Different approaches to teaching phonics

The debate

There is quite a bit of debate on the relative effectiveness of the two different methods of teaching phonics, synthetic and analytic phonics.

Crudely put, synthetic phonics is about sounding out and blending, while analytic phonics is about perceiving patterns and drawing inferences. In addition, synthetic phonics has come to be associated with small phonological units (phonemes) linked to letters.

Analytic phonics has come to be associated with large phonological units (onsets and rimes) also linked to letters and letter strings. However, at least one significant researcher in the field rejects this alignment, claiming that the onset-rime research has nothing to do with analytic phonics. The alignment stems from the claims in some psychological research that knowledge of small phonological units, more specifically phonemic knowledge, is a better predictor of success in reading than knowledge of large phonological units (more specifically onsets and rimes). This finding has led to a corresponding polarisation of teaching methods.

Research at the University of York shows that phonemic awareness is an excellent predictor of early reading skills; while  measures of onset-rime awareness are weaker predictors. This work also claims that explicit phoneme-level training is more effective than rhyme-level training in improving reading attainments in children deemed to be at risk of reading difficulties. The Scottish research in Clackmannanshire, referred to already, which was set up to assess the relative merits of synthetic and analytic teaching approaches, highlights the value of explicit phoneme-level training linked to letters. Other research too makes similar claims about the relative effectiveness of synthetic phonics over analytic phonics (e.g. Stuart, 1999; Macmillan, 2002; Chew, 1977). So it would seem that an emphasis on small phonological units, specifically phonemes, is important and this is in line with an emphasis on synthetic phonics. Jolly Phonics embodies these ideas.