- What is it?
Synthetic phonics is an approach to teaching reading which seeks to consolidate letter sounds first, before blending these sounds together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words.
s (as in ‘sun’)
mm (as in ‘comma’)
ai (as in ‘brain’)
rh (as in ‘rhyme’)
dge (as in ‘bridge’)
eigh (as in ‘weigh’)
ough (as in ‘dough’)
- What are the potential benefits?
a) This method demands explicit, discrete teaching of each individual sound within the English alphabetic code; not just the 26 letters, but the 45(ish) sounds – (additions include extras such as: oi, or, er) and 150+ spellings (e.g. r, rr, rh, wr). Synthetic Phonics provides a comprehensive toolkit for readers of all abilities, to be able to decode unfamiliar words rather than trying to teach endless individual words or to pick up clues around the word, which can often lead to multiple errors or guessing attempts.
b) EAL students often show rapid improvement through this approach, and therefore unlock access to the rest of the curriculum. Since EAL is an entirely different ballgame to SEN, it’s no surprise that these pupils make obvious gains very quickly once they’ve grasped the core patterns of the English language.
c) In comparison to its shifty cousin, ‘analytic phonics’, this approach does not rely on a learner being able to understand the context of the sentence it resides in, in order to decode (read) the word itself.
- What are the potential drawbacks?
a) Some fail to acknowledge the necessary bridge between teaching the sounds and reading fluently. Unless you commit to modelling how to blend sounds within a word, learners will take much longer to read with increased fluency. Demonstrating how to blend sounds, e.g. in ‘b-r-i-dge’ and ‘ch-oi-ce’, will develop stronger readers.
b) Our beautifully rich English language is bittersweet. We’ve conquered, stolen and borrowed so many words from so many places, cultures and eras that our alphabetic code is now a picture of perfectly ordered chaos.
What this means in reality is that spelling feels impossibly difficult for weaker readers. While synthetic phonics has done wonders for reading in KS1&2, unless teachers are persisting to teach spellings explicitly and frequently, learners will employ their decoding knowledge to attempt encoding (spelling) words. It feels comfortable to the novice writer To do so but, until they’ve had repeated exposure to high frequency words and phrases such as the example in the image below, and have been taught root patterns of specific sounds*, those wonderful phonic skills that enable one to read doesn’t always directly translate to spelling.
*See root spelling video of the word ‘one’ here.
- What about older students who’ve not succeeded with phonics previously?
I view this from a pair of rather binary binoculars. If synthetic phonics works for so many in so many places and with so many contributing factors to their learning journey, I can’t subscribe to the notion that this method would work with the majority but not the remaining few. I’ve taught synthetic phonics for a number of years to students with a wealth of different learning needs, and not once has this approach been unsuitable. Considering what we know about the learning process, (e.g. that VAK is RIP) it seems counter intuitive to suggest that some suit this method and others don’t. The pace and dynamics of the group may change, but the key here is to ensure that older students are included in the conversation, with transparency around why this is not a ‘baby-ish’ concept and how vital it is for learning and life. Greg Ashman’s post, ‘Phonics is like a vaccine‘ articulates this point brilliantly.
- What about comprehension?
This aspect of the eternal phonics debate is widely and wildly misunderstood. Skeptics, haters and change-dodgers use this as an excuse to abandon synthetic phonics. In my experience, the practice of phonics does not directly improve understanding, except that it absolutely does.
1. Learn sounds
2. Decode whole words
3. Increase fluency to read whole sentences, passages, pages, chapters, books…etc.
4. Greater exposure to text – repeated exposure to new vocabulary
5. Increased comprehension. For me, this area is a non-argument. A parallel claim would be to argue that learning to walk does not improve dancing. Until you’ve put one foot in front of the other on repeated occasions in a number of different settings and on a number of different surfaces, moving at different speeds, there’s no way you’d be able to seduce with a steamy rumba or master the Macarena.
- How is it embedded?
