Structured Synthetic Phonics

Male Student Working At Desk In Chinese School Classroom

Phonemes and Graphemes

Structured Synthetic Phonics programs teach students the predictable relationships between the sounds of speech (phonemes) and the alphabet letters (graphemes) we use in written language. 

Learning to read (decode) and spell (encode) is essentially learning this code.  Reading and spelling are reversible processes that can be explicitly taught using a structured, systematic and multi-sensory phonics approach.  The current research indicates that this is the most effective approach for teaching students to read who have a Specific Learning Disorder such as Dyslexia.

In essence, Synthetic Phonics is a specific approach for teaching children this code.   The synthetic component reflects the importance of synthesising or blending together.  The phonic component reflects the process of linking individual speech sounds (phonemes) to written symbols (graphemes). 

Essentially, when a student learns to read using Synthetic Phonics they learn to link letters to speech sounds and then blend these sounds together to read words.  They also learn to separate (segment) words into their individual sounds and link (blend) these sounds to letters to spell words.

44 Sounds

It’s generally agreed that there are 44 sounds that make up words in the English language.  We know that there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, so some letters are combined to represent other speech sounds.  For example, ‘s’ and ‘h’ represent the /sh/ sound found in ‘ship’.  When two letters are used to represent a specific sound it’s called a digraph.

The chart below from AUSPELD provides an excellent summary of these 44 sounds.

When a Synthetic Phonics approach is used, students learn a range of concepts in a sequenced, structured way.  They learn that:

    • sentences are made up of words, words are made up of syllables, and syllables are made up of sounds
    • letters are symbols that represent sounds
    • a sound may be spelled by one, two, three or four letters in combination
    • the same sound can be spelled in more than one way.  For example the /ae/ sound can be written as ‘ai’, ‘a-e’, ‘ay’, ‘a’, ‘ea’, ‘ey’, ‘ei’, ‘aigh’ or ‘eigh’.
    • some words rhyme
    • some words start or finish with the same sound
    • every word has at least one vowel; every syllable has a vowel
    • words have meaningful parts (morphemes) including prefixes, suffixes and base words.
    • blending is the ability to push sounds together to build words
    • segmenting is the ability to pull apart the individual sounds in words
    • phoneme manipulation is the ability to insert sounds into and delete sounds out of words

One of the most important principles of Synthetic Phonics is that a student should never be asked to read something that is too difficult for them, or that they do not have the skills to read.  So, students might be taught ‘s’, ‘i’, ‘t’, ‘a’ and ”p’, and then asked to read only words using these letters such as ‘mat’, ‘sit’ and ‘pat’.

There are a number of programs available that use a Synthetic Phonics approach and cater for the literacy learning needs of students aged from 5 years through to adults.  Some of the ones I integrate into my specialist literacy teaching are listed below.

Sounds-Write

Sounds-Write is an evidence-based linguistic phonics program appropriate for children from Prep to Year 3 as a whole-school approach to teaching literacy.  It’s also a successful intervention program for middle to upper primary students, secondary students and adults.

Phonics Books UK

These books include series such as Dandelion, Totem and Talisman Readers.  These are decodable readers which follow the teaching sequence (introduction of sounds and letters) from the Sounds-Write program and are accompanied by a range of student workbooks. 

Cracking the ABC Code

The Cracking the ABC Code program is based on university research and designed to make a significant difference to student’s reading, spelling and writing skills in a short timeframe.  It’s systematic, structured, phonics-based, and uses a range of multisensory and memory strategies. 

In this short video, Dr Lillian Fawcett from Western Australia describes the Cracking the ABC Code Program that she developed.

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Debbie Bassingthwaighte is a teacher, facilitator and mentor who aspires to live her very best life.  Her passion is to nurture and celebrate the unique and limitless potential of every learner.