Synthetic phonics involves systematically teaching parts of words so that children can learn to read and write.
When students understand how to read letters and sounds, they can then put together words.
To start, we teach students sounds and their corresponding letters. For example we will encourage students to sound out, read and write word segments like:
- single letter sounds (a, e, i, o, u, m, c) etc.
- blends, digraphs and trigraphs (at, ch, oo, sh, ox, at, ing, ff(
Then we will encourage the student to stick all those segments together into a fluent word – “mat”, “chat”, “car”, “catch”, etc.
We call it ‘synthetic’ phonics because when we blend sounds together to make words, we are ‘synthesizing’ the words.
What is Phonics?
Phonics is one of the two major ways we teach people to read (the other way is called ‘whole language learning’). In the phonics method, we teach how to read words by focusing on word parts (like ‘ch’ and ‘ing’).
At the end of this article, I have provided a glossary of key terms in phonics to give you a simple outline of concepts like ‘phonemes’, ‘graphemes’, ‘consonant blends’, etc. – you can jump there now.
What is Synthetic Phonics?
There are many different types of phonics. Probably the two major ones are ‘synthetic’ and ‘analytic’ phonics.
In analytic phonics, we will present students with a word before breaking it down (start with the whole and move to the parts).
During analytic phonics, we will also encourage students to take guesses and use context to guess a word and its phonemes. In the analytic method, will also teach spelling and reading separately.
We call it ‘analytic’ phonics because students are analyzing words to find the parts of the word (which is the opposite of the synthetic method – which involves putting parts together to get the word).
By contrast, synthetic phonics focuses on explicitly teaching phonemes and graphemes before blending them to teach words. Phonemes are taught before students learn the words.
The synthetic approach teaches all the parts of the word, step-by-step. There is no guess work.
Synthetic phonics is widely recognized as the best approach to phonics. It is also known as:
- Inductive phonics
- Blended phonics
In the synthetic method, we are very systematic. There is no guess work, and spelling and reading are taught together. The week that we teach how to read and say ‘ch’ is the same week that we teach how to write ‘ch’.
Synthetic vs Analytic Phonics Comparison
|Synthetic Phonics||Analytic Phonics|
|Starts from word parts and builds them up to the whole.||Starts from whole words and breaks them down to parts.|
|Explicit and rote learning of the rules of English language.||Learning the rules of language through inference and exposure to words in books.|
|A focus on coding and decoding.||A focus on creating meaning from texts.|
|Children learn through systematic learning of phonemes and graphemes.||Children learn from patterns, rhyme, and analogy.|
|Enables reading to occur without understanding context.||Allows for guessing and inference from context.|
1. Going from the Part to the Whole
The most significant difference between synthetic and analytic phonics is that synthetic goes from part to whole, while analytic goes from whole to part.
So, in an analytic approach, we will be saying “Let’s look at the word Pool. How can we break this word down?” And then you and the students will analyze the word.
But in a synthetic approach, we will be saying “Let’s create words with the grapheme / phoneme ‘oo’. How about this one ‘p’, ‘oo’, ‘l’. What word are we making?”
So, we are focusing on constructing language from the ground up, rather than trying to decode language (words) that have already been constructed.
2. Systematic Progress from Easy to Hard
In the synthetic method, we teach phonemes and graphemes rapidly. We will spend time with our students going through each phoneme and grapheme one by one and practice them together.
The synthetic method is structured and systematic. It should progress from easiest sounds to hardest:
- Students will start with single letter sounds, learning sounds like ‘a, e, i, o, u’
- Students will then learn consonant blends (two or more consonants together that make a blend of two sounds) like ‘bl, br, cl, dr, fr, tr, fl’
- Students will then learn consonant diagraphs (two or more consonants together that make one sound) like ‘wh, sh, ch, th, ph’
- They then learn vowel diagraphs (two or more vowels together that make one sound) like ‘oo, ee, oa’
- They then learn trigraphs (three letters together that make one sound) like ‘ing, ong, igh, air, ear, ure’
Advantages and Disadvantages of Synthetic Phonics
- Widely regarded as the most effective way of teaching to read: Study after study (Rise & Goswami, 2008; Rose, 2006) has shown that synthetic phonics is the best way to teach reading. The US, English and Australian governments have all endorsed it as the best method for teaching reading.
- Very Explicit: Students aren’t left to guess or left behind, because each step is very explicit and clear for students.
- Helps students learn to code and decode language without context: The synthetic method thoroughly reinforces language codes (phonemes and graphemes) so people can learn to read without having to rely on images or context. By contrast, the analytic and whole learning methods focus on decoding language using context and exposure.
- Teaches reading and writing in unison: Unlike the analytic method, the synthetic method teaches children to read and write at the same time. A child who can read words would also be able to write them.
- Decontextualized learning: While the embedded phonics approach teaches phonemes and words based on books that the class is reading, the synthetic approach does not embrace text immersion – reading texts comes later.
- No Focus on Comprehension: Critics highlight that the synthetic method fails to teach reading for meaning or comprehension – the only focus is on being able to read individual words. (Meaning-making would come later in a synthetic curriculum).
- Whole-Class Rote Learning: Critics also emphasize that synthetic phonics courses involve a lot of repetition and rote learning in whole-class situations, which runs counter to 21st Century theories of learning that highlight the importance of active phenomenon-based and play-based learning.
Synthetic phonics is widely regarded as the best way to teach reading and writing. It is widely used in school systems around the world. Its defining feature is that it teaches from parts to the whole. This is in contrast to other methods like analytic phonics and whole language learning which teach from the whole to the part.
Rose, J. (2006) Independent review of the teaching of early reading (Nottingham, DfES Publications).
Wyse, D., & Goswami, U. (2008). Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading. British Educational Research Journal, 34(6), 691-710. Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01411920802268912
Wyse, D., & Styles, M. (2007). Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading: the debate surrounding England’s ‘Rose Report’. Literacy, 41(1), 35-42.
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’.
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]