Just as you wouldn’t take dancing lessons without a regular chance to dance, or attend football training sessions without frequent opportunities to play in a match, synthetic phonics won’t get you very far unless you have plenty of opportunities to read. And it’s both the interest level and the quality of text that really matters. Doug Lemov’s work on choosing rich texts full of challenge is comparable to none – see here. Early readers (at whatever age) will benefit from easily decodable books, moving onto simple chapter books and then increasing the difficulty level beyond that. Investing in the daily habit of reading will maximise the impact of synthetic phonics. Class readers, group reading sessions, parental engagement in reading at home and independent reading opportunities are crucial in cultivating enthusiastic readers.
For safety’s sake, I’m going on the assumption that there may be some readers arriving at this post who would appreciate a simple definition of some of the key terminology used around this topic. I’ve listed these in an A4 document which you can download by clicking here: Glossary of Phonics Terms JM.
If you don’t need it, skip it. Any terms in the post that are in bold are listed in the glossary.
The legendary debate regarding the best approach to teaching reading has been around for as long as I can remember. It has particularly been warming up over the past few years, however, not least because of its heightened publicity in the media around the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check. (I’ll briefly touch on this to conclude, though pedagogy is my primary focus here.) There are a number of different camps that plausibly offer their own valuable ‘fuel’ to keep the metaphorical ‘phonics-or-no-phonics’ fire aflame though, for me, a couple of these camps have their tent pegs more firmly hammered into the ground than others.
In this post, while I’d like to think I have the burning magical powers to unite all parties involved, successfully luring both phonic-lovers and phonic-haters to join hands and chant ‘Kumbaya’ (or ‘mm’, ‘igh’, ‘ah’ if you like), beneath a starlit sky through the irresistible offer of a simple but decadent s’more (Google it – you’ll want one, and then ‘s’more’…), leading all to unanimously accept that my way of thinking is the only way, it won’t happen. Call me a pessimist (or preferably, a realist) but there are some firm roots beneath the feet of those who are used to their own familiar way of teaching reading to take a risk just yet.
Until then, I’d like to make the case that synthetic phonics is invaluable in teaching students how to read and is unparalleled in its ability to teach the various explicit phonemes (heard sounds) and graphemes (spellings) within the English language. While I stand firm to this, I’d also assert that this single method, while incredibly powerful, is not sufficient on its own without its partners in crime analytic phonics and embedded phonics, though am confident they should only come into play as a means to apply the synthetic phonic knowledge learned.
Historically, a number of different approaches have been trialled in the teaching of reading, including the alphabetic code where students learn the sounds of each letter of the alphabet in order, learning the capital and lowercase symbols at the same time as the sounds. Students would first learn letter names, subsequently being taught their sounds. This, interestingly, was the method used in schools at the time when I was taught to read so, while it must have worked for me, I’m not sure it is the best-fit model across the majority of students in this country. Other approaches include the ‘look and say’ method and the ‘whole word’ technique, both of which encourage the repetition of a single word until it is learnt.
In recent years, the government has pushed for a ‘phonics-only’ approach, which teaches children to decode words through knowing the make up of individual sounds, rather than recognising the whole word at once (the “Say What You See” method, if you like). This method of synthetic phonics relies on words being broken up into the smallest units of sound (phonemes). So, for example, in the word ‘church’, there are 6 letters but only 3 phonemes: ch / ur / ch and, in ‘dough’, 5 letters but 2 phonemes d / ough.
There are, undoubtedly, many benefits to teaching reading using the phonic principle. If a student has mastered a sound correctly, e.g. knowing that the combination of ‘p’ and ‘h’ will make a ‘f’ sound, the scope for using this knowledge is mammoth. Phonics is invaluable. The application opportunities of this approach are great, with students being able to use this newfound awareness to break down a wide range of both familiar and unfamiliar words. Once learnt and embedded, the 44 phonemes (sounds) created by our 26 letters of the English alphabet, offer readers the freedom to decode hundreds and thousands of words that follow the same pattern.
Tim Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education at University of Illinois, Chicago has written a short series of four articles on Literacy, entitled ‘Teaching My Daughters to Read’. In his third post, which focuses on phonics, Shanahan suggests that:
‘Memorizing some words is always part of beginning reading, but reading is more than memorizing words.
