Analytic vs. Synthetic Phonics – What is the difference? Which one is better for your child?

It may be that your child is learning to read at school and you have been told that on the curriculum they have some phonics instruction. Or maybe you are just trying to figure out what is the best way to teach your child to read…

Whatever your personal circumstances, after reading this article, you will be able to know tell the difference between these 2 ways of teaching phonics, and will have a clear understanding of which one makes more sense for your kid.

The 2 Phonics Methodologies: Analytic vs. Synthetic Phonics

If you have been researching about phonics instruction, you may have noticed that this is a huge topic and that there are in fact many different methods for teaching phonics within the phonics system itself.

The two most popular phonics methodologies are: Analytic and Synthetic phonics.

However, you must know that, even though they both have the “label” phonics attached to them, they are in fact really different in their approach to teaching reading.

Analytic phonics is named after the word “analyze” because that is precisely the core of what you ask the child to do. Analyze the words that he or she is presented with.

When you are analyzing words you are basically doing detective work, and looking for clues and cues. These cues can be:

  1. Graphic cues (what do the letters tell you about what the word could be?)
  2. Syntactic cues (what kind of word could it be, for example, a noun or a verb?)
  3. Semantic cues (what word would make sense here, based on the context?)
  4. Initial sound cues (look at the first letter of the word – do you know the sound that that letter makes? If so, put together all of the cues  and make a guess).

As you can see, phonics itself occupies makes up only for a tiny portion on this type of decoding system.

Also huge emphasis is put on the initial sound of words. You basically look at the first initial sound and guess, as I explained, based on the rest of the clues you are presented with.

This is radically different to a synthetic phonics approach, in which every phoneme is important, regardless of its position on the word structure.

Focus on the sounds vs. focus on the letters

On Synthetic Phonics program children are taught the 44 sounds of the English language and introduced in a systematic way to the possible ways those sounds are represented.

Think of the sound /f/, as in the first sound of the word fit. This sound can also be represented  “ph”, as in the word “photograph,” “gh” as in the word “laugh,” or “ff”, as in the word “cliff.”

So, when you use a synthetic phonics approach, you focus on the sounds of the language and  teach the different ways in which these sounds can be represented.

You go from the part to the whole. From the individual sounds in words (phonemes) to the words.

In synthetic phonics, children learn the connections between the letters and the sounds of spoken language. Children are trained to identify and segment the individual sounds in words, and learn how to put all of the sounds together (or synthesize them) to read words.

With the Analytic Phonics approach, it is the other way around. You work from from the whole to the part (from the words to the sounds).

Children are shown whole words and asked to analyze the words and reach their own conclusions.

For instance, they could be presented with the following words: “moon, mat, mice, man.”  The teacher would read the words out loud, or there could be a picture next to the words, so children can figure out what the words are, since reading starts before sound-letter correspondences have even been taught. The idea is for them to learn and notice that all of these words start with “m”, therefore “m” must represent the /m/ sound. 

Without proper training around sound-grapheme correspondences and explanations around rules/patterns, reading can get extremely confusing very soon, as the same phoneme be represented in so many different ways (think of the previous example – fit, laugh, phone, cliff) and the same letter or group of letters can also represent different phonemes (right, laugh, ghost).

Unfortunately, not all children  pick up the implicit rules and letter-sound correspondences so easily, without explicit instruction.

Sounding out words

A Synthetic Phonics method places a lot of emphasis on the teachers pronouncing the phonemes correctly, and sounding out words correctly. By the way, if you are interested in this specific topic of  how to sound out words correctly, check this youtube video about how to sound out words correctly.

On the other hand, on an Analytic Phonics approach, there is no so much emphasis on the individual sounds, as words tend to be looked as a whole. You will encounter many educators that will add the /uh/ sound when teaching letter sounds, which is a habit that causes lots of problems when you actually try to sound out words.

In fact, sounding out words correctly is at the core of the Synthetic Phonics approach.

Children are first told to segment the words (that is, recognize the individual sounds in words – for instance, the word “chat” is formed by the phonemes /ch/ /a/ /t/).

And then, on a more advanced level, they move to blend the sounds: push them all together (or synthetize them) to actually read the word.

When to start with Phonics Instruction? Synthetic vs. Analytic Phonics timings

When can you start with a synthetic phonics instruction?

In general children are ready to start from an earlier age. However, in order to put together all the clues that the analytical phonics approach relies on, you need a certain degree intellectual maturity.

So, this approach wouldn’t work with really small children.

The spelling approach

On an Analytic Phonics program, spelling is tackled separately.

However, children on a Synthetic Phonics program learn to read and spell at the same time.  Remember that they are looking at every single phoneme in words as they are decoding, placing the same level of importance to each individual sound as they are reading.

On an Analytic Phonics program, they are just looking at the first sound and looking at the word as a whole. That is why spelling needs to be tackled separately.

On an analytical phonics program, you focus a lot on rhymes and what we could call “families” of words. For instance, the family of words ending up in -at, such us cat, pat, rat, mat, fat, bat. You focus, as you can see, on the whole of the word.

Tackling exceptions and irregularities

Exceptions and irregularities are also taught in the same way on a Analytic Phonics program.

For instance, say you are reading a book with the child and he or she has to read the word “small” – you explain how to read this word, and teach the student that this word belongs to let’s call “family of words”, all of them with the same ending pronunciation and the same way to represent such pronunciation: tall, call, fall, mall…

On a Synthetic Phonics system, children are introduced to books that are appropriate for their level. They reinforce this way what they know at that point and only move to the next level once they have really mastered the previous stage.

On an analytical phonics system, there is no so much stress on this, as much of the learning is actually done in an incidental way, so it is actually even assumed and expected that the child will encounter words he or she won’t be able to decode.

That is where the cueing system comes into place.

I have gone over now the main differences among the 2 approaches.

If you want to know even more about the synthetic phonics approach, check this post!

Free Resources

Phonemic Awareness Activity Worksheets
Nursery Rhymes Ebook
44+ English sounds chart
List of CVC Words

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3 replies on “Analytic vs. Synthetic Phonics – What is the difference? Which one is better for your child?”

Veronique Chapmansays:

O dear, traditional phonics was a mixture of synthetic and analytic. It had nothing of whole language strategies in it at all . No three cueing , no guessing, no use of only the first letter, no pictures to guess from, nor emphasis on context for recognizing the word. It was systematic ,and structured with readers that had a controlled vocabulary both phonically and for sight words. Whole language didn’t become popular until mid to late 20th century so obviously analytic phonics originally did not have any of its ideas in it . Educational historians have written of how modern synthetic phonics have failed to consider the original traditional phonics sometimes in order to sell their products . I do concede analytic phonics did morph into something alien with its incorporation of W. L ideas but that was not the case originally. This confusion and ignorance has done considerable harm to the phoneme and phonological awareness,and phonics cause weakening the mission to have all children read which traditional phonics did .I have communicated with leading phonic academics who agree both are needed and W L influences ousted .

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