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What is Synthetic Phonics? Why Are They All The Rage in Education?

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What Is Synthetic Phonics?

So exactly what are synthetic phonics, you might be wondering? This buzzword has been popping up more and more over the past few years. Keep reading to find out exactly what Synthetic Phonics are and how they can help your child learn to read and spell.

A quote which says "synthetic phonics is a fancy name for the explicit insturction used to teach - you guessed it phonics" Quote is next to a picture of someone writing in a book

Synthetic Phonics is a fancy name for the explicit direct instruction used to teach – you guessed it … phonics.

Instead of using all those “spelling rules” that have just as many exceptions as they do words that follow them. All 44 sounds in the English language are taught sequentially, building from simple sounds and easy to decode sounds to the more complex ones.

I have been teaching systematic synthetic phonics for the last 10 or so years of my teaching career and it really works! It is amazing to see the progress that young learners make when I really explain to them all the different ways the 44 sounds can be represented. The best thing about synthetic phonics is it caters to all students in my classroom. Every class I have ever taught has had a massive variety of academic abilities and a number of students with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning difficulties. Teaching phonics using the synthetic phonics approach means that I am supporting all their needs at once.

a quote which says "the best thing about synthetic phonics is it caters to all students in my classroom"

What Does Synthetic Phonics Instruction Involve?

Synthetic phonics is a way of teaching spelling where words are broken down to the smallest units of sound called phonemes. Students learn to represent the sounds in language using the letters also called graphemes. Synthetic phonics involves students learning to identify all of the small sounds in a word and match them to a letter. This breaking down of the words is called decoding.

a quote which says " 44 sounds in the english language are taught sequentially building from simple sounds and easy to decode sounds to more complex ones"

Synthetic Phonics instruction involves a few key elements;

  1. Students are taught all 44 phonemes in the English language.

  2. It is explicitly taught.

  3. Systematic teaching of the 44 phonemes becomes more complex as students move through the grade levels.

  4. Synthetic phonics provides a consistent approach to teaching phonics so the message about how to read and spell is consistent across the grade levels.

  5. It is quick and efficient, students are not taught a sound a week, they learn a group of phonemes so they can begin learning spelling and reading straight away.

  6. Students are taught to blend sounds in a word to read and to listen for the sounds in a word to spell.

  7. All the different ways a sound can be represented are taught. For example the sound /a/ can be spelled a, ay, ai, eigh and so on.

  8. Words that are not decodable, but are high frequency words are taught explicitly.

  9. Students are taught the sounds first and then the letter names

Synthetic Phonics vs Analytic Phonics

There are two different ways of teaching phonics and they are synthetic phonics and analytic phonics. They differ in many ways and the difference can affect how quickly students learn to read and spell.

In the past students were taught to read and spell using ‘analytic phonics’. This method has children ‘analysing a word’, taking clues from recognition of the whole word, the initial sound, and the context. This is a hit-and-miss approach that encourages guessing as a reading strategy! Students were being taught Analytic Phonics in the USA, Australia, and the UK and there are significant numbers of children failing to learn to read as well as they should; 38%, 20%, and 20% respectively! Synthetic Phonics involves no guessing. It is the synthesising, or blending of phonemes (sounds) to make a word, enabling children to read. Synthetic phonics is quick and efficient. Students are taught the letter sounds as soon as they start school before they can learn to read. Using an analytic phonics approach students are taught to recognise whole words by sight and then break down the word into units of sounds. Letter sounds are not taught until after students begin to learn to read. Students can find it more difficult to identify the sounds when being taught using an analytic phonics approach because it is not explicit.

Synthetic Phonics Programs

There are many different Synthetic Phonics programmes and they all teach the same set of sounds. Like all teaching programmes each has a few differences. For example, all have their own order of introducing the sounds. Studies show that the order doesn’t matter too much. They generally introduce consonants and short vowel sounds first. Then long vowels, digraphs, adjacent consonants, and r-controlled vowel sounds (such as /er/ and /or/). Students learn one way of representing each of the sounds and then are slowly shown the spelling alternatives for each. For example, students learn that the /s/ sound is written down using the letter ‘s’ (as in sat). Later on, students learn that we can write the /s/ sound using the letter ‘c’ (as in city) or ‘sc’ (as in science), and the /s/ sound using the letters ‘ps’ (as in psychic) or ‘st’ (as in listen).

if you are interested in learning about some different synthetic phonics programmes you might like to check out;

Sounds Write

Letters and Sounds

Multi Lit

Jolly Phonics

Synthetic Phonics and Learning Difficulties

Students can find it difficult to learn to read and spell for so many reasons. While language is a built-in skill that all humans possess, the ability to read, write and spell is not innate. Reading and writing are skills that society has developed and learned over many hundreds

of years.

For most students, a structured programme that includes systematic synthetic phonics and explicit teaching will be successful. Some students do have learning difficulties that mean learning to read and spell is extremely difficult. Students who have poor memory skills, find it is difficult for them to remember what they have been taught. These students can have great difficulty segmenting words into individual speech sounds, making it difficult to link phonemes (speech sounds) to graphemes (letters). These children will find learning to read and spell difficult whatever method is used.

A quote which says "synthetic phonics taught in a systematic and explicit way is the approach most likely to result in successful outcomes for children with learning difficulties"

When Synthetic Phonics is taught in a systematic and explicit way, is the approach most likely to result in successful outcomes. Children with a specific learning disorder in reading stand out as their reading ability does not match their expected abilities. Read more about Dyslexia here. Learning to read and spell can be a frustrating journey. Students are usually successful using a Synthetic Phonics approach.

Teaching Using The Synthetic Phonics Approach

A list which says - students are ready to learn when. 1 they can listen carefully to the sounds in our speech. 2. be able to make the sounds they hear. 3. Children can sequence the sounds they hear in a word.

Learning to read, write and spell is not an innate human ability, it takes time for students to master these skills. It is so important that children are ready to begin learning before we start teaching phonics. Students are ready when they can;

  1. Listen carefully to the sounds in our speech.

  2. Be able to make the sounds they hear.

  3. Children can sequence the sounds they hear in a word.

a quote which says " while language is a built in skill that all humans possess the ability to read and spell is not innate. Reading and writing are skills society has developed over many hundreds of years.

When students are ready, start with letter and sound correspondence. It is important to remember the following

  1. Letter names vs Letter Sounds. When using a Synthetic phonics approach teach the letter sounds not names, as it is confusing.

  2. Letters don’t make the sounds. There are 44 sounds in the English language and only 26 letters. It is important that students understand that the letters don’t make the sounds, they simply represent them.

  3. Pronunciation. It is important to avoid mispronouncing the sounds or making the lazy vowel or schwa sound at the end of a sound. For example, when pronouncing the /k/ sound, make it crisp and short, rather than adding in an extra -uh sound at the end.

How Can I Help at Home?

There are lots of simple things you can do at home to help your child learn to read.

  • Learn how to say the sounds by watching this video here, or use an audio guide.

  • Use flashcards to help your child learn how to blend sounds to read words

  • Read together every day, even for just ten minutes.

  • Watch Ruth Miskin’s top 10 tips video.

An infographic title how can i help my child to read? 2. learn to say the sounds correctly. 2. use flashcards. 3. read to you child everyday even if it is just for 10 minutes. 4. play word games together.

If you would like more help to support your child with their literacy skills, book a free assessment by contacting us at or book a tutoring class by clicking the link here.

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