This link from the National Right to Read Foundation of the USA has a good checklist to give schools and help parents decide whether their school is using the right approach. These programmes are designed for the whole class to use. They are not specifically intended for those with dyslexia who may still require intensive multi-sensory instruction. If these systematic synthetic phonics programmes are in place, significantly fewer students would require intensive individual instruction. Please contact the Australian Dyslexia Association for further details.

Synthetic phonics and some reasons why English spelling is so hard to master.

English is written using the alphabet. The alphabet is a way or recording language that is based on specific sound to symbol (letter) correspondence.

The alphabet emerged about 3 500 BC in the writings of the ancient Hebrews and Phoenicians. In those days there was a perfect correspondence between the sound of language and its spelling. English has many sounds that did not occur in the original alphabet and also has borrowed words from many languages using the spelling patterns common in those languages. The clarity of sound-symbol relationships that marks the revolutionary invention of the alphabet is therefore unfortunately obscured somewhat in written English. Because the direct relationship between phonemes and spelling is obscured in English it is termed an opaque spelling system in contrast with the spelling of Italian which is wonderfully regular and easy to acquire.

The difficulty of English spelling rules (and exceptions!) lead many educationalists to simply abandon a phonics based approach and rely on children’s visual memory. This is termed the ‘whole word approach’. Unfortunately this approach has been an abject failure for two now obvious reasons. Firstly the English language has well over a million words in currant usage. Spelling tests five days a week for the 13 years of schooling could never scratch the surface of them. The second reason why the visual approach is not sufficient is that children attentional difficulties find it harder to remember hundreds of isolated facts while there are mercifully far fewer spelling rules to learn.

Many reading schemes state they are based on principles of phonics or explicit connections between individual letters and individual speech sounds known as phonemes.  There are two common approaches to this: namely analytic phonics and synthetic phonics.

Analytic phonics starts from a given text and tries to show the relationship between sounds and symbols in it.

Synthetic phonics teaches these letter sound combinations in isolation and then blended into words.  This approach has been shown to encourage greater generalisation for learners so that they can apply their knowledge to new situations.

English has many sounds (phonemes) that are represented by groups of letters such as ‘sh’ and ‘oi’.

Children are taught to distinguish beween short and long vowels. They recognise that the ‘a’ in ‘cat’ is short while the ‘a’ in ‘gate’ is long.

  • Sounds and corresponding spellings are taught in all positions of a word.from the outset. Children do not rely on the onset sound or a word as in repeating ‘a’ ‘a, a, a, -apple’
  • Phonemic awareness is directly linked to the written word for reinforcement of basic principles.
  • Synthetic phonics develops phonemic awareness along with the corresponding letter shapes.
  • Synthetic phonic approach integrates the teaching of handwriting skills with the recording of letter sounds. It helps to eliminate confusions between lower case ‘b’ and ‘d’ .
  • Correct pencil grip and posture is stressed from the beginning. Many children are referred to occupational therapists to correct these fundamental areas. Teachers of children in kindergarten and year 1 would do well to insist on the development of these skills and explicit directions for the formation of letters. Bad habits are hard to break and many children are discouraged by messy writing but do not know how to fix it
  • The use of nonsense words such as ‘’veech’ and ‘toid’ is an important part of this synthetic approach. By this means Children do not merely memorise common words but have the flexibility to recognise and apply spelling rules for new vocabulary.
  • Synthetic phonics teachers stress accurate decoding. Speed will come with practice. Children are taught to analyse printed words and not to merely guess from first appearances. Common confusions such as ‘from’ for ‘for’ or ‘ them’ for ‘they’ show readers are guessing. The habit of guessing has serious effect on reading comprehension. Readers frequently omit suffixes (word endings) so they could read ‘hopeless’ as ‘hope’ radically changing the meaning of the text.
  • Synthetic phonics introduces irregular words and less common spellings slowly and systematically. Many so-called ‘sight words’ are able to be spelt according to regular principles at least in part.
  • There are 44 common phonemes in English. Synthetic phonics involves the teaching of the common spellings of these phonemes to the level of automaticity. This over learning ensures that students will be able to retrieve spelling rules in practice without effort and contributes to greater accuracy and eventually to genuine fluency of written expression no9h
  • Synthetic phonics is based on hearing the all the individual sounds within a word and being able to spell these sounds in sequence as heard. It is not a ‘look-cover-write-check method.
  • Synthetic phonics introduces children to reading through decodable text that is graded according to the rules of decoding (reading) that have already been taught. Critics of this approach say it limits exposure to literature but teachers and therapists who use synthetic phonics read a wide range of engaging and challenging literature to enable children to experience the joys of poetry, tales from around the world and non-fiction interests. This nuanced approach ensures that children do not have to rely on guessing and so prevents the formation of bad reading habits.

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