- 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.
On Saturday 28th March, I was invited to speak at a conference organised by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF). The purpose of the event was to highlight the vital importance of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)*. A great variety of speakers with different areas of expertise were asked to talk on the subject and it seemed many fruitful conversations were had by those who attended. I was invited to talk about my decision to use SSP with secondary school students within SEN, which will be available online shortly.
Systematic Synthetic Phonics (or SSP) is a structured, repetitive approach to teaching reading with a total reliance on the smallest units of explicit sounds – in both spoken form (‘phonemes’) and written form (‘graphemes’) – to teach reading. This method usually starts with the most common sounds and moves through to more complicated ones e.g. knowing a ‘dge’ makes the same sound as a ‘j’, and a ‘tch’ makes the same sound as a ‘ch’.
This is in contrast to analytic phonics, where students are often asked to read beyond a difficult word to the end of the sentence, then attempt to guess it using contextual clues. This approach, while helpful in the opinion of some, does not develop the reading skills of a student nor help them learn explicit sounds, since they have simply guessed the word through their understanding of the rest of the passage. This also often has negative impact for those new to English, since their knowledge of vocabulary at entry point to the UK is minimal, so there are flaws in the reliance of a guessing technique.
While I have been aware of the benefits of using a structured approach to reading for a long time, it has made me more sure than ever that this is the most targetted, reliable, efficient and, without wishing to go overboard, moral way to teach reading.
Unfortunately, official governmental guidance does not stipulate that a single methodical approach to teaching reading is key though does advise this. For me, a directive which would acknowledge the necessity of teaching reading through SSP would be a great step towards ensuring that far more students might have the opportunity to learn to read before they leave primary school.
Not to add fuel to the fire in the debate around the phonics screening check at the end of Year 1, but I am a keen and outed supporter. Ensuring that any individual has a good grasp of the fundamental skills of reading and writing can surely only be a good thing.
With my SEN head on, however, there seems to be a flaw in the system. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of it is as follows:
The DfE website states that:
… And after that? What happens then?
If, as educators, we acknowledge that children physically grow at different rates, mature emotionally at different times and adopt new knowledge at different speeds, is it okay that we let so many fall off the radar beyond Y2 simply because their learning of our complex alphabetic code has not fit into our man-made termly organisation?
There seems to be a black hole for those students who have not grasped reading by this point and, in my opinion, this could be one key factor contributing to the situation I’m faced with as Literacy Leader of a secondary school, welcoming in substantial numbers of students arriving in Y7 who are still unable to read. Pass at Y2 or branded SEN. Hereth begineth the dreaded ‘gap’.
I have no doubt that schools in the majority do their best to scaffold the learning of students who fail to pass the phonics check at Y2. It is our moral obligation to ensure that our learners are equipped as best as possible for the education journey they walk. However, there are questions we need to be asking here:
- What does the research suggest and how are we applying it to our own classrooms?
- If there are so many students failing to grasp reading across the UK, are we really using the most suitable approach that meets the needs of ALL our students?
- How else can we support students beyond this stage if they haven’t learnt it by the end of Y2?
- Have we done all we can to ensure this student is able to access the curriculum?
Disclaimer: I have been a primary school teacher. I have seen the amazing job that primary school teachers do, day in, day out. This post is by no means an attack on the teachers who deliver phonics to younger students. My intention is simply to verbalise my thoughts on the current situation I observe from a secondary perspective and explore ways we might overcome some of the flaws in the system.
If we are to see illiteracy in the UK reduce by any significant measure, we have a duty to ensure that:
- the most targetted, research-based, fail-proof, methodical approach to teaching reading is employed
- ALL students are supported to a point where they are able to read and write independently as early as possible (and beyond!)
By achieving these two points above, I am almost certain that we would see numbers of those arriving at secondary labelled as ‘SEN’ dramatically decrease, since there would have been no gap (or at least a much smaller learning gap) to close. I’m sure we would begin to witness less students arrive at secondary who are clearly able in many areas of the curriculum, extremely competent in verbal responses, but branded with a ‘Specific Learning Difficulty’ in reading. I do acknowledge that there will always be some level of need in this area, which is likely to extend to education in the older years. I do also recognise, however, that we are clearly doing something wrong at present and, until it is addressed and corrected, we are failing a great number of our students.