Synthetic phonics

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Synthetic phonics (UK) or blended phonics (US), also known as inductive phonics,[1] 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 refers to a family of programs which aim to teach literacy through the following methods:[2]

  • Teaching students the correspondence between graphemes and phonemes.
  • Teaching students to read words by blending: identifying the graphemes in the word, recalling the corresponding phonemes, 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:[3]

  • Teaching grapheme-phoneme 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, teaching words which follow typical grapheme-phoneme correspondence first, and teaching words with idiosyncratic or unusual grapheme-phoneme correspondence later.

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 an ad-hoc basis and as applied to particular groups of words, when these words arise in other forms of reading instruction (see embedded phonics).


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/) 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)[4][5] 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.[6][7]

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, 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.

Typical programme[edit]

  • 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.[8] (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.).
  • 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[edit]

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.[9])

Systematic phonics does not include methods such as embedded phonics and phonics mini lessons which are found in the Whole Language approach and the Balanced Literacy approach.

Analytical phonics[edit]

Analytical phonics practitioners do not teach learners 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 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, analytical 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 analytical 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[edit]

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.[1]

Common terminology[edit]

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.).[10] 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.[11]
  • 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.[12] (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.[13] (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.[14] (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).[13] (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.[12] The report recommends direct and systematic instruction in phonics as the foundation of early reading instruction. Some of the findings (not always supported by reliable evidence)[citation needed] 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 specifically adopted by any of these jurisdictions. However, the curriculum of all of the Canadian provinces include most or all of the following: phonics, phonological awareness, segmenting and blending, decoding, phonemic awareness, graphophonic cues, and letter-sound relationships.[15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24] In addition, 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:.[25] 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
  • 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.[26] 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, 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.[27] He also says there is a need for more Randomized controlled trials in order to produce more definitive conclusions.

United Kingdom[edit]

A review of the teaching of early reading was undertaken by Sir Jim Rose at the request of the Department for Education.[28] While the report often uses the term "Systematic Phonic work", it appears to support "Synthetic Phonics" as evidenced in the Rose Review. 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:

  1. The skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing are used by (and are supported by) what it refers to as "high quality, systematic phonics".
  2. Young children should receive sufficient pre-reading instruction so they are able to start systematic phonics work "by the age of five".
  3. High quality phonics work should be taught as "the prime approach" to teaching reading, writing, and spelling.
  4. 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[edit]

  • In a report dated April 2007,[29] professors Dominic Wyse[30][31] and Morag Styles[32] 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.[29]
  • 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".[33]

Developments following the Rose Review[edit]

  • 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.
  • 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."[34]
  • 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.[35] 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".[36]
  • 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.[37][38]


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 analytical phonics programs; however it is more important to systematically teach to the children's needs.[39]

Synthetic phonics in Scotland has its roots in the Clackmannanshire Report, a seven-year study that was published in 2005.[40] Critics of the report claim that the results were exaggerated and due to more than just synthetic phonics.[41]

United States[edit]

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.[42]

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.[6][43] 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/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 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)".[44] 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.[45]

In 2015 the New York State Public School system began a process to revise its English Language Arts Learning Standards. The new standards call for teaching involving "reading or literacy experiences" as well as phonemic awareness from prekindergarten to grade 1 and phonics and word recognition from grade 1 to grade 4.[46]

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.[47][48][49]

See also[edit]

Note: This article uses British Received Pronunciation.


  1. ^ a b "Glossary of Reading Terms - The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read: A Framework".
  2. ^ "Subject Knowledge: Glossary". Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  3. ^ "Literacy teaching guide: Phonics" (PDF).
  4. ^ "Using Nonsense Word Fluency to Predict Reading Proficiency in Kindergarten Through Second Grade for English Children and Native English Speakers" (PDF).
  5. ^ Byrne, Brian; Fielding-Barnsley, Ruth (1991). "Evaluation of a program to teach phonemic awareness to young children". Journal of Educational Psychology. 83 (4): 451–455. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.83.4.451. ISSN 1939-2176.
  6. ^ a b "Findings and Determinations of the National Reading Panel by Topic Areas". Archived from the original on 2008-07-05.
  7. ^ "Ontario Early Reading Strategy 2003" (PDF).
  8. ^ "The English Alphabetic Code" (PDF).
  9. ^ "Independent review of the teaching of early reading" (PDF).
  10. ^ "Developing Early Literacy" (PDF).
  11. ^ "Teaching Decoding 1998" (PDF).
  12. ^ a b "Teaching Reading" (PDF). Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-08-12.
  13. ^ a b "Effective Programs for Struggling Readers 2010" (PDF).
  14. ^ "Effective Programs for Struggling Readers 2009" (PDF).
  15. ^ "British Columbia Department of Education".
  16. ^ "Alberta Department of Education".
  17. ^ "Saskachewan Department of Education".
  18. ^ "Manitoba Department of Education".
  19. ^ "Ontario Department of Education".
  20. ^ "Quebec Department of Education" (PDF).
  21. ^ "New Brunswick Department of Education".
  22. ^ "Prince Edward Island Department of Education".
  23. ^ "Nova Scotia Department of Education" (PDF).
  24. ^ "Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education".
  25. ^ "Early Reading Strategy - The Report of the Expert Panel on early Reading in Ontario" (PDF).
  26. ^ "Reading: Breaking Through the Barriers A Discussion Guide" (PDF).
  27. ^ "Word Reading Instruction Methods: The Evidence Concerning Phonics".
  28. ^ "Independent review of the teaching of early reading" (PDF). 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-04-01. Retrieved 2014-06-16.
  29. ^ a b Wyse, Dominic; Styles, Morag (2007). "Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading: the debate surrounding England's ?Rose Report?" (PDF). Literacy. 41 (1): 35–42. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9345.2007.00455.x. ISSN 1741-4350.
  30. ^ Wyse, Dominic; Goswami, Usha (2008). "Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading". British Educational Research Journal. 34 (6): 691–710. doi:10.1080/01411920802268912. ISSN 0141-1926.
  31. ^ "Professor Dominic Wyse". Institute of Education University of London.
  32. ^ "Morag Styles". Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.
  33. ^ "National Campaign for Nursery Education and Childrens Rights and Needs". Archived from the original on 2011-09-19.
  34. ^ "Curriculum, assessment and qualifications (2012)". Department of Education, England.
  35. ^ "Telegraph 2017/12/04".
  36. ^ "England's language reading curriculum in the fourth grade".
  37. ^ "Phonics helps to close the attainment gap:The Guardian".
  38. ^ "Teaching to teach literacy" (PDF).
  39. ^ "National Improvement Hub:Phonics".
  40. ^ "Insight: A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment".
  41. ^ "The Scottish phonics miracle, myths and evidence".
  42. ^ "Phonics Instruction" (pdf). National Reading Panel.
  43. ^ "NICHD Archive January 2018, National Reading Panel Reports".
  44. ^ "English–Language Arts, Transitional Kindergarten to Grade 1, California Public Schools" (PDF).
  45. ^ "English–Language Arts, Pedagogy Grades Two and Three, California Public Schools" (PDF).
  46. ^ "2015 New York State Next Generation English Language Arts Learning Standards".
  47. ^ "Rules for Phonics, Ohio".
  48. ^ "Reading Competencies, Ohio".
  49. ^ "Third grade reading guarantee, Ohio".

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]