Synthetic Phonics is a part to whole approach to teaching phonics. Students are taught that sounds are represented by letters (PART) and that letter sounds can be blended together (or synthesised) to form words (WHOLE).
Synthetic Phonics differs to traditional phonics in several ways
Synthetic Phonics directly teaches students the alphabetic code. Over the early primary years, students are taught the various ways the 44 sounds which make up the English language, can be represented by letters and combinations of letters (e.g. students are initially taught that the long sound is represented by ai, then over time other representations are also taught, including ay, a_e, ey,eigh etc)
Synthetic Phonics teaches these sound letter correspondences in a systematic and ordered way, following a defined sequence.
Synthetic Phonics focuses on sounds all through the word, rather than initially focusing on first sounds only. In addition, students are taught to blend and sound letters all through the word, which enables them to read and spell words quickly. Students learn that letters correspond to sounds, letter sounds can be blended to form words and words can be spelled by sounding out and building a sequence of letters corresponding to the spoken sounds.
Hence phonological awareness in an integral part of synthetic phonics and the critical skills of phonemic awareness, sound-letter correspondence, blending, segmenting, and letter formation are developed within a synthetic phonics program. In addition, opportunities to develop reading fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension should also form a part of a balanced synthetic phonics program.
Why Synthetic Phonics?
English is an alphabetic code and therefore Synthetic Phonics, with its emphasis on teaching students sound-letter correspondences, is vital for literacy instruction, however “phonics is a means to an end not an end unto itself”. The ultimate goal of any literacy program is for students to become “skilled and motivated readers who read thoughtfully and purposefully for an array of purposes”.
The research consistently supports Synthetic Phonics, with its strong code emphasis, as the most effective method of literacy instruction.
As a result of synthetic phonics emphasis on the sounds all through the word and the skills of blending and segmenting, students experience less confusion between letters and sounds and have advantages in reading recognition, reading accuracy, reading fluency, spelling, reading irregular words and sight words, reading comprehension and phonological awareness skills.
In addition the research has found these gains are maintained and in fact increase over time. The synthetic phonics approach is as effective for students at risk of literacy failure as it is for their peers and some research has suggested boys have a slight advantage over girls in spelling and reading comprehension when taught with a synthetic phonics approach.
As a result of the systematic and direct teaching of sound-letter correspondences and blending skills, a synthetic phonics approach leads to superior word reading (including irregular words) and a lower incidence of reading failure.
Early instruction in synthetic phonics provides students with the necessary skills to become fluent and competent readers and spellers at an earlier age than other approaches to teaching literacy.
As a result students can “more quickly go about the job of reading to learn” which is the ultimate goal of any literacy program.
When to Start?
Synthetic phonics can and should be introduced from the first years of formal education, usually from when the student is approximately 5 years of age.
How to teach?
Synthetic phonics needs to be taught systematically and explicitly.
The sound-letter correspondences should be introduced in a defined sequence with each step building on the previous. ‘Phonic and Sight Word Sequence’ provides content divided into different stages which can form the basis of a systematic phonics program.
Synthetic Phonics incorporates direct or explicit teacher instruction which is matched to the student’s developmental level and clearly outlines the lesson goals. Students are directly instructed on the sound letter correspondences (e.g. “CH makes a ‘ch’ sound”) and given clear, explicit models of how to complete activities using example words from their spelling level.
Explicit teaching is vital and leads to greater improvements in literacy development and decoding than practice alone.
Problems arise when teachers rely on individual work and worksheets alone with no direct teacher instruction. Good quality synthetic phonics spelling activities require teacher-student interaction and actively engage each individual student.
NOTE: Teach students to initially decode the structure of words, rather than just teaching them as sight words. This approach has benefits to long term reading accuracy and ability to read new words.