Synthetic Phonics

What is ‘synthetic phonics’?

All ‘phonics’ involves teaching letter-sound correspondences. The adjective ‘synthetic’ refers to the fact that children are taught to ‘synthesise’ (i.e. put together or build up) pronunciations for unfamiliar written words by translating letters into sounds and blending the sounds together (‘blending = ‘synthesising’). ‘Analytic’ phonics focuses more on the analysis of words after they have been identified in some other way – for example by being supplied by the teacher, recognised as 'sight-words' or guessed from pictures or context.

Synthetic phonics is particularly appropriate at the very beginning of children’s schooling, when virtually all written words are unfamiliar and the children need a simple and clear introduction to the underlying principle of alphabetic writing: written symbols represent individual speech-sounds. It is in the very first term or so that the differences between synthetic phonics and other approaches are clearest – note that the synthetic phonics programme in Clackmannanshire lasted just 16 weeks. Some key differences can be considered under the headings below.

Number of strategies taught for the identification of unfamiliar printed words: [Note that for beginners all printed words are unfamiliar.]

·        Synthetic phonics starts beginners off on words containing only the simplest letter-sound correspondences and teaches the children to read at every point by translating letters into sounds and blending the sounds all-through-the-word. New correspondences are introduced rapidly, including more complex ones, but just one strategy is taught.

·        By contrast, the NLS teaches a four-strategy approach for the identification of printed words from the start. ‘Phonics’ is one of these strategies: the other three are ‘grammatical knowledge’, ‘word recognition and graphic knowledge’, and ‘knowledge of context’. Use of pictures for word-identification purposes is also mentioned in some NLS documents. What is envisaged is well illustrated by comments made to the Education Select Committee on 8 December 2004 by Dr Kevan Collins, Director of the Primary National Strategy. He said that children might use their phonic knowledge ‘to get the first consonant’, but that they should also use ‘the context, maybe the picture, the evolving story. They use their syntactic knowledge, the kind of grammar and pattern of English, and they use their graphic knowledge’. [This mixture of strategies would be unheard of in a synthetic phonics classroom.]

Time-scale for teaching letter-sound correspondences:

·        Synthetic phonics teaches all (or most) common letter-sound correspondences in a matter of weeks. This is essential, because children have no other strategy than sounding and blending to use in identifying unfamiliar words.

·        By contrast, the NLS takes several terms to teach some common letter-sound correspondences (e.g. those involving long vowel-sounds are taught in Year 1 Term 3 – the sixth term of school for many children). There is less urgency to cover letter-sound correspondences quickly because children are expected to rely on the other three ‘searchlights’ to identify many unfamiliar words. [It should be noted, however, that two of the ‘searchlights’ (grammatical and contextual knowledge) require surrounding words to be read fairly fluently, so these ‘searchlights’ must be of limited use while word-reading skills are limited.]

 

 

Blending (synthesising):

·        Synthetic phonics teaches children to blend in order to arrive independently at a pronunciation for a printed word. The teacher does not pronounce the word for them because the point of blending is to allow them to work the word out themselves.

·        By contrast, the NLS version of blending involves the teacher telling the children the spoken form of the printed word, then getting them to break it into sounds, then getting them to match letters to those sounds, then getting them to blend the sounds back into the word-pronunciation. [See NLS paper for the March 2003 DfES seminar.] This gives the children little practice in using blending to work out words independently.

Book-reading:

·          Synthetic phonics does not expect children to read books until they are competent enough at phonic word-reading to make book-reading feasible.

·          By contrast, the NLS expects children to read books from the start, despite the fact that most can read very few words.

‘Sight-words’: 

·        Synthetic phonics starts introducing a few high-frequency words containing irregularities (e.g. ‘the’, ‘was’, ‘said’) only after beginners have mastered the technique of reading simple regular words by translating letters into sounds and blending the sounds. The children’s attention is also drawn, however, to the parts of irregular words which are more regular – i.e. the parts which incorporate letter-sound correspondences which they know.

·        By contrast, the NLS introduces many high-frequency words as wholes from the start so that the ‘word recognition’ searchlight can operate.

To sum up:

It is not true to say that the NLS uses a synthetic phonics approach – it has far too many non-synthetic-phonics elements. It is more like the approach used with the Clackmannanshire control groups than the approach used with the experimental groups, for example in its pace of teaching letter-sound correspondences, its focus on analysing words after they have been identified rather than synthesising to identify the words in the first place, and its teaching of sight-words from the start.

Does the NLS produce better results than genuine synthetic phonics at Key Stages 1 and 2 in England? Results from schools such as St Michael’s (Stoke Gifford) should be compared with those being obtained in ‘statistical neighbours’ using a pure NLS approach. St Michael’s is an outstanding example of a synthetic-phonics school with a large intake (about 90), with children entering school with relatively poor language skills. In 2004, it had 94% of children reaching Level 4 or higher in English at Key Stage 2 (national figure 77%) and 65% reaching Level 5 (national figure 29%). As the Key Stage 2 reading test is a comprehension test, these results suggest that the strong synthetic-phonics start, which is then built on appropriately in subsequent years, produces not only excellent word-readers but also excellent comprehenders.

 

Jennifer Chew

March 2005

 

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