Many of us were taught to read with the use of analytic phonics strategies. This process places substantial emphasis on the initial sound of a word, with subsequent letters being considered with far less focus on phonemic articulation. For instance, when encountering the word “cat,” students are encouraged to articulate the sound of the letter “C” as a primary clue.
There is additional focus on position, with much emphasis being placed on onset, rhyme, and word families. Using the “cat” example again, the student is encouraged to draw upon their knowledge of the “at” word family to assist them in decoding the word. As a result of these efforts “C-A-T” is read appropriately as /c/ “at.”
For short words like “cat,” these can be very useful strategies. When presented with longer words, however, these skills frequently fall short of the mark in their ability to help a student effectively and efficiently decode the unfamiliar word.
To provide additional assistance, students are then taught to use contextual cues to provide additional assistance in helping to decode unfamiliar words. Stated simply, this strategy asks students to make an informed guess at a word they cannot decode using the other skills that have been instructed. To continue working with our “cat” example, a student trying to read the sentence “The fat cat sat on the big sofa,” would be encouraged to seek cues from the illustrations and the surrounding words. Questions like, “What big thing is the cat sitting on,” or, “The thing the cat is sitting on begins with the letter “s” – what is the cat sitting on that begins with the /s/ sound,” are asked in an effort to help the student appropriately respond, “the sofa.”
Combined, these three primary strategies frequently lead to the emergence of fluency in reading. There is no unshakable argument that can negate the end result. That said, the true issue may not actually be whether or not analytic phonics is effective. For a great many students, it is. Instead, the real question may be whether or not this is the most efficient method of developing literacy.
Consider this: analytic phonics focuses on the individual letter sounds of the 26 letters in our alphabet. Contrast this against the 44 different phonemes our written language contains. If 26 letters can make 44 sounds, does it make the most sense to teach the letter sounds as the foundation upon which future literacy is built?
This letter sound approach also makes it difficult to decode multiple spellings that contain the same phonemic sound. For example, examine the words “face,” “bliss,” and “self.” All of these words contain the /s/ phoneme, but each has a different letter combination that produces that individual sound. That makes efficient decoding more difficult, and is one of the reasons that analytic phonics rules are so heavily laden with exceptions.
Next, consider the role of the instructor in the learning process. Individual letter sounds are often mispronounced. The /h/ sound might be presented as “HUH,” as opposed to the correct “hhh” pronunciation. This has a later impact on appropriate sounding of digraphs. /t/ “huh” is not the same as /th/.
Lastly, analytic phonics does not foster the development of natural spelling skills. Reading and spelling should, ideally and logically, be inextricably linked. A student with strong phonemic awareness should be able to hear a word, identify the phonemes, and spell the word correctly. Thus the word “CHIP” is heard by the student as containing the phonemes /ch/ /i/ /p/ and is appropriately spelled “C-H-I-P” as a result. From an analytic phonics standpoint, to appropriately spell the word “CHIP,” the student would have had to acquire the knowledge of the exception to the rule that “C” is pronounced as either the hard /C/ as in “cat” or the soft /c/ as in “cereal.” They have to rely on their knowledge of exceptions to recall that the /ch/ sound is spelled “C-H.” The fact is that analytic phonics does not encourage the development of this skill, so spelling is taught as a separate entity. This is inefficient at best, and increases the time required to develop a student that is proficient in both decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling.)
Now that the strengths and weaknesses of the analytic approach have been outlined, the next natural step is to analyze the process of an alternative approach to phonics-based literacy education – systematic synthetic phonics. Is this approach preferable? Is it more effective? Efficient?
Going back to the early example of the word “cat” the first difference in educational approach can be seen in the focus of the student’s effort. Every phoneme, in every position, is treated as equally important. Readers are taught to consider the phonemes /c/ /a/ /t/ as opposed to the /c/ with the addition of the sound of the “at” word family. This differentiation may seem insignificant for a simple, monosyllabic word like “cat,” so let’s extrapolate to a slightly more complex word like “chip.” To make the contrast clear, consider the following outline of an initial attempt to decode:
1. Using Analytic Phonics
b. “ip” word family
c. “Sip?” “Kip?’
2. Using Systematic Synthetic Phonics
The second position “h” in the word “chip” is not an initial consideration for the reader being taught using analytic phonics, leading him or her to mispronounce the word. In the absence of clues, the reader is forced to make a guess as to the appropriate decoding. Although the reader will be taught that the letters “ch” form the digraph /ch/ initial decoding errors are common.
For the child taught with systematic synthetic phonics, their knowledge of phonemes and their corresponding graphemes prepares them for encounters with non-standard spellings, r controlled vowels like “jar, war, here, cure, chair” digraphs, and other English-language challenges.
Because the student is learning the English phonemes rather than the letter sounds as a primary tool in their literacy development, the complexities of the language is simplified. There are far fewer exceptions to decoding rules, and guessing is not presented a primary tool.
Of equal importance is the ease of presenting spelling to the student being taught with systematic synthetic phonics. From the earliest lessons, children are presented with the knowledge that our alphabetic code is reversible. Simply stated, you can write it if you can read it. This saves classroom time spent on stand-alone spelling lessons, builds confidence in the student, and gives young learners additional opportunities to practice breaking and rebuilding written language.
The structure of systematic synthetic phonics instruction substantially differs from analytic phonics. Rather than being taught letter sounds, students are explicitly taught phonemic sounds and all of their written representations (graphemes). To go back to the early example of how a student decodes multiple words containing the same phonemic sound with different spellings, consider again the words “face, bliss, and self.” The student learning using a systematic synthetic phonics model has been explicitly taught that the /s/ phoneme can have multiple spelling structures. The graphemes “ce,” “ss,’ and ‘s’ are all known to form the /s/ phoneme.
A very important consideration, of course, is the critical role of the instructor in their articulation of the phonemic sounds. Mispronunciation will create confusion for the student and will hinder learning. It is therefore of great importance that educators take the time and find the necessary resources to practice their articulation. Recording and replaying the instructor’s voice can be very helpful in identifying potential areas for improvement, which ultimately plays a critical role in expediting the educational process for the students.
Phonics as been considered a central tool for US literacy instruction since the first American school text was published in 1690. Although phonics as a primary teaching tool has faced challenges over the decades, it remains a significant resource in a great many classrooms and home instruction programs. In fact, some of the most well known online and subscription “learn to read” consumer products are entirely phonics based. Armed with that knowledge, it is critical that we examine our approach to phonics instruction to ensure that it serves the most students in the most efficient and effective manner possible.