What is Synthetic Phonics?

To describe synthetic phonics and to discuss its merits and shortcomings is to jump into a hornet’s nest. So here we go.

What is phonics?

Phonics is an approach to the business of learning to read. Unlike some writing systems (e.g. Chinese), English is based (however imperfectly) on a system of writing that is alphabetic. In crude terms, words are formed by sticking together individual letters, and the pronunciation of these words can be derived by pronouncing the individual letters that make up the word. So the word cat is made up of the letters c, a and t: say them quickly and you have c-a-t. Cat.

This approach assumes that there is a correspondence, or relationship, between how an individual letter looks – i.e. how it is written (its grapheme) and how it sounds: its phoneme. So the c sound in cat is also found in cork, cup, crank and Constantinople. A phonics-based approach therefore assumes that knowing your graphemes (i.e. your letters), knowing your phonemes (i.e. your sounds) and – the next step – knowing your grapheme-phoneme correspondences (or GPCs) means that you know that the letter c has the sound that you find at the beginning of cup.

Phonics can be distinguished from other approaches to learning to read such as whole language approaches, where the emphasis is upon the word, and reading the word can be worked out in part at least by looking at its meaning and context in a sentence. Word recognition is an important part of this approach, where children depend quite heavily on acquiring a sight vocabulary, whereby they learn words as whole words – reinforced by meeting them often. So that as soon as they see a word like look, they know it – because they have encountered it before and have learned it.

Phonics, on the other hand, starts not with the word or with meaning, but rather with the sounds and the letters that make up that word.

What is synthetic phonics?

Synthetic phonics takes the approach that words can be read (and written) by synthesising the word out of the smallest units that exist: the individual phonemes (which have already been learned). Just as the world around us is (so I’m told) made out of atoms, so every word around us – spoken or written – is made out of phonemes and graphemes.

A key plank in the synthetic phonics approach is that graphemes, phonemes and GPCs have to be learned before the child starts reading. Further, many advocates of synthetic phonics argue that, when a child is reading, all texts presented to the child should contain only those grapheme-phoneme correspondences that the child has already met and learned. If the child knows their GPCs, and if they are given texts that are fully decodable by them (i.e. only contain the known GPCs) then, it is argued, that child should be able to read that text with the greatest possible success.

Such an approach lends itself to systematic progression: as the child learns more graphemes, phonemes and GPCs, so the complexity of the texts that they can read successfully (i.e. decode) increases.

What is analytic phonics?

Analytic phonics is an alternative phonics-based approach, where words are broken down, or analysed into their phonic components. The main difference between analytic phonics and synthetic phonics is that the latter places all the emphasis on learning the GPCs before embarking on reading, so that, in theory at least, children never encounter words that they cannot decode, or read. Analytic phonics, on the other hand, is used more as a tool to decode unfamiliar words. There is therefore a greater emphasis in analytic phonics in using a variety of reading techniques, including developing a sight vocabulary.

So whereas synthetic phonics builds up, or synthesises, analytic phonics breaks down, or analyses.

Why the fuss about synthetic phonics?

One of the biggest problems with learning to read is that it’s not actually a very scientific process. We can’t really say when any particular child (or adult) can read – we end up using qualifiers such as ‘reading well’, ‘coming on’, or ‘reading fluently’, and we also can’t be sure in our teaching that jumping through a specific number of hoops, however carefully defined, will achieve the desired outcome. Children have an annoying habit of being different from each other: they have differing ability levels, differing aptitudes and learn in a variety of different ways.

Education policy is generally dictated by the government, and education has been for years a key political battleground. It seems to be the primary job of governments these days to change things and the teaching of literacy has not been immune.

The result over the past decades, in the UK at least, is that approaches to teaching literacy, at the policy level, have been fairly plural (or lax, depending upon your point of view). Some clarity emerged in 2007 however, in the UK at least, with the publication of the Rose Report, as it is known, which recommended that all schools should adopt a synthetic phonics approach in teaching basic literacy. This report was produced as a result of evidence from a study carried out in Clackmannanshire, in Scotland, which showed that synthetic phonics-based teaching led to better reading and spelling than the analytic phonics approach. At the same time, the UK government published Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007, available online). 

Thus, at the time of writing, synthetic phonics is the obligatory way forward for the teaching of reading skills in UK schools. However, just to make it clear, teaching using the Letters and Sounds programme is not obligatory. Schools are required to teach synthetic phonics in a systematic way, but they do not need to use Letters and Sounds. They could use any of the (many) commercially available synthetic phonics teaching programmes as an alternative to Letters and Sounds (or use one of their own devising).

So it’s all done and dusted, then?

So synthetic phonics has won the battle, and is entrenched as the only way to teach reading? So our children are all now reading ‘effortlessly’ (as I heard one leading politician describe it when the Rose Report was first published)? The reading problem is solved?

Well, no. And just to throw a line to those who are seething with frustration at what they have read so far, let me quickly say the following (and this gets very subjective):

Synthetic phonics is a ‘good thing’ (to quote Sellar and Yeatman) but it is not without its problems and limitations:

  • Many children do respond well to the rigour of a synthetic phonics approach. But it is not a magic bullet and there are children for whom it does not really work, and who need additional approaches.
  • There is also some evidence that, in the drive to decode texts, meaning is often lost: children can read the text, but they do not really absorb or understand what they have read. In fact one teacher I know (a firm advocate of phonics-based teaching) dismisses a ‘pure’ synthetic phonics approach as no more than ‘barking at print’.
  •  English is not a highly regular language, and therefore not all texts in English are fully decodable. This problem comes in two parts.

First, there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, but in fact there are at least 44 phonemes in English (regional accents can throw in a few more). So that throws up the question of how to depict the 18 or more sounds for which there is no letter? The answer of course is to use combinations of letters, such as sh (as in short), ch (chop), th (throw) etc., to indicate these additional phonemes.

The second part of the problem – and this is where it gets particularly tricky – is that English is not regular. There are lots of funnies. The sound ai (as in maid) for example can be written as a_e (made) or ay (hay) or ey (fey) and so on. The ough sound in though can change to through by the simple addition of an r. Then there is ought ... – and so on.

The simple point is that synthetic phonics cannot by itself teach children to read every word that they encounter with immediate success. English is too irregular and there are just too many exceptions to be able to apply universal rules. As a result, children need to – and do – fall back on other techniques to help them work out the meanings of texts. These techniques include developing a sight vocabulary and inferring words from context (e.g. illustrations, other words in the sentence, etc.) – a kind of intelligent guesswork, underpinned and informed by their knowledge of synthetic phonics.

(Some teachers do not accept that children develop a sight vocabulary as they learn to read. If that is the case, then I feel that we need an explanation as to how boys who can barely read anything are able to spot the words Tyrannosaurus Rex in the dense text of a book on dinosaurs, or young supporters of Bournemouth Football Club can find their team listed in a newspaper’s league tables.)

So synthetic phonics has its place, and it is a very important place. But it has not replaced all the other tricks and techniques that children use to help them read, and, in my view, nor should it.

Stephen Rickard is Creative Director of Ransom Publishing Ltd. He regularly writes and presents on issues surrounding literacy and reluctant/struggling readers.