Synthetic phonics? Not alone thanks

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Kathy Hall questions whether it is a good idea to teach five-year-olds to read using a single method

Jim Rose's final report for the Government on teaching beginners to read is expected any day now. His interim report in January - which the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, endorsed - says that the systematic introduction of synthetic phonics is the best way to teach five-year-olds to read.

The United Kingdom Literacy Association is not convinced. Although our members recognise the importance of teaching phonics well and systematically, they urge Mr Rose, as well as the Government, to reconsider.

Before young learners know how sounds and letters map on to each other, they see the word as a whole unit - they are not yet able to discriminate at the level of individual letters and sounds.

As they get better at noticing and discriminating (supported by good teaching), they pick up on familiar elements of words - perhaps their own name within a word, the first letter, or a letter string such as "ing" at the end. With good teaching and plenty of exposure to print in many forms, they learn to discriminate more finely at the level of the letter, and eventually, the process of discriminating (decoding) becomes automatic.

The important point is that beginner readers typically move from discriminating among large units, such as whole words, to smaller units, such as parts of words and individual letters. Put more technically, they move from onset-rime awareness to phoneme awareness (see box).

There is good evidence available now to show that the sequence of development is from sensitivity to large units (onset and rime) to sensitivity to small units (phonemes).

Good teaching respects this developmental sequence. Therefore it is misguided to say five- year-olds are best served only by synthetic phonics, which is an approach which goes straight to the smallest unit (the phoneme). It does not follow from this that teaching should not involve synthetic phonics, but it does follow that analytic phonics also has an important place.

Some children may not be able to benefit from an approach based only on synthetic phonics and may therefore be disadvantaged. That's the first reason why it's not a good idea to give such privileged status to synthetic phonics in teaching reading to five-year-olds.

It follows that the question of which of two approaches to teaching phonics is best - synthetic or analytic - is also misguided.

Synthetic phonics is crucial since the beginner reader needs to get to the phoneme, or individual sound (the focus of a synthetic approach) in order to become a skilled reader. But sensitivity to onset and rime (the initial sound followed by the final group, as in c-at and b-at), which is the focus of an analytic approach, comes first developmentally.

There is another reason why an almost exclusive focus on synthetic phonics for five-year-olds is misguided.

Pattern recognition is hugely important for word recognition. Fortunately, the human brain is a brilliant pattern detector, and analytic phonics capitalises on this. By ignoring or minimising the emphasis on letter patterns and letter strings, using synthetic phonics alone is misguided for teaching five-year-olds how to decode. Take word-sorting activities, for example. In building up and breaking down words using letter patterns (such as the letter strings "ight" or "ai"), beginner readers learn to think flexibly about letter-sound correspondences. They start to generalise and they begin to self-teach, soon recognising, for example, the string "ight"

in new words. Importantly, this capacity of the human brain to generalise and see patterns means that the teacher may not have to work through all the 40-plus phonemes of English with all learners.

Of course children vary in their capacities to generalise and this is where teachers' professional judgement becomes pivotal. But the main point is that both analytic and synthetic phonics should be part of a teacher's repertoire.

It's a mistake to try to persuade teachers to choose between synthetic and other approaches to developing decoding, because decoding can be supported by a range of processes. Because these processes support each other, it is unhelpful to focus only on one or two at age five, although individual lessons might do just that from time to time. The other supporting processes for decoding are:

* Visual perception of letters and symbols (graphics).

* Meaning of words (semantics).

* Structure of phrases and sentences (grammar and syntax).

* Assumptions and beliefs about the task in hand (cultural).

There is ample evidence to show that successful teaching takes account of all these levels of processing, since each one supports the others.

The teachers, teacher educators and researchers in the UKLA would have reservations if literacy policy narrows the range of teaching methods recommended for developing the reading skills of five-year-olds in the way suggested in the interim report. The evidence to support such a narrowing is neither adequate nor robust.

Professor Kathy Hall is president elect of the United Kingdom Literacy Association

The cat s-a-t on the mat

Synthetic phonics: sounds of letters are learned in isolation and blended together. For example the word "cat" is learned by segmenting the word into three parts, c, a, and t and blending them to form the word. The individual phoneme is the focus of teaching.

Analytic phonics: learners identify a phonic element from a set of words.

So teaching would, for example, focus on how the following words are alike:

"cat", "sat", "hat" and "bat". Learners focus on the known element "at", notice this letter pattern and use this knowledge to recognise unknown words. In "cat" the "c" is known as the onset and the "at" the rime.

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