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How to use Synthetic Phonics

By Sue Lloyd
Synthetic phonics is a method of teaching reading and writ-
ing. The word 'synthetic', in this context, means to synthe-
size, to put together (blending). It reflects the strong
emphasis that is placed on the blending of the letter
sounds to read unfamiliar words.
With synthetic phonics, the children are taught from the
beginning to understand the alphabetic code and to work
out unfamiliar words by blending the letter sounds. They
are not, initially, expected to read words, sentences or
books that contain letter sounds that have not been taught.
As soon as some letter sounds, such as 's, a, t, i and p',
have been taught, the children can work out the following
words 'sat, at, sit, it, pit, pip, tip, tap, sip, sap pat and pit'.
Each time new letter sounds are introduced the bank of
words that can be blended becomes much larger. The chil-
dren are taught the simplest parts of the alphabetic code
first and then, in systematic steps, introduced to the more
complex aspects, namely digraphs (ai, oa, sh, etc.), alter-
native vowel sounds (ay, a-e) and common tricky words
(the, she, was). The letter sounds are taught at a fast
pace, about one a day.
When standards at Key Stage 1 English SATs were report-
ed on by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
(QCA), the children who achieved Level 2B and above
were found to be good at blending. At Level 2C and below,
the reverse was true. This demonstrates how important
blending is for reading. In synthetic phonics blending is
taught from the beginning. The children blend/read hun-
dreds of words before being given reading books to take
home, which they are then expected to read to their par-
ents. It is preferable for all children, but essential for the
weaker ones, to start with decodable books, so that they
improve the skill of blending and are not demoralised by
being expected to read words that they cannot work out for
themselves.
The alphabetic code for writing (spelling) is equally impor-
tant, and is taught at the same time as the code for read-
ing. For this the children need to be tuned in to hear the
sounds in words and taught to write the letters that are
used to represent the sounds. For example, if a child
wants to write the word 'sheep' he/she needs to hear that it
has 3 individual sounds sh-ee-p, and to use this informa-
tion to help him/her choose the correct letters for those
sounds. Spelling is much harder than reading because
some sounds have several ways of being written: is it
sheep or sheap? or even shepe or shiep?, and every letter
must be correct. Whereas, with reading, a word can be
blended to give a pronunciation that is close enough for a
child to deduce the word. For example, with a word like
'doctor', the first four letters accurately reflect the beginning
pronunciation but the letters <or> give the wrong sound,
but the children can usually make a calculated 'tweak' and
read the word correctly. This luxury is not available with
spelling.
Step-by-step guide to teaching synthetic phonics
Reading: A multi-sensory approach to teaching the letter
sounds is advisable. The children need to see the
letter(s), feel the formation, hear/say the sound, and
associate something highly memorable with it. In Jolly
Phonics the children have a story and an action linked to
each letter sound, which helps them remember the
sounds the letters make. These letter sounds need to be
instantly recognised by all the children. It helps to regular-
ly hold up letter sound flash cards and have the children
call out the sounds, and do the actions. Any children who
are not learning them at the rate of one a day will need
extra help.
The whole point of learning the letter sounds is so the
children can work out unfamiliar words for themselves by
blending the sounds together. It is a skill that comes easi-
ly to many children, but can be hard for the others.
Initially the children are taught to hear the word when
you, the adult, say the sounds e.g. Can you point to the
p-i-g in this picture? If the word 'pig' can be heard then
the children can go to the next step and try and blend
words by saying the sounds themselves. It helps to say
the sounds fluently, with an emphasis on the first sound,
e.g. s-a-t is sat.
Writing: As the letter sounds are taught the children
should be shown how to write the letters correctly.
Encourage the children to form the letters in the air with
their fingers and then to practise on paper or whiteboards,
using the tripod pencil/pen grip. Use dictation of the letter
sounds to see how well the children are remembering
them. Every day practise listening for the sounds in sim-
ple words, such as dog is d-o-g, bus is b-u-s, neck is n-e-
ck etc. Say the word and then altogether call out the
sounds, holding up a finger for each sound.
