Phonics is the method for teaching reading or writing in which the sounds or phonemes associated with the individual letters or graphemes are combined to make a word (O’Donnell et al, 2016. p. 331). Phonics is an important educational tool for developing early literacy. There are two major methods educators use for phonics instruction and these are the analytic and synthetic phonics approaches (Get Reading Right, n. d. ).
The two methods for phonics instruction will be explained, moreover, the problems with analytic phonics will be highlighted and the case will be made that teaching phonics is most effective if instruction is grounded in synthetic methods. Effective methods using synthetic phonics will be discussed for years K-1. Traditionally, children were taught phonics via the analytic phonics method which has the child ‘analysing a whole word’, taking clues from recognition of the word, the initial sound and the context (Get Reading Right, n. d. ).
Analytic phonics teaches children that there are phonic conventions among words and children are taught to analyse letter-sound relationships (Cox, n. d. ). For students to begin to learn analytic phonics they must first know every letter in the alphabet and the sounds associated with these letters and be able to identify these sounds at the beginning, middle and end of words (Cox, n. d. ). For example, if we show a child the words: “bat, “cat”, “fat” and “hat” then reading “mat” should be easy (Cox, n. d. ). There are many issues that stem from using analytic phonics that make it less effective than systemic.
There is a mountain of evidence that supports synthetic phonics over analytical. In a study conducted in 2011, 10-year-old boys and girls were taught to read using the analytic and synthetic approaches to early literacy programs (Johnston, McGeown, Watson, 2011). The study found that overall, the group that was taught using the synthetic method outperformed the analytic group in word reading, spelling and comprehension (Johnston, McGeown, Watson, 2011). It was also found that the synthetic approach that teaches students early on to blend letter sounds for reading unfamiliar words showed no evidence of impairment in reading irregular words.
A meta-analysis conducted by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development further supports these findings (National Reading Panel, 2011). What is also important to note is that using the analytic approach has shown to disadvantage boys compared to girls in terms of comprehension and spelling whereas the boys performed as well if not better than girls using synthetic approaches (Johnston, McGeown, Watson, 2011). Overall, Johnston, McGeown and Watson’s (2011) study found that the synthetic phonics approach outperformed analytic approaches for all students over all literacy areas.
To strengthen the thesis, it is important to understand why synthetic methods are superior. Decoding is one of the first ways that analytic phonics can be used. Decoding is a technique whereby the relationship between letters and sounds to recognise printed words is taught (Partners in Reading – San Jose Public Library, 2014). For example, if we have the vowel /o/ and an assortment of different sounds, students can make the word /cl/o//w/’cow’, ‘cot’ and ‘wow’. This is an example of consonant-vowel-consonant word recognition and manipulation that should be explored in K-1 (Tompkins et al, 2014).
Synthetic methods teach each sound individually so children are capable of making new words from any letters like analytic but would also understand important combinations of consonants to make sounds and words (National Reading Panel, 2011). Moving on from single letters, analytic phonics uses chunks of letters to teach phonics. According to ACARA in year one students should be able to listen to and recognise ‘letter patters and sounds in words’ (ACARA, 2015). Analytic phonics uses word families such as rimes to show children that the same pattern is used in many words (Hill, 2012).
The 37 most commonly used rimes identified by Murphy (1957) help to recognise 500 of the 1437 words commonly used by children in primary grades. This technique is called learning words by analogy and it uses parts of words that children already know to help identify words they are unfamiliar with (Partners in Reading – San Jose Public Library, 2014). For example, if we have the word ‘file’ then learners may know similar words such as: ‘pile’, ‘exile’, etc. (Partners in Reading – San Jose Public Library, 2014).
Synthetic Phonics, again, teaches all sounds individually so there is no need for analogy, children use known sounds to decipher words (National Reading Panel, 2011). Synthetic phonics differs from analytic in several key ways. As mentioned, a synthetic approach to phonics teaches the relationship between individual sounds or phonemes and their letters or letter groups (Phonics International, 2011). There are approximately 44 phonemes and synthetic phonics teaches to first split up the spoken word from beginning to end identifying the phonemes and graphemes that correspond to the sounds and then blend the sounds to read a word (Cole, 2013).
