Synthetic Phonics – a ‘back to basics’ approach to reading?

We often hear people calling for a ‘back to basics’ approach in education. But is synthetic phonics really backwards-looking, or has it some new elements that differ from how reading was taught in the past?

Actually, there are quite a few marked differences between synthetic phonics and the phonics taught in the past. Here are just a few.

In the past, phonics was jumbled up with lots of other approaches.

These included looking at the shape of a word, using initial letters, using grammar and guessing with picture cues when reading a text. In synthetic phonics, the primary reading strategy is sounding out a word and blending the sounds together.

In the past, it was common to teach phonics as ‘onset and rhyme’.

Words were taught in word families according to their onset or their rhyme parts. For example, words with the onset ‘cl’ (such as ‘clap’, ‘cliff’, ‘club’ etc.) were taught together, or rhyming ‘at’ words (such as ‘bat’, ‘mat’, ‘sat’ etc.) were taught together. This meant that children had to remember two phonemes stuck together as a unit, which caused lots of spelling problems.

In synthetic phonics, every phoneme is sounded out. This means there is no unnecessary learning taking place, because children can blend phonemes in any combination. When spelling, they are encouraged to write a grapheme for every sound they hear.

In the past, only the simple parts of the Phonic Code were taught.

Children were left on their own to figure out the alternative spellings for vowel and consonant sounds (such as ‘ai’, ‘ay’, ‘ea’, ‘a’, ‘a-e’ etc.). This is quite a complex skill to expect of them.

Now, we teach the whole Phonic Code. We include lessons on alternative spellings for vowel and consonant sounds (Phase 5 of Letters and Sounds).

In the past, pronunciations of consonants were inaccurate.

Teachers and pupils added an ‘uh’ sound, such as ‘fuh’ for ‘f’. In synthetic phonics, children are taught precise pronunciation. This really helps them to blend sounds into words.

In the past, we referred to words like ‘home’, ‘made’, ‘fine’ and ‘rude’ as ‘magic e’ words.

The ‘e’ was said to change the vowel sound in the middle of the word. Now, we call this a split-vowel digraph. For example, ‘o-e’ (as in the word ‘bone’) is taught as ‘oe’ split to become ‘o-e’.

The phoneme is at the core of synthetic phonics. Children are offered lots of practice of playing with and manipulating sounds.

These are just some of the differences I can think of. If you know of others, click on ‘comments’ and add some more.

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