Different approaches to teaching phonics

Synthetic phonics

In the debate on the role and teaching of phonics, advocates of a ‘synthetic phonics only’ approach argue that the results obtained by such programmes are far in advance of those obtained by children using a mixed phonics programme (synthetic and analytic) or a mixed strategy approach (phonics as one of several reading ‘searchlights’). We will examine these claims, but first we must define the differences between synthetic and analytic phonics.

In synthetic phonics programmes, children are systematically taught the phonemes (sounds) associated with particular graphemes (letters). Children begin from hearing the phonemes in a spoken word and blending phonemes orally. In reading, individual phonemes are recognized from the grapheme, pronounced and blended together (synthesized) to create the word. For example, when encountering an unknown single-syllable word such as h/e/n/ the child would sound out its three phonemes and then blend them together to form hen. Blending is seen as a very important skill.

The skill of segmenting words into phonemes for spelling is also taught, and blending and segmenting are introduced as reversible processes. The order in which new phonemes are introduced and the speed at which this is undertaken are important (see following section). Synthetic phonics programmes emphasize decidable words and some proponents do not favour teaching other reading strategies or an initial sight vocabulary of high-frequency, non-phonically regular words in the early stages of beginning a synthetic phonics programme.