Synthetic Phonics or Systematic Phonics? What Does Research Really Say?

  • 08 July, 2018

It happened again this week.

Awhile back I was a member of the National Reading Panel (NRP) that reviewed instructional research on the teaching of reading at the request of the U.S. Congress. One of my roles was to serve on the “alphabetics committee” that reviewed the research on phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.

Since then it has happened numerous times, like it did this week.

Some self-proclaimed phonics authority attributes findings to the NRP that we didn’t actually find (usually because they didn’t actually read it).

The one this week has been one of the more frequent misclaims. He claimed that the NRP found synthetic phonics instruction to be more effective than analytic phonics instruction.

Synthetic phonics instruction focuses on teaching each individual letter sound and having kids try to sound each letter or letter combination (like th, sh) one at a time and then try to blend those back into word pronunciations.

By contrast, analytic approaches focus attention on larger spelling generalizations (like rimes: ab, ad, ag, ack, am, an) and word analogies (if game is pronounced with a long a then came must be pronounced with a long a).

What did the National Reading Panel conclude about synthetic and analytic phonics instruction? That they both conferred a learning advantage on young readers. The average effect size was somewhat higher for synthetic than analytic approaches, but not significantly so (it was so small a difference that one can’t say one is really higher than the other). In other words, synthetic and analytic phonics are equally good.

It is certainly possible that with more studies and with the same pattern of results that we’d eventually conclude that synthetic phonics is best, but that is a surmise, not a research finding.

Why does this equivalence confuse so many phonics proponents?

The NRP concluded that early, explicit, systematic phonics teaching gives kids a learning advantage. Systematic, not synthetic. (Systematic means that the phonics instruction followed a scope-and-sequence, the teacher didn’t just teach phonics as she thought kids might need it.)

Systematic-synthetic, synthetic-systematic… maybe my phonics friends are looking at the first two letters and then guessing the rest of the word… which is not a very good decoding strategy.

Or, they simply believe that synthetic phonics is best and don’t recognize the damage they do by claiming research support for their beliefs.

When I was becoming a teacher—nearly a lifetime ago—my professors emphasized the superiority of analytic phonics (based on logic rather than research). I believed them, but then tried to teach phonics in first-grade.

It worked fine, usually, but there were kids who struggled to use words as analogies and to recognize the larger spelling units. It just seemed too abstract for some of them.

Although I’d been told it was wrong, out of desperation I tried teaching these kids with synthetic phonics… and they were able to get it. For these kids, working with each of the individual letters was simpler to understand and it seemed to me that they were learning to decode better.

Don’t get me wrong. My claim here isn’t that the research findings should be damned and that my experience allows me to conclude synthetic phonics to be superior to analytic phonics.

I don’t go there, because research has also found problems with the blending part of synthetic phonics. It can be tough to keep from adding vowel sounds to individual consonant phonemes. Synthetic phonics works better when it includes explicit teaching in blending, including engaging kids in the kinds of exercises one finds in Words their Way, morphological teaching, or other more analytic approaches.

The take away: Make sure young children receive daily, explicit, systematic decoding instruction.

But don’t be fanatical about synthetic or analytic approaches.

Synthetic phonics can be a bit easier to catch onto, but its effectiveness can be undermined by blending problems (and some of the analytic approaches can help with that).

Analytic phonics is, in my experience—and perhaps in that small effect size difference—harder to learn, but it can avoid some of those blending problems and tends to be more consistent with what kids will need to learn about morphology.

Sometimes the right solution is “and” and it not “either/or.” Adopt a good phonics program, and make sure it works for your students—which might require that you add some synthetic or analytic instruction depending on how they are doing.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Rebecca Jul 08, 2018 10:39 PM

Amen! This is so clear and helpful! I am a literacy professor and I love this blog for my preservice teachers. Thanks, Dr. Shanahan!

Tom Berend Jul 08, 2018 11:11 PM

The "blending" problem attributed to synthetic phonics may be explained by a design flaw in Jolly Phonics.

A Facebook reading-support group 'DyslexiaNI' from Northern Ireland fumes that schools using Jolly Phonics are teaching the wrong sounds, for example ‘m’ as ‘em’, or ‘n’ as ‘en’. That causes kids to try to sound out ‘mat’ as two or three syllables: 'em-aht' or ‘em-ah-et’. This often leads to reading failure. Tutors in the group often start by correcting this error, and quickly help struggling readers become strong readers.

Jolly Phonics uses keywords such as ‘t’ as in ‘tennis’ (with an associated swing of the arm) or ‘s’ as in snake (with an snake-like weave of the fingers). But some of their keys are dreadfully chosen, and it is plausible they cause exactly the problem DyslexiaNI is finding. The ‘m’ is ‘tasty food’ (rub tummy) and makes the ‘emmm’ sound, the ‘n’ is an airplane (arms out) and makes the ‘ennn’ sound, the ‘r’ is a puppy shaking a rag and making the ‘arrr’ sound.

