The 4 Types of Phonics, Explained! (2020)

types of phonics Phonics is a type of language instruction that involves breaking words down into their parts. It helps children learn to code and decode language in written words. The codes of our language are phonemes (spoken sounds) and their associated graphemes (the letter combinations that represent sounds).

Children need to learn all 44 phonemes and graphemes in the English language so they can decypher language and, therefore, read!

Phonics is the dominant method of teaching reading around the world.

There are four major types of phonics:

  • Synthetic phonics
  • Analogy phonics
  • Analytic phonics
  • Embedded phonics

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Types of Phonics

1. Synthetic Phonics

Quick Summary: Focuses on explicit instruction of phonemes and blending them to construct words. It is the most direct and structured method of phonics.

Also known as: Direct Phonics

summary of synthetic phonics

Synthetic phonics starts with teaching phonemes and then progresses to teaching full words. It always starts with systematically teaching phonics beginning with explicit instruction about the 44 phonemes and graphemes in the English language. This first stage of instruction usually involves whole-class explicit teaching lessons and a great deal of repetition of phonemes.

As children progress, educators focus on blending phonemes to build words. Synthetic phonics therefore often gets the nickname of the ‘blending and building’ approach.

Synthetic phonics is the compulsory mode of phonics teaching in England, Australia, Germany and Austria (Machin, McNally & Viaregno, 2018).

How Synthetic Phonics is Taught:

Students quickly learn all 44 phonemes through whole-class direct instruction. The phonemes and graphemes are taught in isolation, not as parts of words.

As students become more competent with each phoneme, the teacher creates structured lessons that involve blending phonemes to create full words.

For example, if students know the basic single-letter phonemes (a, b, c, d, e, etc.) and some basic two-letter phonemes (at, it, ing), they can start blending them to form words like: cat, mat, fat, hat, sat.

Pros

  • Structure: It provides a very structured introduction to reading. This structure ensures no phonemes or graphemes are missed and students get thorough instruction.
  • Good for Manipulating Language: The focus on blending and building words using phonemes helps children when they come across (or need to write) unfamiliar words. They will be very used to the process of blending phonemes to create words.
  • Research Backed: Research consistently finds it to be the most effective method of teaching reading.

Cons

  • Whole Class: Learning of phenomes and graphemes tends to be done through whole-class instruction rather than differentiated and individualized.
  • Decontextualized: Phonemes and graphemes are learned out of context and disconnected to words. This may confuse students and make them unsure about the purpose of the lesson.

2. Analytic Phonics

Quick Summary: Focuses on deconstructing words to identify phonemes. Starts with familiar words and breaks them down into their parts.

Also known as: Implicit or Integrated Phonics

summary of analytic phonics

Analytic phonics starts with familiar words that students have learned by rote. Lessons then involve having the students decode and break down those words into their phonemes. Usually, the words that are analyzed have a beginning phoneme (onset) and an ending phoneme (rime).

Machin, McNally and Viaregno (2018) define analytic phonics this way:

“Analytic phonics does not involve learning the sounds of letters in isolation. Instead, children are taught to recognize the beginning and ending sounds of words, without breaking these down into the smallest constituent sounds.” (Machin, McNally & Viaregno, 2018, p. 221)

This approach is distinct from the synthetic approach because in the analytic approach phonemes are not taught in isolation. Further, the synthetic phonics approach of ‘blending’ phonemes to ‘build’ words is non-existent.

In short, the focus is on deconstructing language to identify patterns rather than constructing it.

How Analytic Phonics is Taught:

A teacher will present the familiar words, e.g: mat, fat, cat, hat, rat. The students then try to identify the phoneme ‘at’ within those words.

The teacher will then give children many, many examples of words that share a common phoneme / grapheme that is being taught. Through examples, the children will come to identify or ‘discover’ patterns in written language that helps them become more effective readers. The wide variety of examples can help children understand and get that ‘lightbulb moment’.

Pros

  • Teaches Sounds in Context: Sounds are learned as parts of words, rather than in isolation and decontextualized.
  • Starts with the Familiar: Teachers can start with words children are familiar with and use them as a springboard for further teaching.
  • Helps with Decoding New Words: While the synthetic method is all about encoding, the analytic method emphasizes decoding, which is great for reading new and unfamiliar words.

Cons

  • Uses Guess Work: Children often get away with guessing phonemes (and at times are encouraged to). They will know either the onset or rime, and guess the rest of the word rather than focusing fully on all phonemes in the word.
  • Some Students Slip Behind: Because instruction is not as structured and direct as in the synthetic approach, some struggling students could slip behind and not understand.
  • Not as Good for Constructing Words: The focus of this approach is on deconstructing rather than constructing words.

3. Analogy Phonics

Quick Summary: An approach to phonics that relies on using groups of analogous (similar) words to build a child’s reading vocabulary.

summary of analogy phonics

Analogy phonics is in reality just a form of analytic phonics. They both focus on whole words and then deconstruct them into their phoneme / grapheme parts.

What sets analogy phonics apart is that it attempts to build a child’s vocabulary of known words by introducing words that are analogous (similar). For example, a child knows the word ‘sing’ so you can by extension teach them the word ‘ring’.

