language, and are particularly beneficial for young learners (aged 4–7). There is evidence, though less secure, that synthetic phonics programs may be more beneficial than analytic phonics programs; however it is more important to systematically teach to the children's needs.
Synthetic phonics in Scotland has its roots in the Clackmannanshire Report, a seven-year study that was published in 2005. It compared analytic Phonics with synthetic Phonics and advantaged students with disadvantaged children. The report concluded that "the synthetic phonics programme led to children from lower socio-economic backgrounds performing at the same level as children from advantaged backgrounds for most of their time in primary school. It also led to boys performing better than or as well as girls."
Critics of the report claim that the results were exaggerated and due to more than just synthetic phonics.
A five-year follow-up of the study concluded that the beneficial effects were long-lasting, in fact the reading gains increased.
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 (NICHD) 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 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 2000 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 children under a variety of conditions. (Note: Phonemic Awareness is the ability to manipulate sounds (phonemes) in spoken syllables and words. Phonemes are the smallest units of sounds comprising spoken language. For example, the words go and she each consist of two sounds or phonemes, g-o (IPA / /,) and sh-e (IPA / /,), respectively.
- 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 in spelling.
Other findings of this report are:
- Guided Oral Reading (reading out loud and receiving systematic and explicit feedback from a teacher) "had a significant and positive impact on word recognition, fluency, and comprehension".
- The value of Independent Silent Reading is unclear; however it is clear that it should not be the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills.
- Vocabulary, both oral and print, should be taught directly and indirectly because it leads to gains in comprehension.
- Teaching a combination of reading comprehension techniques is the most effective, however more research is needed to determine which techniques are the most effective.
In 2014 the California Department of Education stated "Ensuring that children know how to decode regularly spelled one-syllable words by mid-first grade is crucial". It goes on to say that "Children need to be phonemically aware (especially able to segment and blend phonemes)". The skills of segmenting and blending phonemes are a central aspect of synthetic phonics. In grades two and three children receive explicit instruction in advanced phonic-analysis and reading multi-syllabic and more complex words.
In 2015 the New York State Public School system began a process to revise its English Language Arts Learning Standards. The standards were revised in 2017 and call for teaching involving "reading or literacy experiences" as well as phonemic awareness from prekindergarten to grade 1 and phonics, word recognition, and word analysis skills in decoding words from grade 1 to grade 4. They will become effective at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.
In 2015 the Ohio Legislature set minimum standards requiring the use of phonics as a technique in teaching reading. It includes guidelines for teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The Ohio Department of Education has created a guidance manual for the year 2018-2019 that outlines the requirements for Researched-Based Reading Instruction. By 2019 the new curricula appears to be paying off. Edweek.org reported that one elementary school in Ohio found that "3rd grade test scores went from the worst in the district—44 percent proficient in 2016—to the best, 71 percent in 2019." They also say "Third grade reading proficiency districtwide moved from 53 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2019".
In 2016 the What Works Clearinghouse  and the Institute of Education Sciences, an independent and non-partisan arm of the U.S. Department of Education, published an Educator's Practice Guide (with evidence) on Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade. It contains four recommendations to support reading: 1) Teach students academic language skills, including the use of inferential and narrative language, and vocabulary knowledge, 2) Develop awareness of the segments of sounds in speech and how they link to letters (phonemic awareness and phonics), 3) Teach students to decode words, analyze word parts, and write and recognize words (phonics and synthetic phonics), and 4) Ensure that each student reads connected text every day to support reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. Some universities have created additional material based on this guide 
In 2018 The Association for Psychological Science published an article entitled Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. The purpose of the article is to fill the gap between the current research knowledge and the public understanding about how we learn to read, and to explain "why phonics instruction is so central to learning in a writing system such as English". It points out that if reading instruction relied only on the association between the printed word and meaning (as in Whole Language) it would require the memorization of thousands of individual words. Thus, "systematic phonics instruction should be viewed as a natural and logical consequence of the manner in which alphabetic writing systems represent spoken language". There is, however, still a debate as to which systematic phonics method is most effective, synthetic or analytic. The article also explains that despite the weight of evidence supporting systematic phonics, it has only been fully implemented in England. The United States does have Common Core State Standards Initiative that include recommendations for Print Concepts, Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Fluency; however not all states have adopted these standards.
In 2018 the Arkansas Department of Education, Literacy Support Unit, published a report about their new initiative known as R.I.S.E., Reading Initiative for Student Excellence, that was the result of The Right to Read Act, passed in 2017. This was inspired because, as of 2015, less than half of their students were reading at grade level, placing them in the bottom third of States in relation to national reading assessments. The first goal of this initiative is to provide educators with the in-depth knowledge and skills of "the science of reading" and evidence-based instructional strategies. This includes a change of focus to research-based instruction on phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Specific requirements are that reading instruction be systematic and explicit, and include decoding techniques. Part of the instruction involves the use of a book and study guide entitled Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, by David Kilpatrick.
In 2019 the International Literacy Association released a report entitled Meeting the Challenges of Early Literacy Phonics Instruction  The report clearly supports the use of phonics instruction that is explicit and systematic, stating that "phonics instruction is helpful for all students, harmful for none, and crucial for some". It also offers an opinion on the ten most common causes of Phonics Instructional Failure, namely: inadequate time devoted to mastering a new phonics skill such as blending (4–6 weeks recommended); lack of application to real reading instruction; inappropriate reading material to practice the skills; too much teacher instruction, and too little reading by the student; lost time during instructional transitions; the teacher's attitude and knowledge of phonics instructional material; lessons that are not fast-paced and rigorous; lack of assessments over an extended period of time; waiting too long to transition to multi-syllable words; and over emphasis of phonics drills at the expense of other aspects such as vocabulary.
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- Note: This article uses British Received Pronunciation.
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