Synthetic Phonics

Research shows that to get every child reading and spelling we need to teach phonics with a systematic and explicit approach. In the United Kingdom this approach is known as synthetic phonics. We’re a global team, but it’s the UK’s recommendations that have informed Phonics Hero; it’s thorough, comprehensive and well-tested.

'Learning to read with our synthetic phonics games.Learning to read with our synthetic phonics games.

What Characterises a Synthetic Phonics Approach?

Synthetic phonics is a strange, technical name that has nothing to do with being artificial! The ‘synthetic’ name comes from the synthesising or blending of sounds to make a word and enable children to read. The teaching reading and spelling with synthetic phonics will have the following characteristics:

1) A simple to complex logic

The English language has 26 letters but 44 unique sounds, each with lots of different ways to spell them. A synthetic phonics approach will teach these 44 sounds from the simple to the more complicated logic.

First off, children are taught that each alphabet letter has its own unique sound. For example:

synthetic-phonics-alphabet-sounds

Once children have this concept, the logic is made a little harder. Two (or sometimes three) letters can also come together to make a new sound. For example:

synthetic-phonics-digraphs-and-trigraphs

The next layer of complexity is where you really start to see spelling improve. Children learn that a sound can be represented in many ways. For example the /ee/ sound:

synthetic-phonics-alternative-spellings

Finally, children will learn that a letter or group of letters can represent different sounds. For example:

synthetic-phonics-alternative-pronunciation

2) Decoding is the first strategy to read and it should happen quickly

As soon as children have learned between 6-8 alphabet sounds, they must start blending to read words. Many programs will wait until children know all 26 alphabet sounds. This is completely unnecessary – it should be done much earlier. By doing it earlier, we demonstrate to children why we are learning the sounds; to blend words to read.

The process of reading involves decoding or ‘breaking’ words into separate sounds, which can then be blended together to read an unknown word. Children tackle each word with four steps:

synthetic phonics and reading
Click here to download this image as a poster for your classroom.

3) Spelling is taught alongside with reading

The process of spelling is the reverse to reading. It requires children to identify the sounds in a word and then to match a letter (or letters) with that sound to essentially ‘make’ the word. This takes a five step process:

synthetic phonics and spelling
Click here to download this image as a poster for your classroom.

4) Children practise their skills with decodable texts

Let’s assume that children have learned eight sounds:

blending-first-8-sounds

The texts children practise and apply their knowledge with, should only use the sounds the children have been taught. Many phonics books and apps make the mistake of giving words which, yes, are simple and use the target sound, but throw in sounds which the children simply have not learned yet. For example:

synthetic-phonics-no-decodable-text

The /oo/ in ‘moon’, the /u/ in ‘mud’ and the /e/ in ‘men’ haven’t been taught yet (remember the child has only learned: satpinmd, so far). It is therefore unfair to expect a child to read these words if they don’t have the knowledge of all the sounds. In synthetic phonics, children only read words which use the sounds they have learned – they will be entirely decodable. Look at all the words they could read with only these 8 sounds:

blending-with-only-8-sounds-children-can-blend-28-words

At a Glance, Synthetic Phonics Teaches Children:

  • That spoken words are composed of sounds.
  • The 44 sounds of the English language.
  • To blend sounds in a word to read.
  • To listen for sounds in words to spell.
  • All the different ways each sound can be represented, e.g. the sound /a/ as in ‘apron’ can be spelled: ‘ay’ like in ‘pay, ‘ai’ like in ‘paid’, ‘a’ like in ‘apron’, ‘eigh’ like in ‘eight’ and so on.
  • Irregular, high-frequency words (we call them camera or tricky words), which are essential to help children progress the quality of their writing and move onto reading full sentences.
  • The sound first and then the letter name.

Learn more about Synthetic Phonics:

Watch our introductory video



For more reading on synthetic phonics, check out:

  • The English Government’s criteria for quality systematic, synthetic phonics programmes and teaching.
  • Our blog post on blending.
  • Case studies from Australia and the UK after implementing Phonics Hero.
  • Our CEO’s blog on the journey of teaching her child to read.