Phonics both reduces students’ reliance on word memorization and makes such memorization easier. It accomplishes the former, by allowing students to sound out words that are yet unknown. Phonics allows the young reader to approximate the pronunciation of a word from nothing but the letters on the page, a liberating tool.
But phonics instruction also sets students off on trying to figure out and use the spelling patterns in text. Those patterns are not usually used to “sound out” words in any obvious way (except initially), but learning them does seem to increase how quickly and easily students come to “remember” words. Initially, children struggle to remember words, but as they learn the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relations the words get stickier—they seem to stay in memory with much less work.’
In line with my comments above, Shanahan agrees that, while memorising words is one technique that would eventually transfer knowledge into the long-term memory, it is not the most thorough approach to teaching reading or the most efficient. In the same way that I argue that teaching root words and their meanings is the best way forward for teaching vocabulary in a recent blog post (see here), I also believe synthetic phonics can have an incredibly powerful impact on students’ ability in the decoding and spelling of words. By learning the 44 phonemes of the English language and the various ways to spell them (which reaches up to the heights of over 150 variations!), we are giving students a ‘tool’ to be able to tackle any word they might encounter. To my mind, when I consider the students I currently work with in KSs 3 & 4, this approach has resulted in a reduced anxiety for so many as, like any individual approaching a job they are uncertain about, if they are well-equipped to complete the task, they can tackle the job feeling adequately prepared. The weaker readers I work with are presented with multiple opportunities to rehearse blending the isolated sounds they have already been taught. It seems to be this, rather than memorising individual words, that gives them far greater confidence in reading as, through this approach, they find themselves armed with the skill set to be able to decode both familiar and unfamiliar words.
Shanahan’s full article can be found here:
If there is one thing that remains certain while the debate continues, it is vital that whatever method is being used to teach reading must be regular, consistent, and systematic in its approach. I feel a little uneasy when I think there may be schools delivering phonics in a way that isn’t supporting memory retention, e.g. not recognising the benefits of repetition and offering frequent opportunities for application. I would even go so far as to say that, I suspect for those schools where phonics has not had a significantly improved impact on student learning, additional obstacles could include the consistency of delivery perhaps not being as regular as required, or there may be an underlying lack of confidence around the teaching of phonics, possibly due to staff members not being supported with adequate training. I say this only because I have seen the immensely positive effect that synthetic phonics has had on students across KS1, 2 (ranging from the very weak to the very able), and weaker readers at KS3 & 4. While wholly aware that every student brings a different attitude and context to the learning environment, as a pedagogical approach to teaching reading I cannot see why synthetic phonics would not work for the majority of our students.
A bold claim, I realise.
In December last year, the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) published a paper looking into the view on phonics of teachers within the classroom. The report, ‘Phonics instruction and early reading: professional views from the classroom’, offers a critical analysis of current approaches to the teaching of reading, making use of government documents and professional literature, drawing on the views of respondents to the 2013 NATE survey on phonics instruction and early reading. In its discussion, it states:
“No respondent to the survey regards phonics instruction in early years education as unnecessary, and there is significant support for the view that phonics should be the prime focus of teaching beginning readers. Several people agree with the assertion of the DfE evidence paper (DfE 2011a) that the ability to decode grapheme/phoneme correspondences is the first requirement for success in reading. Some respondents who work with children with special learning difficulties believe that early phonic instruction is particularly important for the progress of such children. A large majority of both infant and junior teachers report positive effects on their pupils’ writing and spelling, and about a third of each group report positive effects on pupils’ comprehension and higher reading skills.”
The findings of the survey, completed by educationalists whose business it is to teach students how to read, clearly support the notion that synthetic phonics should be the leading approach employed within the classroom. The collossal benefits to outweight the drawbacks.
