Analytic phonics involves teaching children to read through word association, rhyme and identifying similarities between words.
In analytic phonics, we focus on grouping words that are similar and memorizing word groups (mat, cat, fat). In synthetic phonics, we focus on constructing words from scratch (e.g. ‘m + at’ = ‘mat’).
Most scholars argue that a synthetic approach is best (see: Johnston, McGeown & Watson, 2012), although in reality teachers embrace a range of analytic and synthetic methods when teaching reading to children.
What is Phonics?
Phonics is a form of teaching how to read by breaking words down into their constituent parts. Spoken word parts are called ‘phonemes’ and written word parts are called ‘graphemes’.
The phonics method is all about showing children how to decypher and decode written words. To do this, we need to show children how a sound (or ‘phoneme’) is represented graphically (its corresponding ‘grapheme’).
Here is an example:
The sound ‘a’ (spoken – i.e. said out loud) has a corresponding symbol (grapheme) – ‘a’.
There is a glossary of key words (grapheme, phoneme, rime, onset, etc.) at the end of this article – feel free to skip to the glossary now.
What is Analytic Phonics?
Analytic phonics is a type of phonics that starts at the word level and then deconstructs the word by looking for its constituent parts.
It is juxtaposed to synthetic phonics which starts at the phoneme level, and blends phonemes to create words.
In practice, this means teachers will teach differently:
Teaching the Analytic Method
A teacher using the analytic method will point to a word (let’s say, “cat”) and say “Does this look like another word you you? Does it look like mat, or hat? What is similar here?”
Teaching the Synthetic Method
A teacher using the synthetic method would point at the word and say “Let’s break this word up. What’s the first letter? C? Okay. And this grapheme (pointing at that ‘at’ part) – do you recognize this?” Here, the student is not learning a word through association to another word. Rather, they are learning to construct the word by looking directly at how the phonemes have been blended together.
Key features of the analytic phonics method include:
1. Learning through Association and Rhyme
The premise of the analytic method is that students will be able to spell out words that they may have never seen before, because they have seen similar words. If a child comes across a word that ends in ‘oat’, they will be able to see that it sounds like a word they are familiar with – like ‘goat’. So they will know that the word rhymes with ‘goat’.
2. Using Context, Inference and Guessing
Students are encouraged to think about the context of the text they are reading. If a student is reading a book about animals and they come across a word ending in ‘oat’, they will be encourage to think about animals that end in ‘oat’ in order to identify what this word might be.
3. A focus on Onset and Rime Patterns
The analytic often focuses heavily on two-part words which contain an onset and rime. An onset is the first part of the word and rime is the closing section of the word.
Here is an example for the word ‘pool’:
- Onset: ‘p’
- Rime: ‘ool’
If a student can read the rime or the onset, this can help them guess at the other half of the word.
**Note that for the synthetic method, a great deal more focus will be on explicitly constructing ‘at’ words in writing and vocally before reading full words is introduced – and reading them from books would be delayed even further. This is because the synthetic method is about constructing words from their parts while the analytic method is about deconstructing words that are found in context.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Analytic Phonics
Analytic phonics is widely seen as less useful than synthetic phonics. Nonetheless, it can be very valuable and useful as a tool for learning. In reality, most teachers use a blend of analytic and synthetic methods to support their students.
- Students use Context to Learn: Most 21st Century teaching methods encourage students to look for context to help them create meaning. The analytic method is consistent with this focus on using context to learn.
- Immersion: Students learning while ‘doing’. They learn while reading and by engaging with many different books, rather than spending time memorizing onsets and rimes.
- Focus on comprehension: Students are encouraged to think about the meaning within a text from a very early age.
- Helps Sight Reading: Students tend to learn to read common words by sight and don’t need to deconstruct the rimes and graphemes every time.
- Not good for Struggling Students: The analytic method has much less guidance than the synthetic method. Strong students tend to thrive, while weaker students often require much more guided practice than is provided in the analytic method.
- All Sounds are not equally Important: In synthetic phonics, all sounds – the onset and rime – are equally important. In the analytic method, a student might know one part of the word and infer the rest, without really knowing or understanding it.
- Students struggle to Manipulate Phonemes: Often students will struggle turning one word to another by manipulating the phonemes, e.g. turning ‘run’ into ‘ran’. The synthetic method is much more explicit in its instruction, which helps promote phoneme manipulation much faster.
- Promotes Guessing: Guessing can be good for learning, but excessive reliance on guessing may undermine actually learning the rules underpinning language structure.
- Relies on Sight Reading: While sight reading is a good thing, students need to actually understand the rules of language (which is the focus of the synthetic method) rather than just memorizing words.
Analytic phonics often gets a bad name as synthetic phonics is much more ‘in vogue’ among current researchers. Results seem to suggest that a synthetic approach does achieve great results. However, strategies like identifying rhyming patterns, similarities and context should not be dismissed. Some students may take to these methods and excel from an analytic approach.
Bald, J. (2007). Using Phonics to Teach Reading & Spelling. London: SAGE.
Johnston, R. S., McGeown, S., & Watson, J. E. (2012). Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls. Reading and Writing, 25(6), 1365-1384. Retrieved from: https://hull-repository.worktribe.com/preview/464932/Long.pdf
Glossary of Key Terms
Here are some key terms you’ll need to understand when exploring phonics learning:
Phonemes are spoken sounds. When we tell students to ‘repeat after me: ch, ch, ch’, we’re asking children to create phonemes with their voice.
A grapheme is the written representation of the sound. When we tell students to ‘write down ch three times’, we’re asking children to create graphemes with their pens.
3. Single Letter Sounds
Single letter sounds are the first sounds we teach. They are sounds like ‘a, e, i, o, u’.
4. Consonant Blends
Consonant blends are two or more consonants together that make a blend of two sounds. They are sounds like ‘bl, br, cl, dr, fr, tr, fl’.
5. Consonant Diagraphs
Consonant diagraphs are two or more consonants together that make one sound. They are sounds like ‘wh, sh, ch, th, ph’.
6. Vowel Diagraphs
Vowel diagraphs are two or more vowels together that make one sound, like ‘oo, ee, oa’.
Trigraphs are three or more letters together that create one sound, like ‘ing, ugh, ate, ure, ear, igh’.
8. Onset and Rime
The ‘onset’ is the first section of a word. The rime is the follow-up section. In analytic phonics, we often teach words that share the same rime all at once to reinforce a certain grapheme (such as ‘ing’).
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]