Traditional methods of teaching reading in English have focused on the ‘whole word’ approach to learning reading. This approach views reading as a primarily linguistic exercise rather than as a visual one. Teaching in this method requires asking the learner to look at the word as an indivisible unit, and for them to recognise and visually process this as a whole. Learners are encouraged to predict what the word in question is based on context.
The basis of the ‘whole word’ system is the idea that coming into contact with a range of texts is all someone needs to learn how to read. The assumption is that the process of learning to read is similar to the way we learn to speak. However, this isn’t the case, because learning to understand the written language involves mastering an artificial, visually based system that is incredibly more difficult than learning the hard-wired, sound-based processes speaking.
Synthetic phonics differs almost completely from the traditional approach outlined above. An extensive amount of research carried out over recent years has put huge emphasis on phonemic . awareness in learning to read effectively and successfully.
The focus of synthetic phonics is the identification of individual phonemes (sounds) and the teaching of how these relate to their visual representation in text (graphemes). In other words, it is the ability to recognise that the word ‘sat’ consists of three individual phonemes /s/ /a/ and /t/ and the word ‘spat’ has four (/s/ /p/ /a/ /t/).
There are approximately 42 phonemes or main letter sounds (depending on regional variations) in the English language. This includes alphabet sounds, i.e. single letter sounds, as well as digraphs (combinations of letters producing one phonemic sound, such as /ch/ /th/ or /sh/ ).
The sounds the individual letters make, for example, e.g. “sss” not “es”, and “tuh” not “tee”, are taught first, followed by how these sounds connect with each other in a word. The order in which the individual sounds are taught is mostly related to the frequency with which they appear in the English language. Therefore the phonemes /s/ /a/ /t/ /p/ /i/ and /n/ are generally the first to be taught.
Once the relationships between the letters and the sounds they make are learnt, the next step is to learn how sounds operate in relation to each other to form a word. This action of sounding out the letters in sequence is known as blending or synthesising and allows the learner to read any word formed from the letter sounds previously learned. Unlike the whole word approach, there is no guessing of the word based on its shape or the context involved, and the word is not pronounced or given to the learner before seeing the text. Instead, the reader is encouraged to decode the combination of letter sounds. This in turn produces a huge sense achievement in view of the swift progress made.
As the learner progresses, increases in confidence and becomes ever more familiar with the process of blending the letter sounds to make whole words, less common letter sounds and more complex combinations are gradually introduced. Once the learner is fully practised and confident in using the transparent alphabet, that is, those sounds of the alphabet that correspond exactly to the letters representing them, they are then exposed to the opaque alphabet. The opaque alphabet are those letters or combinations of letters that do not correspond phonetically to how they appear in text, or in other words, do not necessarily follow the previously learned process of phonetic blending.
In summary, synthetic phonics is a whole new approach to traditional methods of teaching students to read. The introduction and identification of individual sounds and the process of blending the letter sounds to make whole words lets the learner progress quickly and to begin reading passages of text containing the letters they have already been exposed to. The systematic way in which the sounds and letters are introduced allows the learner to achieve rapid progression and the ability to approach a variety of texts using the blending processes learned.