Synthetic phonics is word-building. It builds up words from sounds.
Analytic phonics is word-breaking. It breaks words down into component parts, sometimes individual sounds and letters, sometimes groups. Once we break a word down, we can see how it is put together. This helps us to spell it, and also sometimes to read it. Because English spelling is largely, but not wholly, regular, building words up from sounds represented by letters does not always work. This makes learning to read more difficult in English than in many other languages.
The final aims of word-building and word-breaking are the same. The reader or writer needs to know the structure of the word clearly enough to form a mental picture of it that will enable him or her to recognise it at sight, or spell it, without having to work it out from scratch. This frees more of our attention for constructing or interpreting meaning.
In the early stages, word-building allows children to develop and use the most frequent and reliable links between letters and sounds. This needs to be combined with work that helps children to distinguish between sounds, particularly where they take shortcuts in everyday speech. Some children need a lot of help before they can hear and use the difference between "e" and "i".
On the other hand, many words - "was", "who", "danger", for example - cannot be built up by standard phonic techniques because they are based on a different relationship between sounds and letters. Presenting these as "sight" words attaches to phonics teaching the weaknesses of "look and say" - the child is not expected to understand, just to repeat and remember.
This causes some children great confusion and distress, and the only way to solve the problem is to explain why some letters do not always behave as we would expect them to.
"Danger", for example, is French, and can be linked with words such as "stranger" and "manger". A manger is a bin from which animals eat. Jesus was placed in one because there was no bed and the hay was soft. The French for "to eat" is manger. Children are quick to see and understand the connection, once it is explained. The explanation can be reinforced in history lessons on invaders and settlers in Years 3 and 4, by picking out systematically the connections between English and the French words introduced after the Norman conquest. Research in Canada has shown that roughly 30 per cent of all French and English words are either completely or almost identical, and this would make the French connection account for about two-thirds of the irregularities in English spelling. These words cannot be sounded out, but they can be understood.
The national literacy strategy category of word-level work ought to allow teachers to match phonic and other work on words to what the children in their class most need. Unfortunately, the strategy has also saddled itself with a back-of-an-envelope model of reading, "Searchlights", that gives too little emphasis to phonics of any sort, and with obscure and inelegant terminology from academic linguistics.
Explanations need to be accurate and clear to children. The national literacy strategy and the phonics enthusiasts should both pay closer attention to this basic truth.
John Bald is a language and literacy consultant