It's hard to guess what results the Clackmanshire study would have obtained with a better program. PhonoGraphix, the other major Synthetic Phonics program, does not suffer this problem, and the Denton study (too late for NRP) showed rapid and universal improvements from Phono-Graphics, even for seriously-deficit readers who had received years of analytic phonics. McGuinness claimed 100% success for Phono-Graphix in a reading clinic setting.

Phono-Graphix specifically targets blending and segmenting, and has the additional virtue of making the vowel in each syllable evident. It is less concerned with creating a synthetic alphabet, and simply uses the most common spelling of a sound ('ee' as in 'meet', 'seat', and 'chief'. If there is a criticism of Phono-Graphix, it is that their paper-based 'chop up the book' approach is hard to manage, and unsuitable for a classroom.

Here's a FREE web-based easy-to-use version of Synthetic Phonics, shamelessly based on Phono-Graphix but incorporating pacing, sequencing, and record-keeping.

Joyce Shaw Jul 09, 2018 12:08 AM

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
I keep hearing, "Latest research suggests that synthetic phonics is the best way to teach children how to read."
Not in my experience in Northern Ireland but I'll be informing them of the misquote, that it's actually 'systematic'.
Slick marketing has Jolly Phonics in UK schools implying a vowel before some of the consonants. I think this is unavoidable if the child's mouth is open before they say the sound. We find L is translated as Ul, M as Im, N as In and R as Er. The use of a squeaky mouse for the letter 'i' tends to make young children think of 'ee'. There is so much emphasis placed on these individual sounds that it is NOT taken as the introduction to reading that it is meant to be.
We find that there is even a trend to actually read words letter by letter as neither blending nor the most basic syllable division is taught. We also find that children are unable to blend two consonants together as, 'cl' will be cul, 'sm' will be sim, 'sn' will be sin, 'tr' will be ter... The saddest thing is that quite often children who are unable to master these sounds are removed from class for many years so that the Special Ed teacher can reinforce them. It is lunacy at its finest.
And yes, I am admin for the closed Facebook group Dyslexia NI Helps Kids Read - UK USA World

Tim Shanahan Jul 09, 2018 04:05 AM

I actually think a Jolly Phonics is pretty darn good, and if you use it, and teach oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing you can have a pretty darn good literacy program. There are other good phonics programs, none being a panacea.

Mairead McCormick Jul 09, 2018 10:10 AM

Great article written from a common sense point of view. Of course a well balanced Literacy programme needs a mixture of both. As a qualified teacher in NI and a member of several Dyslexic groups, I have come across the flaw in Jolly Phonics and agree with all Joyce Shaw has said. I work hard, tutoring now as Joyce does, to eradicate reinforced habits caused by the addition of a vowel at the beginning of some consonants. Once that’s sorted the children proceed well.
Ten or fifteen years ago we were dragged to courses for Linguistic Phonics as the ultimate key to improving Literacy.
Jolly Phonics arose from that and some schools bought into it, ours not one of them. We followed the board’s trusted programme and reinforced it, adding onset and rhyme and spelling patterns right up to P7.
Jolly Phonics is a useful introduction with its multi sensory approach but needs dropped by the end of the first year so childrens’ relationship with letter sounds don’t follow the Pavlovian route of association with tummy rubbing and aeroplane sounds!
To reiterate Dr Shanaghan, the solution has to be a mixture of both synthetic and analytical. In a lot of schools that is indeed what happens but the problem is the mix doesn’t happen until too late, the errors are embedded. Also, too many teachers don’t know what they’ doing. Primary teacher training in wholly inadequate.

Jeffrey Bowers Jul 09, 2018 11:40 AM

Hi Tim, not only is there little/no evidence that synthetic phonics is more effective than analytic phonics, there is little/no evidence that systematic phonics is better than whole language and balanced literacy. Below I've pasted a section of a blogpost that you can read in full here: The message is not that whole language and balance literacy are just fine, rather, it is new methods are needed.

Jeff Bowers

What is wrong with the evidence with systematic phonics?

Briefly, I’ll summarize two key reasons why the current evidence does not support phonics. First, the findings reported in the meta-analyses are often poorly summarized in the abstracts and conclusions, with small and mixed results described as providing evidence for systematic phonics. These conclusions are then echoed and amplified in subsequent papers that cite these reports. However, as I detail in my review, if you carefully read the result sections (rather than the abstracts) of the meta-analyses, and accept the findings at face value, then there is no reason to be a strong advocate of systematic phonics. A more appropriate conclusion would be something like this: Systematic phonics supports small short-term effects on a pseudoword and word naming, the evidence for long-term effects on pseudoword and word naming is mixed, and that no evidence to suggest that systematic phonics has long-term effects on reading fluency, vocabulary, or reading comprehension (the aspects of reading we should care about most). This is a far cry from the standard claim that the evidence for systematic phonics is overwhelming.

