If you think about what is involved in learning to read, you will realize that this is a very complex process.
Learners need to recognise the individual sounds (phonemes) which make up the words we speak. They also need to recognise the different shapes that letters form on the written page (graphemes). Then they have to make a connection between the letters they see and the sounds that the letters represent. This is called grapheme-phoneme correspondence.
But when learning to read English, this is not the entire story because grapheme-phoneme correspondence in English is not always regular and predictable. Learners have to learn that one letter can sometimes represent several sounds, and one sound may be represented by different letters. The letter "c", for example, is sometimes pronounced as "k" and sometimes as "s", while the "k" sound is sometimes written with a "k" and sometimes with a "c".
To help young readers with this daunting task, the Department for Education Curriculum for England advocates a systematic synthetic phonics approach.
What is Systematic Synthetic Phonics?
The word synthetic comes from synthesize, meaning to blend individual elements into a greater whole. Just as a factory synthesizes plastic by blending various chemicals and a music synthesizer creates music from individual bits of data, the synthetic phonics approach teaches pupils to make words by blending sounds together.
Children begin not by learning the names of the alphabet letters but rather their sounds. If they see the letters m and s on the page, they do not learn that they are called "em" and "ess" but that they make the sound "mmm" and "sss". They learn to sound out the sounds represented by each letter, so if they see the word Sam they will sound out "sss" "a" and "mmm", and then blend these three sounds together to say "Sam".
This approach is also systematic, meaning that graphemes are introduced gradually in a logical sequence. The teacher first ensures that pupils have developed the visual and listening skills they need in order to become successful readers. The children then learn regular graphemes, those which consistently represent the same sounds, before they progress to words with more irregular spelling.
There are a variety of synthetic phonics programmes, and may be broken down differently into different phases or stages but they all conform to the following logical sequence:
1. Skill Development
Before they can learn to read, children need to develop their listening and visual skills.
A crucial listening skill is phonological awareness, the ability to discriminate different sounds such as the different endings of the words "cut" and "cup." This develops naturally as children learn to listen to the sounds around them. Music, poems and nursery rhymes and everyday sounds are all key elements in developing this skill.
The visual skills which help children to acquire letter knowledge include shape recognition, and the ability to visually sort and classify objects.
Children generally develop most of these skills naturally through their interactions with parents and caregivers. Their reception year teacher will help them continue developing these skills before introducing them to a formal reading programme.
Further reading: Phase 1 - Skill Development
2. Introducing the First Letters
Once they have acquired the necessary basic skills, children are gradually introduced to their first graphemes and the sounds they represent. These may be single letters, such as s and n, or pairs of letters, such as ck. These first graphemes consistently represent the same sound. Children are encouraged to blend the graphemes together in order to sound out words (as in our previous example of s + a + m = sam) as soon as they have learnt enough graphemes to do so.
The Department for Education Curriculum for England specifies that teachers introduce 19 graphemes in reception year.
Further reading: Phase 2 - Introducing the First Letters
Children are introduced to an additional 25 graphemes. These consist of both single letters and digraphs, groups of letters (generally pairs) which represent a single sound. They learn consonant digraphs such as "sh" and "th" first, and then vowel digraphs such as "oa" and "oo".
This is also the stage at which children begin to learn sight words. These are common words that cannot always be sounded out according to the synthetic phonics method. These include words such as she, they, and you among others.
Further reading: Phase 3 - Expansion
At this stage children practice the skills they have learnt and learn to blend groups of consonants such as tr, str and lk. They also continue to learn more sight words.
[NOTE: Stages Three and Four occur in Year One of the National Curriculum for England].
Further reading: Phase 4 - Consolidation
5. Further Development
Once children can read words automatically without having to sound them out, they learn more vowel digraphs and different ways to write the same sound. For example, the words wail, way and whale all show different ways of representing the same ay sound. They also learn alternative pronunciations for the same graphemes, such as the ea in tea, head and break.
They also continue adding sight words to their repertoire.
Further reading: Phase 5 - Development
6. Achieving Fluency
At this stage pupils are able to read familiar words automatically, and decode most new words silently without having to sound them out aloud, although they may need to sound out complex unfamiliar words. The goal at this stage is for children to improve their reading fluency by reading a wide variety of material, both fiction and non-fiction, to develop their spelling accuracy and writing skill.
[NOTE: Phases Five and Six are benchmarks for Year Two of the National Curriculum for England].
Further reading: Phase 6 - Fluency
The Department for Education believes that successful completion of all six phases of a systematic, synthetic phonics programme is a key to preparing pupils for success in secondary school.
Continue reading: Phonics Phase 1: Skill Development