Those who oppose synthetic phonics assert that this method alone is not enough to enable a student to read. For example, if looking at the word ‘row’, one would not be able to tell whether they should read it as in the sentence ‘I am sitting in row 4’ or ‘There were two people on the bus having a row’. Similarly, with the sound ‘ough’, there are about nine variations in total…
Critics of synthetic phonics suggest that an additional element of whole sentence context is essential in teaching pupils how to read, in order to overcome issues around fluency and understanding. The NATE report goes on to say,
“But the view of more than two-thirds of respondents is that, while phonic decoding is an important part of learning to read, other strategies are also vital. More than a quarter of respondents emphasise the importance of reading for meaning, and there is much concern that an overemphasis on phonics leads to an unbalanced reading curriculum in which other reading skills such as prediction and contextual information are not taken into account.”
To me, synthetic phonics is the most foolproof approach and the best-fit model for the majority of students, so long as staff are given sufficient training and sessions take place regularly and effectively. However, perhaps anticlimactically, I agree with the findings of the survey outlined above, arguing that the grapheme-phoneme correspondence alone is not enough to teach the art of reading. Opportunities for application are a must, including having a range of books accessible to students that still generate a love of reading and maintain an interest in the exploration of our diverse language. Scaffolding student learning is important of course, especially in the very early stages, but I see this freedom to read books of interest alongside the teaching of phonics as a necessary chance to apply knowledge to real-life situations. A text that provides the reader with both a challenge but also the chance to achieve mini successes too sounds like a healthy balance to me.
ONE WORD OF WARNING: DON’T JUDGE A STUDENT BY ITS COVER.
A strong ability in decoding and fluency does not necessarily equate good comprehension too.
These more refined skills still need to be taught and rehearsed with students. There is often a level of inference and deduction that is written into the most simplest of story books and students need to begin to learn how to identify the different layers of a text in all its glory. However, this should come secondary to the explicit teaching of the isolated sounds. At least from this point, students then possess the necessary foundation on which to develop more advanced tools when looking at a text.
It is a fair point to raise that in recent years, since the Government’s push for phonics in KS1, we have seen growing numbers of students entering KS3, identified through our thorough baseline testing who, while they may be able to decode words accurately, they fail to grasp the full meaning of what they are reading. This is why I believe that the whole phonic picture – the synthetic (isolated sounds) and the analytical (teaching sounds within context) and, indeed, the opportunities for application, need to be intertwined when teaching reading to our students.
Unsure of which has been going on longer
– the phonics debate or this blog post –
I’ll end here
I have one concluding comment that I’m conscious may ignite the rousing flame once again over the ‘Should the Y1 phonics screening check be scrapped?’ debate, but my simple answer is:
Following the open letter that was addressed to Nicky Morgan, requesting for the Phonics Screening Check to remain (see links below), I have researched heavily around the test. On reading the opposing views which highlight concerns around teachers teaching to the test, a heightened student anxiety, the use of nonsense words, undetected comprehension issues etc. I would still support the screening check. Having seen students enter KS3 unable to read (and even some in the first year of my role reaching Year 11) and seeming so demoralised that they cannot sufficiently decode even the most common of words independently, I’m convinced that any early assessments that provide an indication of how students are performing in comparison to their peers can only be a good thing. Many of the students I talk about here are incredibly bright students, held back throughout their education only by their inability to read and spell, not having been identified earlier.
Looking at the guidance sent out to schools, administrators are directed to ensure that students do not see their ‘screening’ as a test in any way (though I recognise is difficult when you have multiples of 30 children to listen to). While there will always be inevitable drawbacks to a national test, I would propose that for this purpose, a standardised measure might be the best route forward for identifying students for concern. However, it will only have a positive impact if schools actually make use of the information, informing their future teaching based on the results of the screening check. I would also claim, in line with comments made previously in this post, that an assessment which measures not only decoding but comprehension too would be the best way to identify a weakness in reading. This, I believe, would allow us a greater chance to catch those students who tend to fall through the net when they are younger, thus reducing the number of students who have to battle through their education years with underlying difficulties around reading and comprehension, liberating those who possess all the other learning skills to succeed.
If you’re interested and want to know more, here are some links you might like to explore:
Open letter to Nicky Morgan:
DfE Phonics Screening Check Information: