Synthetic phonics is a way of learning to read and write by making sound-letter connections – either breaking down a word sound-by-sound (when reading), or putting sounds together to build a word (when writing).
Why is it so important?
As a child at school in the UK, I remember learning the spelling of whole words ‘off-by-heart’. This Whole Language approach was the norm in the UK at that time. Nowadays, most children in the UK learn to read using a synthetic phonics approach. This shift was influenced by the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in 1998 and key research around that time, and later the publication of the government programme Letters and Sounds in 2007. One popular programme, Jolly Phonics, is now used in over 100 countries.
What are the basic principles?
If you learnt to read and write using a Whole Language method, you might revise for a spelling test by trying to remember that the word sheep, for example, is represented by the letters s-h- double e-p. But synthetic phonics teaches children how to segment, i.e. split the word apart to identify the individual sounds sh-ee-p and then recall which letter or combination of letters represents each sound. To write the letters, children have to be able to hold the pencil well enough to control it, know where to start the letter (at the top, bottom, etc.), and know when to go below or above the line (i.e. letters like g, y, and p have ‘tails’, but h, l, and k, have ‘sticks’).
The challenge with English is that there are several letters or combination of letters to represent one sound. For example, in the word phonics the /f/ sound can be represented by the digraph (combination of two letters to create one sound) ph. This sound is more commonly represented by the letter f, but the letters gh create the /f/ in laugh. Not only this, but one letter or a combination of letters can also represent more than one sound. So the letters ie produce three totally different sounds in the words friend, lie, or shield.
In a synthetic phonics approach, children are first taught the most common sounds that single letters represent (this is easier to predict with consonants). Then they are taught to put single sounds together, in consonant-vowel-consonant words (CVCs), e.g. c-a-t or s-u-n. They need to learn both how to decode (read) and encode (write) the words. We touched on the skills involved in encoding above. But what about decoding? Imagine a child is trying to read the word sun. They first have to recognise that the squiggly lines in front of them are in fact three separate letters. Then they have to remember what sounds those letters represent. When they have all three sounds, they need to put them together. This is called blending and is a crucial skill if a learner is to become an independent reader. At first, though, the teacher will almost certainly need to help children blend sounds together. Of course, the next step is comprehension. Once a reader has decoded the word, they have to match the word to its meaning.
When learners have mastered CVCs and blending, then comes the tricky part: that five separate letters might not in fact equate to five separate sounds (sheep: five letters, three sounds). This is a challenge when English is your first language. What about children who are learning it as a second language?
Is synthetic phonics really suitable for an ELT context?
A lot of phonics materials are made with native speakers of English in mind. For example, in the Jolly Phonics programme that my school follows, the action for /k/ is clicking your fingers like castanets, and the materials have pictures of dancers with castanets. I teach in Thailand and my kindergarten (KG) students are unlikely to have ever seen castanets in their life. With issues like that, you can adapt it. For example, we still click our fingers but pretend to be crabs instead. However, other aspects of the programme are less easily adapted, e.g. materials where children have to spot pictures of objects starting with the same sound. For example, if the focus is /s/, learners are expected to identify pictures of a snake, sun, stick, sandwich from among pictures of other objects not beginning with /s/, etc. But the majority of my KG students are unlikely to know the word sandwich in English yet, so they cannot possibly pick it out as beginning with /s/. They are dealing with issues not faced by native speakers, i.e. they have to learn the names of things as well as how to read and write them.
Another issue is that courses like Jolly Phonics are designed for primary school settings where you see your learners every day, and might dedicate the majority of time to literacy. In an ELT context, it’s likely to be a lot less. I see my KG students twice a week for 50 minutes each time, and the main aim of the classes is to develop their speaking. Nevertheless, in order to pass English exams throughout their school life, they need to learn to read and write. But as communicative language teachers, we are drawn to more meaning-based methods, and even for children whose L1 is English, one of the main criticisms of a synthetic phonics approach is that it prioritises form over meaning. If English is a child’s L2, then a focus on meaning is crucial. This is not to dismiss synthetic phonics in an ELT context, but (as you probably would do anyway) tread carefully when using materials from the Internet because they are likely to be made with native speaker learners in mind. Also, bear in mind that your learners may still be learning how to read and write in their own language. The Thai writing system is one of the most complex in the world and my KG students have that to contend with as well.
I’ve heard of Jolly Phonics. How is that related to synthetic phonics?
Jolly Phonics is one particular synthetic phonics programme (with books, IWB materials, flashcards, etc.) that developed out of research which started in the 1970s and has since been the focus of three large research projects. It is the programme I am most familiar with because my school paid for us to take the (excellent) Jolly Phonics online training course (check out http://jollylearning.co.uk/training-courses/). The programme separates 42 sounds into seven different groups, the first and easiest group consists of s, a, t, i, p, n and the seventh and final group consists of qu, ou, oi, ue, er, ar. Children learn actions for each new sound (e.g. the action for p is holding your finger to your mouth and blowing, like blowing out a candle). It also has its own terms such as ‘tricky words’ to describe common words that can’t be predicted, and need to be learnt by sight, e.g. the, she, because, etc. But there are other programmes besides Jolly Phonics, e.g. Read Write Inc. or Sounds-Write.
My school can’t afford these kinds of materials. Do you have any lesson ideas?
Start by making your own actions for sounds or watch the many YouTube videos of children performing the Jolly Phonics actions. My school is experimenting with using actions based on Thai words to represent sounds that exist in both languages, especially where the Jolly Phonics actions are less suitable. For example, the Thai word ja-aye equates to something like peekaboo, and the children love this action which we’re using for the sound /eɪ/, as in the word play (as opposed to using the Jolly Phonics action’ of putting your hand to your ear, as if you can’t hear someone).
Here are some suggestions for phonics-related activities:
- Hide letter cards around the room and go on a letter hunt. Everyone says the sound and makes the action when the cards are found.
- Stick pictures of CVC words around the room, and silently do the actions for the three sounds. Children run to touch the word of the picture that those three actions spell.
- Snap or pelmanism: use first sounds matching to pictures, or whole words matching to whole words (e.g. cat and mat, pen and hen).
- Make ‘pointers’ with a hole in the middle so children only see one letter at a time. Search online for ‘phonics reading pointers’ for inspiration.
- Twister (only in smaller classes): make a big board by taping four A3 grids of letters together. Make sure there are two of each letter on the board. Say a word, like ‘cat’ and two students race to touch c, a, and t, using their hands and feet. Then the next two students take their turn.
- Make spinners by cutting out a segmented hexagon template with a simple word written in each segment, and put a pencil through the middle (search online for hexagon spinner template). Give each pair a spinner. Children take it in turns to spin and read the word that the spinner lands on. Then they run to touch the matching flashcard on the wall or slap the picture in their book.
- Say a sound and learners make the letter out of playdough, or write into the playdough.
- Bingo: children write the letters into a grid and listen for the sounds to cross off as you pull the letters out of a bag.
- Children make their own mini-books using only the first letters of key words from the story, by writing one letter at a time onto small coloured squares of paper and then sticking them onto paper of a different colour to build whole words.
Many of these ideas were gleaned from peer observations of British Council Chiang Mai colleagues Clair Chittenden and Sarah Shaw, two superb mentors and phonics fans. Thank you both for passing on the passion!
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