Monday, 21 July 2014

What is synthetic phonics?

Phonics is a method used to teach children about the relationship between letters and sounds (sometimes referred to as graphemes and phonemes respectively) to aid initial reading acquisition and development.  In this post, printed letters will be referred to with ‘ ‘, as in: ‘a’, ‘t’, ‘p’ and sounds will be referred with / /, as in the corresponding sounds: /a/, /t/, /p/.  Phonics teaches children about the relationship between letters and sounds, not between letters and names (i.e., /ay/, /tee/, /pee/) as sounds map more readily onto the spoken words within the English language, and as a result are more effective to use to teach reading (Trieman et al, 1998).

Phonics first and fast or embedded with other strategies

Phonics capitalises on the fact that we have an alphabetic writing system and can be taught to children through different approaches – analytic or synthetic.   Both analytic and synthetic phonics can be embedded within more eclectic approaches to teach reading (i.e., alongside the use of flashcards to teach whole words, the use of big books to teach words within context etc).  Obviously when phonics is combined with other approaches to word reading, it will be taught at a slower pace as time will be set aside for teaching these other word reading strategies.  The term ‘first and fast’ refers to a method of teaching where phonics is given prominence in early reading instruction, and not necessarily combined with these other strategies to read words. 

Synthetic phonics

So what are the fundamental differences between analytic and synthetic phonics?  Synthetic phonics is classed as small unit teaching.  This means starting with the smallest unit (letter(s)- sound) and teaching children to synthesise or blend letter(s)-sounds sequences.  For example, it may start by teaching children: ‘a’ = /a/, ‘p’ = /p/, ‘t’ = /t/; children then synthesise/blend sequences of learnt letter(s)-sounds to read words, for example: a-t = at, p-a-t = pat, t-a-p = tap.  Children are taught additional letter(s)-sounds to read more words, e.g., ‘n’ = /n/, ‘i’ = /i/ and then should, using the sounding and blending technique, be able to read more words, for example: it, in, an, pin, pit, pip, nip, nap, pan, pant, tip etc.  From the beginning of instruction, children are introduced to the blending/synthesising technique and learn to recognise letter-sounds in all positions of the word. 

The examples above are of simple letter-sound correspondences, however later on, children learn more complex correspondences, phonics rules and digraphs (e.g., ‘sh’ = /sh/).  Although children are taught to use this technique to read unfamiliar words, once a child has encountered a word several times, they may recognise it instantly and therefore process it in its full form (e.g., tap), no longer applying the blending technique as it no longer serves a useful purpose for reading this particular word.  In terms of a fun resource to teach synthetic phonics, the cBeebies Alphablocks (see link: resources are excellent and demonstrate this method very clearly.

Analytic phonics

Analytic phonics, in comparison, is classed as large unit teaching.  This means starting with the largest unit (the word), and teaching children to analyse or segment the word into its constituent letter-sounds (p-a-t), or onset-rime (p-at).  Therefore children are shown the full printed word ‘pat’ and are given the pronunciation of the word (i.e., the word is read to them). Children are then encouraged to listen to the sounds within the word and split the letter-sounds accordingly. 

Therefore a key difference between synthetic and analytic phonics, is that one starts with the smallest unit (‘t’ ‘a’ ‘p’) and teaches children to synthesise letter(s)-sounds to read, while the other starts with largest unit (tap) and teaches children to analyse the word into its constituent letter(s)- sounds (or onset-rime).

Research evidence

The NRP meta-analysis comparing phonics instruction with unsystematic or no phonics instruction (Ehri et al., 2001) found that phonics produced gains across a range of literacy skills: decoding, word reading, text comprehension, and spelling (see for brief review).  When comparisons were drawn between synthetic phonics (small unit), analytic phonics (larger unit) and miscellaneous phonics teaching, all were shown to be effective: d = .45 (synthetic), d = .34 (analytic), d = .27 (miscellaneous).  Since this meta-analysis was completed, there have been a significant number of other studies comparing these different approaches, but often drawing different conclusions.  However, this may be because teachers and researchers vary in how they implement synthetic and analytic phonics programmes, thus leading to differences in opinion regarding their relative effectiveness.  For example, analytic phonics, as previously recommended in England, was embedded within other approaches to teach reading, such as whole word learning and use of picture or text context, therefore was not been implemented as a phonics focused approach.  This is in contrast to the synthetic phonics method currently recommended in England, where the focus on phonics is much stronger (in theory, I cannot comment on the practice).  The prominence of phonics in early reading instruction is only one of many ways in which analytic and synthetic phonics programmes can differ and this is important to bear in mind, as the various ways in which both can be implemented is often lost within the discussions concerning their relative effectiveness. 


Ehri, L. C., Nunes, S. R., Stahl, S. A., & Willows, D. M. (2001).  Systematic phonics instruction help students learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis.  Review of Educational Research, 71, 393-447.  For brief info:

Trieman, R, Tincoff, R., Rodriguez, K., Mouzaki, A., & Francis, D. J.  (1998). The foundations of literacy: Learning the sounds of letters.  Child Development, 69, 1524-1540.

cBeebies Alphablocks resources:


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