If you have been looking into the topic of teaching your child to read or if you are an educator, you may have heard of the term Synthetic Phonics.
In this article, I am going to explain what Synthetic phonics is. Besides, if after reading this article, you decide you want to go ahead and try the Synthetic Phonics approach to teaching reading, I will also share with you some valuable resources that can help you get started!
The synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading, when taught in a structured manner, has proven to be one of the most powerful methods for reading instruction.
Unfortunately, while it’s little by little gaining traction and popularity, it’s still not the way in which reading instruction is taught in many schools. The balanced literacy approach is still favored in the schooling system. Anyway, let’s leave it there for today! This would actually be a topic for another article!
The System Behind the Synthetic Phonics Approach – First Steps
The first key skill that children learning to read with this method have to develop is identifying the individual sounds that form words, being able to isolate those sounds, which is called “segmenting”, and also blend them together to actually form words.
For instance, the word cat is formed by the individual sounds /c/ /a/ /t/.
What I have just done is segment the word into its individual sounds. And when you blend them all together (or synthetize them) you get the word cat.
That is actually where the actual name for this system (synthetic phonics) comes from…
So, first of all, children learning to read using the synthetic phonics approach are trained on this type of skill.
While they are getting an awareness of the concept of sounds and how they blend together to form words and how you can also isolate them and play with them to form new words, they are introduced to letter names and sounds at the same time.
So, on a synthetic phonics program, they would learn that the letter A makes the /ah/ sound, and that the letter B makes the /b/ sound and so on and so forth. This way when they are exposed to simple words such us cat or dog, they will be able to decode them without problems.
However, we must not forget that English has only 26 letters, but 44+ sounds. In order to make up for those extra sounds, we use letter combination sounds, such us the combination of the C and H letters which normally represents the /ch/ sound, as in chat or church.
Synthetic Phonics Instruction – Introducing Letter Combination Sounds
Once they have grasped the concept of individual sounds and children have learnt the most common sounds that individual letters make, children are introduced to letter combination sounds.
The order in which the individual letters and its sounds are taught is not always in alphabetical order. Each program has its own order.
The order in which letter combination sounds are taught is again not always the same. Again, each synthetic phonics program has its own order and logic behind that order.
Normally, the logic behind this order is that children are introduced to the most frequently used sounds first, so that way they are able to decode and read more words from the beginning.
Also, when learning letter combination sounds, some synthetic programs may choose to only teach the most common sound or sounds for the letter combination sounds that they introduce first, or teach children all of them at the same time.
For instance, when introducing the C+H letter combination sound, which in 90% of the cases makes the /ch/ sound, one synthetic program could choose to only teach that sound I have just said /ch/. While another program could explain at the same time that that sound can also make the /sh/ sound, like in chef or machine or the /k/ sound, like in school or schedule.
Introducing Books on a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Program…
One of the most important things to remember is that the books that children are exposed to will be adequate for their level.
Say they have been introduced to the most common individual sounds that single letters make, plus a few letter combination sounds. The texts and the books that children will be reading at that point will contain words that can be decoded with that knowledge. That gives children a sense of accomplishment, and really consolidates their knowledge.
If we introduce too advanced books, it can be overwhelming. But, obviously, that doesn’t mean that parents can’t read more difficult books to their children.
But, all in all, when doing independent reading children will be exposed to these more advanced books gradually and in a systematic way.
Systematic Synthetic Phonics and English Irregularities
It is not common to find a reading program that is 100% purely synthetic phonics-based.
Many times synthetic phonics programs will use a combination of methods, as there is an argument that English is full of irregularities and that some words just need to be memorized, full stop.
While it is true that English has many irregularities, and that we find the same letters and the same letter combinations representing different sounds, it is also true that there are, rules patterns and tricks that can help children decode these words without the need of using memory or guessing.
This way the number of sight words is limited to a bare minimum.
For instance, with my daughter it was a game-changer when I taught her that when you have a word ending in -e you normally just drop the sound of the “e”, and that if you look at the word and find this ending structure “VOWEL, CONSONANT, LETTER E”, then you use the preceding VOWEL sound in its long form.
Long form, meaning that you basically say the name of the letter instead of the its sound.
Example: apple (short form) vs. kale (long form).
TIME, DATE, MATE, MAKE, LATE, MADE, RAKE… Are just a few examples of this “trick” I have just mentioned in play.
Now that you know this, you’ll see the pattern over and over in the English language.
With this little “trick”, my daughter is now able to decode an enormous number of words that before were classified just as sight words.
If you want to know more about the Synthetic Phonics program where I learned this trick, you can check this post.
The 44 sounds in English
If you are considering teaching your child with synthetic phonics, I think that it would be really useful for you to familiarize and have a chart of the 44 sounds of the English language, together with the different letters and/or letter combinations in which these sounds are normally represented graphically.
A word of caution here. This chart is for you to have as a reference. You don’t want to introduce all of this to your child at the same time. You want to introduce the sounds gradually, and in a logic way.
If you are interested in learning even more about this topic, I have left you some links with even more valuable resources below.
Only by knowing these things yourself, you will be able to teach your child.
Check out also our other articles about Phonemic Awareness, as this skill is key before even starting on a Synthetic Phonics program.
Arguments against the Synthetic Phonics Approach
To finish up, I would also like to talk about the criticism that the Synthetic Phonics approach for reading instruction faces.
Opponents against this type of learning sometimes argue that when you learn to decode the individual sounds of words, these sounds have no actual meaning, and that therefore that is not reading as you can’t possibly comprehend the meaning behind these individual sounds. A weak argument from my point of view, because when you put the sounds together you end up with words that form sentences that you can actually understand.
Also, sometimes children on whole word programs and more conventional learning to read training programs seem to be doing faster progress than children following a synthetic phonics system…
Unfortunately, in many cases as the difficulty and exposure to new words increases, the progress of these children on whole word programs’ really stalls, and they end up having reading and spelling difficulties. This is because they don’t learn a proper decoding system.
Children on whole word programs tend to really just rely on memory and guess work as their reading strategies.
These are strategies to get around, and not a proper decoding system.
Children on synthetic phonics programs learn a decoding system.
We must remember that reading is not natural, as some whole language advocates would want us believe. Modern scientific studies in the last decades have proven this over and over. Learning to read is about how to how to “crack” the code.
What children that appear to learn “naturally” are really doing is learning by themselves to crack the code, even if they are not given the proper instructions on how to decode the code. In other words, they are learning to read despite the lacks in their reading instruction.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with most children. Most children need proper instruction for learning how to decode.
And that is why 38% of all grade 4 students have reading abilities below the lowest basic level.
The reason why children on synthetic phonics programs could seem to go slower is because, as I explained before, children learning with this approach learn gradually and are only exposed to books that are in line with their phonics level.
Synthetic Phonics in a Nutshell
To summarize the 2 key pillars of synthetic phonics are: Segmenting and blending sounds.
When learning to read using synthetic phonics you always go from individual sounds to more complex sounds.
Children are not encouraged to look at the word as a whole, guess by looking at pictures or just look at the first letter of words and guess.This is actually another reason why children learning to read with synthetic phonics tend to become better spellers.