Children are also taught that the alphabetical code is reversible using the synthetic approach, if students can read words they can also write them (Get Reading Right, n. d. ). Arguably, the most important difference is that the pronunciation is not misunderstood as often because individual phonemes are examined by students and thus they can decipher longer and more complex words using their knowledge of phonemes (Get Reading Right, n. d. ). Consider the words: “kiss”, “place” and “sell”, all words have the /s/ phoneme but have different spelling (Get Reading Right, 2005).
Based on these factors and the evidence of it’s success we should consider how to implement a synthetic phonics approach for years K-1 as this is where the foundations of literacy are developed. The phonics that is covered in each year level should be appropriate to the students age and thus it is important to follow a strict teaching system. Figure 5. 6 of Tompkins et al, (2014) gives clear guidelines as to what sounds should be introduced to students at each year level. In the years K-1 ld be introduced to the common and uncommon consonant sounds as well as the five short vowel sounds (Tompkins et al, 2014).
In year one the focus is on consonant blends, consonant diagraphs, long vowel sounds and common long vowel diagraphs (Tompkins et al, 2014). It is important to look at these more difficult sounds taught by experienced professionals. An educator at Ilsham C of E Primary Academy in Torquay UK conducted a play based lesson in the video titled: Literacy: a non-negotiable – Reception: Establishing foundations (Ofsted, 2013a).
In the first part of the lesson the teacher uses a synthetic approach to phonics when sounding out each individual letter on the board at 0:50 while the children read along demonstrating that the goal ACARA sets of children ‘understanding the knowledge between sounds and letters’ is being fulfilled (Ofsted, 2013a). At 5:30 the educator conducts a play based lesson that has children choosing different objects, and spelling them by sounding out the word (Ofsted, 2013a). This lesson challenges students to spell an assortment of words using the technique of sounding out the phonemes and writing the corresponding graphemes.
This synthetic method strengthens writing as well as reading. An educator teaching a year one class at Tollgate Primary in Newham UK was ensuring that his class was confident in their use of diagraphs in the video: Literacy: a non-negotiable – Year 1: Building on firm foundations (Ofsted, 2013b). The lesson was explicit in the way it told the students what the different spellings for the sound was. Using this explicit way of teaching clearly explains what the lesson is trying to teach the children, gives them a clear understanding of what is expected of them and encourages them to apply their learning to write.
What is also important to note is the way the teacher told the children to underline all of the sounds in the story they had written which moved along the learning and is a good way to gauge the children’s understanding of the concept of phonemes (Ofsted, 2013b). It is important to use a variety of resources when teaching synthetic phonics. Using resources such as sound cards that children can use to blend together and create recognisable words is a fantastic way to help children grasp the concepts of phonemes, blending sounds and reading.
Other activities that can help teach synthetic phonics are games such as the fishing for sounds game, reading stories and many more activities based on using the individual phonemes for learning to read and write. Early on it is important to assist in children’s understanding in the classroom as is shown in the video A Synthetic Phonics Lesson in Action where the teacher says a word and the students are asked to give the individual sounds that make up the word (Get Reading Right, 2015).
This early instruction by teachers accompanied by helpful activities and resources pushes children to grasp these concepts at a very fast rate. Overall, using different phonics approaches to effectively teach phonics is likely not the most effective way of teaching phonics. For the majority of students, the synthetic method is the most effective and this statement is backed by overwhelming evidence and a mountain of research.
This essay highlights that a systematic synthetic phonics approach is the most effective method. By using synthetic phonics through K-1 to teach children the 44 phonemes and the associated graphemes, how to blend these sounds and writing words based on these sounds, children are given the best chance to develop high level literacy skills early. If phonics instruction is grounded in explicit formal and play-based learning that is grounded in the synthetic approach, then phonics is being taught most effectively.