What is Synthetic Phonics?

what is synthetic phonics

In April 2021, the DfE (Department for Education) introduced a new reading framework. As part of this, they now recommend that mainstream schools use SSP (systematic synthetic phonics) to teach children in reception and KS1 to read and write. The existing Letters and Sounds phonics framework that was provided by the DfE back in 2006 is not a full phonics programme as it does not provide a full complement of resources, training or support – although many teachers found it incredibly useful. Though it is not statutory for schools to adopt a particular phonics programme, the DfE is now validating systematic synthetic phonics programmes to help schools in selecting an effective programme which meets their criteria.

What does ‘synthetic phonics’ mean?

The term ‘synthetic’ is used to refer to the way that we combine the sounds to make a whole word. For example, bending the phonemes s-a-t combines to make the word ‘sat’.

The term ‘synthetic’ is used to refer to the way that we combine the sounds to make a whole word. For example, by blending the individual phonemes, s-a-t makes the word ‘sat’.

When teaching synthetic phonics, the words are split up into the smallest possible sounds (phonemes). Phonemes are represented by letters (graphemes). These can be a single letter, e.g. ‘s’, two letters (a digraph) as in ‘ch’, or even three letters (a trigraph) like ‘igh’. 

English is a tricky language because it contains 26 letters but 44 different phonemes (individual sounds). Synthetic phonics teaches all the phonemes and the different ways they can be represented using graphemes. This enables children to read and write (though of course there are words that cannot be read by blending their individual phonemes – these are known as tricky words or common exception words).

Is synthetic phonics the only phonics system?

No. Analytic phonics is another system which first teaches children to recognise whole words (often called sight words) such as ‘cat’, ‘the’, ‘you’, and then to look for sounds in unfamiliar words, such as ‘at’ in ‘slat’.

How do you teach synthetic phonics?

Synthetic phonics starts by teaching children groups of letters. They learn that each of these letters has a name and represents a sound. Children start with single GPCs (grapheme phoneme correspondences), e.g. ‘s’ makes /s/, and then move onto digraphs and trigraphs as they progress.

When reading a word, children follow a four step method:

  1. Look at the word.
  2. Say the individual sounds represented by the letters (sound buttons are useful for this).
  3. Blend (combine) the sounds.
  4. Say the word and think about its meaning.

Spelling is taught alongside reading using a five step method:

  1. Say the word.
  2. Segment or split the word into sounds.
  3. Count the sounds.
  4. Write the letters that represent each sound.
  5. Look at the word and check it looks right.

What are decodable books?

One way to support the teaching of a synthetic phonics programme is through the use of decodable books. These are books that only contain the phonemes which have been taught and means that children should be able to decode all of the words using their phonics knowledge. They should not need to guess or use context clues to work out unfamiliar words.

How do you teach phonics to children with additional needs?

The DfE recommends that synthetic phonics is the best way of teaching children to develop their literacy skills.

Those with special or additional needs may benefit from:

  • One-to-one teaching.
  • Overlearning and repeated practise of teaching points.
  • Clear and easy to follow phonics resources.
  • Age-neutral and age-appropriate resources.
  • Progressing through the stages at a slower pace.
  • Physical adaptations for those who experience difficulty with fine motor skills.
  • Alternative communication methods for pre or non-verbal learners, e.g. eye gaze strategies.

How do you teach common exception words and tricky words using synthetic phonics?

Children are not taught to read tricky or common exception words using synthetic phonics as these words are not decodable (certainly they’re not during the phase they are taught, though they may become decodable later on when children are taught more complex phonemes). Instead children are taught that those words contain an unusual GPC, for example ‘the’, ‘what’ and ‘said’ and usually just come to memorise those words since they appear with such high frequency in texts.

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