Step 1 - Blending words that use single letter sounds
Letter sounds: Teach the first groups of letter
sounds, which in Jolly Phonics are:
s, a, t, i, p, n, c, k, e, h, r, m, d, g, o, u, l, f, b
Reading: Every day blend simple 2/3 letter words that
use these letter sounds, such as:
sat, at, tip, in, pan, net, cat, kid, elf, hat, ran, map,
dad, gap, on, up, log, fun, bed etc.
Initially the teacher models the blending, but after a
while the children do it by themselves, or individually
Writing: Every day say simple words that can be
made from the letter sounds that have been taught,
similar to those above for reading, and altogether call
out the sounds, holding up a finger for each sound.
Write the letter sounds on the board as they are
called out.
The children can then blend the word and check to
see if the word has been sounded out/spelt correctly.
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Step 2 - Blending words that use consonant blends
and double letter sounds
When blending words that have 2 letters with the same
sound, such as duck, mill, rabbit etc. it is only necessary
to say the sound once e.g. d-u-ck rather than d-u-c-k. The
following type of words are suitable for blending:-
sack, luck, fell, hill, pill, lick, back, off, bell,
gull, tell, mess, sell, pick etc.
Words with a consonant blend at the beginning of a word
tend to be more difficult for children to hear the word after
the sounds have been spoken. It helps if the blend is put
together at the beginning e.g. fl-a-g instead of f-l-a-g.
The following type of words are suitable for blending:-
flag, drum, from, glad, club, frog, slug, snip, flat,
crop, plan, trip, snug etc.
Step 3 - Blending words that use digraphs
English is a complicated language. It has 44 sounds and
only 26 letters to represent the sounds. This means that
many sounds have to have two or more letters to
represent each sound, such as sh, ch, oo, ng, igh etc.
When two letters are used to represent one sound, it is
called a digraph.
The children need to understand that when, for example,
they see the letter sound /ai/ in a word like 'rain' they must
only say the three sounds r-ai-n and not r-a-i-n. It is
important to have a set of words on the board, or on flash
cards, that use the /ai/ sound, such as sail, paid, rail etc.,
and practise blending these words altogether or
individually. Digraphs become easy when there has been
sufficient practice. More examples of words can be found
in the Jolly Phonics Word Book. Longer words, such as
'cobweb', are also introduced in Step 3. Children that
struggle with reading tend to be frightened of long words
and look only at the beginning and guess. The children
should be encouraged to work all through the word, and
take it steadily. It is no more difficult really.
Learning letter sounds: Teach the next groups of
letter sounds, which in Jolly Phonics are:-
ai, j, oa, ie, ee, or, z, w, ng, v, oo,
y, x, ch, sh, th, qu, ou, oi, ue, er and ar
Reading: Blend words that use these letter sounds
every day, such as:-
pain, jet, boat, pie, keep, horn, zip, web, ring, van,
book, hoop, yet, box, chip, shut, this, thin, quick,
out, boil, cue, kerb, farm, rubbish, splinter,
roundabout, toothbrush, understand etc.
Writing: Continue to listen for the sounds in words.
Call out words for the children to write or make with
plastic letters, using the new letter sounds. In the
beginning either avoid words with <ck> in them until
the children know when to use them, or accept that
a word like 'neck' might be spelt as 'nec'. The
'sounding' is accurate, and the correct spelling can
be pointed out.
Step 4 - Tricky words
Reading: There are some words that can be blended but
give the wrong pronunciation e.g. a child blending 'was'
would pronounce it 'was' to rhyme with 'mass' but has to
learn that we actually say /woz/. These words are referred
to as tricky words. It is best to introduce and learn them in
a systematic way, continually revising all the time. In Jolly
Phonics 72 tricky words are introduced, starting with:-
I, the, he, she, me, we, be, was, to, do, are, all, you, your,
come, some, said, here, there, they etc.
The children can now start reading sentences and books
for themselves. The sentences should use letter sounds
and tricky words that have been taught, e.g. The man is
looking up at the stars. Once the letter sounds in Steps 1 &
3 are well known and there is fluency in the blending, then
the children are more able to cope with irregular words.
