Synthetic phonics instruction
The term “synthetic” refers to the process of synthesising, or blending individual sounds together. In synthetic phonics programs, children practise blending as soon as they know letter-sounds that blend together to make a word.
This approach helps children understand very early how the reading / writing process works; that it requires blending together and pulling apart the sounds of the language.
Common letter combinations, such as double letters, digraphs, and common patterns like -ble are taught in a similar fashion, with the focus on rapidly teaching children how to blend individual or combination sounds together to make words.
An important part of synthetic phonics programs is the use of decodable books – specially constructed short texts made up of words that the children can decode and high frequency sight words that children have been taught simultaneously. This gives children the opportunity to practise many examples of words representing a particular phonic or spelling pattern and so “cement” their new knowledge.
Decodable texts should be regarded as a short-term strategy to build the automaticity and fluency required for reading for meaning – a means to an end. Children do not find them boring or meaningless – the focus is on enjoyment of skill development.
In Louisa Moats’ (1998, p.6) words: “Adult distaste for decodable books fails to respect the child’s need to exercise a skill. Children want to be self-reliant readers and are delighted when they can apply what they know”.
This highly explicit approach may seem very directive for teachers who were taught during their teacher education programs (as I was) that children simply needed to be in a print-rich environment and have high-interest stories read to them for the complex process of learning to read to occur.
Although some children may learn to read via that process, the evidence is that explicit and systematic teaching of alphabetic skills is more effective and more efficient than other forms of phonics instruction (NICHD, 2000; DEST, 2005; Rose Review, 2006). Five and seven year follow-up studies have revealed that the superior effects of the synthetic approach do not diminish (Johnston & Watson, 2003, 2005).
It is the efficiency and effectiveness of synthetic approaches relative to other forms of teaching reading that make it so suitable for teaching children the essential skills of decoding. It is particularly important for the children who do not acquire these skills using a more holistic approach, and who lag behind their peers. These students need acceleration – they need to “catch up”.
*From “Research Into Practice – Understanding the Reading Process, Paper 3, Phonics.” By Deslea Konza, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education and Arts, Edith Cowen University, W.A.
Sarah Asome is a practising classroom teacher sharing her knowledge and experience. In this video Sarah highlights the importance of PHONICS as part of the FIVE keys of early reading instruction and the impact on later reading skills.
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