Teachers will often create word families and focus on words within that word family – trying to build up that word family with as many words as possible.

How Analogy Phonics is Taught:

In my classroom, one word family that I work on is the ‘ing sisters’. The ing sisters are three words that get along and make the sound ‘ing’. We will talk all about the word sing and what it means. Then, I will extend the lesson out to learn other ‘ing’ words like ring, king, thing, cling, ping, bring.

Pros

  • Builds a Child’s Vocabulary: Starts with the familiar and builds on it to reach unfamiliar or less well-known words.
  • Helps Children Identify Patterns: The repetition and clustering of words helps children learn patterns in the English language.

Cons

  • Uses Guess Work: Children often get away with guessing phonemes (and at times are encouraged to). They will know either the onset or rime, and guess the rest of the word rather than focusing fully on all phonemes in the word.
  • Not as Good for Constructing Words: The focus of this approach is on deconstructing rather than constructing words.

4. Embedded Phonics

Quick Summary: Focuses on teaching phonics in authentic contexts. Lessons begin with a teacher reading a book and identifying teachable moments.

Also known as: Incidental Phonics

summary of embedded phonics

Embedded phonics involves teaching phonemes and graphemes when they arise in teachable moments in books. It focuses on learning to decode language during reading tasks, rather than through structured lessons. It emphasizes the importance of learning through context and ongoing exposure to words.

The embedded approach is often used as part of the whole language learning method, a largely defunct approach to teaching reading. Nonetheless, it remains a very valuable approach for teachers to use, especially when working one-to-one with a learner.

How Embedded Phonics is Taught:

At the start of an embedded phonics module, the teacher will do most or all of the reading. They will stumble upon phonemes / graphemes that are interesting or recur in the reading session and teach the children about them within the context of the reading session.

As children become more competent, the teacher will gradually release responsibility to the child. Teachers may sit with a child who is reading a text, and when the child comes across a difficult word, the teacher will use it as an opportunity to teach about the phoneme / grapheme that is of concern.

Pros

  • Contextualized: Students learn about words and how to decode them while reading actual books. They can use images and surrounding sentences to infer what a word might be.
  • Good for Practice: Once children have learned the basics of phonics, they need a lot of practice – and when they stumble upon issues, they need reinforcement on those issues. This is where embedded phonics is helpful.

Cons

  • Guess Work: When students look at context to understand a word, they are guessing rather than thinking about phonetics.
  • Can’t be Used in Isolation: It won’t work alone – at some point students need direct explicit and structured instruction.

Read Also: Best Toys for Learning Spelling & Writing

Final Thoughts

The different methods of phonics are differentiated on two axes: contextualization (learning phenomes in relation to words and texts, or as decontextualized sounds) and structured instruction (clear direct lessons vs. incidental learning). Synthetic phonics is the most structured but least contextualized method. Embedded phonics is the least structured but most contextualized method:

four methods of phonics instruction

Phonics is widely regarded as the best way to teach reading to a child. While most large-scale studies highlight that synthetic phonics is the most effective method, many educators believe all four types of phonics should be used in different contexts in the classroom for an integrated and holistic reading instruction approach. Some children may find that they have that ‘lightbulb moment’ from one of the other approaches. In particular, many believe educators should start with synthetic phonics and introduce other methods (analytic, analogy and embedded) phonics after the basics have been learned.

Read Also: The Importance of Reading & its Impact on your Future Success

References

Machin, S., McNally, S., & Viarengo, M. (2018). Changing how literacy is taught: evidence on synthetic phonics. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy10(2), 217-41. Retrieved from: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/846338/1/pol.20160514.pdf

Torgerson, C., Brooks, G., Gascoine, L., & Higgins, S. (2019). Phonics: reading policy and the evidence of effectiveness from a systematic ‘tertiary’review. Research Papers in Education34(2), 208-238.

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 Writing25(6), 1365-1384. Retrieved from: https://hull-repository.worktribe.com/preview/464932/Long.pdf

Johnston, R., & Watson, J. (2005). The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and
spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive Education Department.

Patrick, C. J. (2018). Developmentally appropriate spelling and phonics instruction and its impact on student level of orthography, decoding ability, and reading accuracy (Doctoral dissertation, Wittenberg University). Retrieved from: https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=witt1534160012802077&disposition=inline

Glossary of Terms

Phonics: A way of teaching students how to read. Its focus is on connecting sounds (phonemes) to their graphical representation as letters (graphemes).

Phonemes: The basic sounds that make up the English language.

Graphemes: The basic word combinations that refer to sounds (such as ‘oo’, ‘ee’, ‘bl’, ‘cr’, etc.)

phonemes vs graphemes

Onset and Rime: The onset is the first phoneme in a word, the rime is the final phoneme in a word.

Consonant blend: 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’.

Consonant digraph: Consonant digraphs are two or more consonants together that make one sound. They are sounds like ‘wh, sh, ch, th, ph’.

Vowel Digraph: Vowel digraphs are two or more vowels together that make one sound, like ‘oo, ee, oa’.

Trigraph: Trigraphs are three or more letters together that create one sound, like ‘ing, ugh, ate, ure, ear, igh’.

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