Ideally choose reading books that are decodable, such as
the Jolly Readers. This will give the children the opportunity
to practise reading books that have words that they are
able to work out. Once there is fluency in reading and the
working out of unknown words, the
children can easily transfer to free choice of books that are
suitable for their age.
Writing: The children should learn to read tricky words
before being taught to spell them. Reciting the letter
names is an effective way to learn the spelling, e.g. 'the' -
tee, haich, ee. Once a few tricky words have been taught
then sentences can be dictated, such as 'The man is hot.
I can see an ant.' etc. Dictation is the most effective way
of introducing the children to writing. Once they are used to
writing, by listening for the sounds in words, they can
quickly go into independent writing. Some words will not be
accurately spelt but their work can easily be read. The
children find it very satisfying to be able to express
themselves in writing.
Step 5 - magic 'e' words and y (as in funny)
Knowing one way of writing the vowels is not enough and
the children need to be taught the main alternative ways of
writing them. The children can be helped to
understand magic 'e' words if they realise that the letter
<e>, although it has no sound of its own, is able to send its
magic over the consonant and change the short vowel to a
long one, as with words like 'tame, theme, file, rope, tube'.
Learning letter sounds: Teach the next group of letter
sounds, which are:-
y (as in mummy), and the following magic 'e' letter
sounds a-e, e-e, i-e, o-e, u-e
Reading: Blend many words that use these letter
sounds, such as:-
happy, came, these, time, hope, cube, lemonade,
bedtime, flagpole, tubeless, homemade etc. Yellow and
Green Level Jolly Readers can now be read.
Writing: Dictate sentences that use the new letter
sounds and tricky words that have been taught, such
as 'His name is Ben. He went up the lane to the
shops.'
Let the children write independently by listening for the
sounds. Spelling improves through reading many
books, having a good letter sound knowledge, and
following a spelling programme. The children who have
a good visual memory, and learnt the letter sounds
easily, will find spelling easier than the other children.
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Learning letter sounds: Teach the final group of let-
ter sounds, which are:
ay, ea, y (try), igh, ow (snow), ew , ir, ur, au,
aw, al, oy, ow (cow)
Reading: Blend regular words that use these sounds,
such as:-
hay, heap, fly, night, show, few, girl, burn, fault,
draw, chalk, toy, how, sunflower, downhill, etc.
A few letters, such as 'ow', have more than one
sound e.g. /oa/ as in 'snow' and /ou/ as in 'cow'. The
children have to learn to try them both and see which
one makes sense.
The following phrase 'if one way doesn't work try the
other way' is a useful one for the children to know
Writing: Continue dictation and independent writing.
The majority of children, who are taught with
synthetic phonics, will be reading and writing steadily
or fluently by the end of a year. On average the
children will be about a year ahead of their
chronological age. They will have been taught in a
logical and exciting way. Even so, there will be a few
children who find it difficult, and the following section
is for these children.
Step 6 - alternative vowels
Special Needs
As soon as possible identify the children who are not
learning the letter sounds. These children have a poor
memory and just need to be given more practice.
Classroom assistants can be very good at finding ways to
help these children, and usually work in small groups or
occasionally with an individual child.
However, the skill of blending is more difficult. It is knack
that suddenly develops with practice. Check to see if each
child can hear the word when you say the sounds. If this
is missing then this is the starting point. Sometimes it is
necessary to teach children to blend just a consonant and
vowel e.g. fa, pe, di etc. When they can do this add a let-
ter and make a word, e.g. fa-n ..fan, pe-t ..pet, di-g ..dig
etc. Blending is the only effective route to becoming a
good reader, and it has to be mastered. Patience and
help finally bring success. It just takes longer for some
children. Avoid asking them to memorise words, or giving
them reading books that have letter sounds that they do
not know.
The step-by-step teaching of synthetic phonics is the
same for all children. The children who find it difficult
benefit enormously from extra help from the beginning.
They enjoy the extra attention, especially when there is an
element of fun about it all. Prevention is far better than
remedial help at a later date.
From September 2006 the government policy for teaching
reading in all schools is synthetic phonics. The evidence-
based research that the government looked at was so
convincing that this change in policy was felt necessary.
This will be of great benefit to all children.
Make your own notes here
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