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Analytic versus synthetic phonics

Analytic phonics has long formed part of the early years reading programme in Scotland. Teaching starts at the whole word level and then involves showing children patterns in spelling. It is generally taught in parallel with (or some time after) graded reading books, which are introduced using a look and say approach.

Children are typically taught one letter sound a week and shown alliterative pictures and words which start with that sound, such as car, cat, cake, candle, castle and caterpillar for the hard "c" sound.

Teaching initial letter sounds is generally completed by the end of the second term of P1. In the third term, children look at letter sounds in the middle of words, such as "a" in cat, mat, bag and rag, and at the end of words, such as "p" in nap, cup, tip and so on, and do exercises looking at letters in all positions. At this point teachers may show children how to sound and blend consecutive letters in unfamiliar words to pronounce them, as in "cuh-ah-tuh" for cat.

Starting in P2, children learn about initial consonant clusters, such as "bl", "cr" and "sp", followed by final consonant clusters, such as "nt" and st", vowel and consonant digraphs, such as "ai", "oa", "ee", "oo", "ch", "ng", "th" and "sh", and silent "e".

This programme is often completed at the end of P3.

Synthetic phonics is used in Germany and Austria and generally taught before children are introduced to books and reading.

At the start of schooling, children are taught a small group of letter sounds and then shown how these can be co-articulated to pronounce unfamiliar words.

Here, the first block of letter sounds is "a", "i", "n", "p", "s" and "t", which make up more three-letter words than any other six letters. Children are shown many of these words, such as sat, pin, tin.

Other groups of letters are then taught and the children blend them in order to pronounce new words.

In the Clackmannanshire version of synthetic phonics, children use magnetic letters to help them understand how letter sounds can be blended together to build up words. In order to read a word, the appropriate magnetic letters are set out but the word is not pronounced for the children prior to them sounding and blending the letters.

The approach is also used for learning to spell. The children listen to a spoken word, select the letters for the sounds and push the letters together, sounding and blending them to pronounce the word.

Consonant blends that can be read by blending are not explicitly taught, but consonant and vowel digraphs are.

One of the differences between the systems is that in analytic phonics, children analyse letters sounds after the word has been identified, whereas in synthetic phonics the pronunciation of the word is discovered through sounding and blending.

Another critical difference is that synthetic phonics teaches children to sound and blend from the start of reading tuition, after the first few letter sounds have been taught. In analytic phonics, children at first learn words by sight mostly, having their attention drawn only to the initial letter sounds. Only after all the letter sounds have been taught is sounding and blending introduced.

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