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 backward looking or has it some new elements which 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 a few:

1. In the past, phonics was jumbled up with lots of other approaches: looking at the shape of a word, using initial letter, 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.

2. 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 all the ‘at’ words (bat, mat, sat) were taught or ‘cl’ words were taught (clap, cliff, club) together. This meant that children had to remember 2 phonemes stuck together as a unit. This caused lots of spelling problems.

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

3. In the past, only the simple parts of the Phonic Code were taught. Children were left to figure out the alternative spellings for vowel and consonant sounds on their own (e.g. ai, ay, ea, a, a-e etc.) and this is quite complex.

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

4. In the past, the pronunciation of consonants was inaccurate. Teachers and pupils added an ‘uh’ sound e.g. ‘fuh’ for ‘f’.

Now children are taught precise pronunciation which really helps them blend sounds into words.

5. In the past, we called words like home, made, fine and rude – magic e words. The was said to change the vowel sound in the middle of the word.

Now we call it a split vowel digraph. E.g. ‘oe’ is taught as ‘oe’ that was split and became o-e like in the word bone.

6. The phoneme is at the core of Synthetic Phonics and children are offered lots of practice of playing 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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