About synthetic phonics

The traditional approach to teaching phonics to young children may be termed ‘analytic’. In an analytic phonics programme, children are guided to deduce sound-spelling correspondences from words that they already know. For example, when children know, in speech and writing, the words fee, bee, see, keep, meet, feet, feed, deep, etc., the teacher can guide them to deduce the relationship between the spelling ee and its pronunciation in those words. Armed with this knowledge, if the children have also learnt the sound represented by h and d, they will be able to sound out a new word such as heed, or be able to spell it correctly when they hear it.

While the analytic approach is a more learner-oriented, discovery-based, approach, progress in phonics learning for L2 children can be slow, since this approach relies on learners’ known vocabulary.

In recent years, some countries, notably the UK, have experimented with a more direct approach to phonics teaching, called synthetic phonics. In a synthetic phonics programme, learners are taught explicitly a set of basic spelling units, called graphemes, and the pronunciation that these graphemes represent (called phonemes, or letter-sounds). Learners are also given training in combining graphemes to form syllables (blending), and dividing a syllable they hear into its constituent graphemes (segmenting). It is hoped that this training will speed up children’s reading, since on starting school, children already have quite a large listening-speaking vocabulary.

Research in L1 countries has produced promising results. In 2006, the UK Department of Education and Skills recommended that all primary schools in the country adopt the synthetic approach in the teaching of phonics. In Hong Kong, a study by Sze (2009) involving 326 Primary One children from 3 schools confirmed the effectiveness of synthetic phonics for children whose first language is Chinese.



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