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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 47 back to contents
Synthetic phonics or systematic phonics? Felicity Craig

The RRF Newsletter is hugely exciting to read, because it is a catalogue of success.  We look back to the days when Mona McNee was battling tirelessly and almost single-handedly to bring the importance of ‘simple phonics’ to everybody’s attention.  Now Debbie Hepplewhite has taken up the baton, and more and more teachers are coming forward to endorse the effectiveness of rapid, systematic phonics teaching, from the start.  And more and more children as a result are taking possession of the world of written language.

So it seems almost churlish to quibble about a name.  But I think it’s worth doing, for all sorts of reasons. 

‘Synthetic’ phonics is ‘bottom-up’ phonics, when you start with the separate letters, and put them together to make words.  It contrasts with ‘analytic’ or ‘top-down’ phonics, when you start with whole words, and focus on the separate letters later.  We all know the Whole Language approach to phonics teaching has been disastrous, and this is supposed to be because Whole Language teachers use ‘analytic’ phonics, not ‘synthetic’.

The drawbacks of Whole Language phonics teaching

But I would like to suggest that the reason WL phonics teaching has had such devastating – even tragic – consequences is not that it is ‘analytic’, but that it has been incidental.  The entire focus has been on the meaning of the stories, sentences and words.  Separate letters are not meaningful, so are given even shorter shrift than separate words – they are useful only as occasional clues to the meaning of unfamiliar words.  Even so, WL advocates declare loftily that it is much better to use ‘context’ clues whenever possible – as ‘context’ has to do with meaning, which is where we came in.

The RRF rightly points out, in Newsletter 46 (‘In Conclusion’), that the DfEE Progression in Phonics is a mishmash because it is a cobbling together of advice from too many sources, not least from Whole Language ‘experts’.  So it accepts unquestioningly the idea that ‘meaning’ is all important, and phonics is only one ‘strategy’ among many for finding out that meaning.  This is why the NLS Progression in Phonics is such a slow and ponderous business, taking three years to cover territory that can be conquered quite easily in two terms or less.  (Newsletter 46: ‘A comparison between the pace of synthetic phonics teaching and the DfEE directives’.)

The purpose of phonics

I find the Whole Language philosophy quite exasperating in this respect because it has no idea what phonics is all about!  And yet the purpose of phonics is very simple.  We are teaching children to map spoken words onto written words, bit by bit.  As a result, they will be able to transfer meanings from familiar spoken words to unfamiliar written words, instantaneously.  (Since most children enter Reception Class with a pretty extensive spoken vocabulary, this has to be a good idea.)  But systematic phonics achieves something else as well – in the long run, even more powerful.  The more children read, the more they will learn the meanings of written words just by reading them.  If they have mastered phonics early on, they will be able to transfer the meanings of these familiar written words to their speaking vocabularies.  So it is precisely when children have used context clues to find out the meanings of written words that phonics comes into its own – because without it children will not be able to enrich their speaking vocabularies, as fluent readers-with-phonics have done since time immemorial!  I would hazard a guess that I learned the meaning of at least half or even three quarters of the words in my speaking vocabulary by reading them first.  We can tell when

children are doing this if they mispronounce words while using them correctly – e.g. my five-year-old daughter Helen informed her father one day that she didn’t think he would look very nice with a ‘mowst-ake’ (moustache).  But such mispronunciations are the exception.  Most words transferred from reading are pronounced correctly, so we don’t always notice what is going on.

Teaching the procedure by the tallying approach

Once we have identified phonics as a matching process between written and spoken words, we can describe the teaching of phonics rather differently.  The procedure is very straightforward, and has only three steps, which are the same for all words, no matter how ‘irregular’ a word might seem to be. 

We are teaching children to map spoken words onto written words in such a way that the first sound in the spoken word maps onto the left hand edge of the written word, the last sound maps onto the right hand edge, and the middles map onto each other, bit by bit.  In practice, we teach children to operate on the written word from left to right, blending the sounds as they go along, but the above description summarizes neatly how the written and spoken words fit together.  (For some words, however – e.g. ‘thought’ – it is more helpful to match the beginnings and ends first; then the bits left over, in the middle, have to match with each other.)

Because the first step in the procedure shows children whereabouts in the written word the initial sound maps on, we start with whole written words.  There on one page is a picture of an apple, and the word ‘apple’ appears twice, in large letters, on the page opposite – once with a small ‘a’, and once with a capital.  Small ‘a’ and capital ‘A’ are also printed by themselves, underneath the picture:

(All the ‘a’s are printed in red, and the rest of the letters in some other colour.)

The children can learn the mapping procedure in about thirty seconds.  “That’s a picture of an apple, isn’t it, so this word says ‘apple’ and this word says ‘Apple’.  The first sound in ‘apple’ is ‘ă’ – can you hear it? – and that ‘ă’ sound goes with this red letter over here.  It also goes with this red letter, which is a capital Ă.  And this letter by itself says ‘ă’” [pointing to the ‘a’ underneath the picture] “and this one says ‘Ă’.”

Of course, once you have learned a procedure, you have to practise it until it becomes automatic.  So the children now go on to practise the same procedure with the other twenty five letters of the alphabet.  Long before they reach ‘z’, though, they can learn the next two steps by sounding out, and writing, words composed of the letters already introduced.

This takes approximately six weeks.  Two-letter sounds (ai, ay, au, aw, ch, ea, ee, er, ir, ur, ar, or, ew, ng, oo, ou, ow, oa, ph, sh, th and ui) are covered in the second half of the first term, and the story of ‘Alphabet Magic’ (about the ‘magic’ letters e, i and y) in the second term.   By the end of the third term, the children are reading and writing anything they want to, at their interest level.

A side-by-side approach

I call it the ‘Tallying’ approach to phonics (which describes exactly what is happening – we are ‘tallying’ spoken words with written words, sound by sound).  It isn’t really a ‘bottom-up’ or a ‘top-down’ approach, but a side-by-side one, so I just use the word ‘systematic’ rather than either ‘synthetic’ or ‘analytic’.  (Both the terms ‘synthetic’ and ‘analytic’, I believe, blur our perceptions of the procedure which is actually taking place.)

What’s in a name?

Am I splitting hairs, or is ‘tallying’/‘systematic’ a much more helpful description of a very effective way of teaching phonics?

I believe it is.  For a start, it helps us to convince Whole Language teachers how crucially important it is to teach phonics, rapidly and thoroughly, from the very beginning, without abandoning the use of ‘real books’, again from the start.  (Several WL primary schools, in Scotland, are excitedly following my ‘Tallying’ approach, with promising results.) The approach and materials are easy for parents to use, again alongside reading ‘real books’ to their children, if they wish.

Seeing how phonics enables children to transfer meanings from written words to spoken words, as well as vice versa, can help us to use systematic phonics to teach deaf children to talk (more of this in later Newsletters, I hope). And emphasizing that phonics is simply a matter of ‘tallying’ written words with spoken words enables us to explain just why the procedure is so important for dyslexic children.  Yes, dyslexia is a real, physical condition, giving rise to a sensory blockage – but phonics enables dyslexic children to bypass the blockage; so it prevents dyslexia from causing literacy problems!  (This is why good phonics teachers often think that dyslexia is much rarer than it actually is: because their excellent teaching has prevented it from affecting their pupils’ ability to read and write.  See, for example, Irina Tyk’s article in Newsletter 46.) 

For more information contact: Felicity Craig, One-to-One Publications, 33 Newcomen Road, Dartmouth, Devon TQ6 9BN.  Tel: 01803 834270.




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