Second, and more importantly, you should not accept the findings at face value. There is also a fundamental conceptual problem with the design with most of the meta-analyses that undermines even these modest conclusions. In two important but largely ignored papers, Camilli et al. (2003, 2006) showed that the NRP (2000) did not even test the hypothesis that systematic phonics is better than whole language and other common methods used in schools. This motivated their new analyses, with Camilli et al. (2003) showing that the effect of systematic phonics is roughly half the size as reported by the NRP (2000), and with an improved analysis, Camilli et al. (2006) failed to observe a significant benefit of systematic compared to non-systematic phonics (as practiced in whole language for example). In my review I show that this same flaw applies to all subsequent meta-analyses, as well as point out multiple additional problems that further undermine the conclusions that are commonly drawn.

What do I mean that the NRP (2000) and subsequent meta-analyses have not even compared systematic phonics to whole language?

What is this flaw that Camilli et al. (2003, 2006) identified? The NRP (2000) assessed the following hypothesis:

"…findings provided solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a more significant contribution to children’s growth in reading than do alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction [bold added]" (NRP, 2000, p. 2-132).

The bold highlights the key point that systematic phonics was compared to control condition combined to separate conditions, namely (1) intervention studies that included unsystematic phonics and (2) intervention studies that included no phonics. Why is this important? Within the NRP analysis, most whole language interventions included non-systematic phonics, and accordingly, it is possible that the advantage of systematic phonics in the NRP analyses was due to the poor performance in the non-phonics condition, with children in the systematic and non-systematic phonics conditions doing similarly. Indeed, this motivated the Camilli et al. analyses, and when they compared systematic phonics compared to non-systematic phonics, the effects were greatly reduced (Camilli, 2003) or eliminated (Camilli et al., 2006).

This is not nitpicking. The “reading wars” was about whether systematic phonics is better than whole language, and the research community overwhelmingly take the NRP (2000) and many subsequent meta-analyses as providing evidence in support of systematic phonics. Indeed, this has led to the legal requirement in the UK to teach systematics phonics rather than whole language (and related methods) in English schools since 2007. But given that whole language includes non-systematic phonics, and given that there is little or no evidence that systematic phonics is better than non-systematic phonics, the conclusion does not follow. That is, the meta-analyses (other than Camilli et al., 2003, 2006) have not even tested the hypothesis that systematic phonics is better than whole language.

What not to conclude

I am NOT claiming that grapheme-phoneme correspondences are unimportant. Indeed, Camilli’s reanalyzes of the NRP (2000) report showed that systematic phonics is better than a no phonics control condition. In addition, my review should NOT be taken as an excuse to continue to teach whole language. Camilli et al. (2006) and I have shown that there is no evidence that one approach is better than the other. It turns out that the reading wars was a draw. This contradicts the common view that the systematic phonics is best practice, but it does not provide any support for whole language.

What to conclude

I am claiming that researchers should be less committed to systematic phonics, and more open alternative methods. Indeed, this is the main message I want to get across with my detailed review of phonics – it is time to consider alternatives to whole language and systematic phonics.

Detailed review of the evidence can be found in this paper:

Faith Borkowsky Jul 09, 2018 11:45 AM

Dear Dr. Shanahan,
I absolutely loved your blog! I am a former first grade teacher and regional reading coach for Reading First on Long Island, NY. I currently operate a private reading and writing clinic, where I work with struggling readers, many with disabilities, others with poor prior instruction from a wide range of school districts. You hit upon the exact weaknesses that I have noticed, too! I am certified in Wilson and other programs, and I have seen too many children tapping words for way too long. Not enough emphasis is placed on blending, and too many children continue to tap every sound, as taught without advancing! These children receive Wilson in school, and they stay in Steps 1 or 2 because their teachers do not teach them how to blend sounds. I never push a particular program because there are many good phonics programs, including Wilson, but not one program is perfect. It is up to the teacher to recognize these weaknesses and support the framework with good teaching methods. The fault lies with teacher training and the schools’ insistence on pushing “guided reading” with unstructured phonics approaches.
In my book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, I discuss, among other things, the advantages of a systematic, structured approach. I hope you have an opportunity to read it, as I would love your feedback.

Thank you for always being the voice of reason.

Very truly yours,
Faith Borkowsky
High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching

Tim Shanahan Jul 09, 2018 01:31 PM


You are correct that many of the phonics studies have control or comparison groups that may have received some weak form of phonics instruction. However the fact that systematic phonics outperformed those less organized phonics approaches should result in attenuated effect sizes. Sloppy logic. That various reanalyses have managed to lower the effect size estimates doesn’t change the fact that the effect sizes are still big enough to matter and are still significant. Of course the reanalyses that you cite ignore the dozens of additional studies conducted over the past 20 years (which isn’t surprising when the work is being done by scholars in a different field of study).

One way to think of this would be to compare the number and quality of studies conducted on phonics with the number and quality of studies done on the approaches that you champion. In terms of numbers of studies it would be about 35:1 with the best study supporting your approach not even cracking the top quartile of studies on research on phonics. You might consider reading that literature.

Daniel Willingham Jul 09, 2018 01:41 PM

Wonderful blog clarifying an important distinction.
Also, "maybe my phonics friends are looking at the first two letters and then guessing the rest of the word..." made my week.

Sam Bommarito Jul 09, 2018 02:29 PM

For many children (most children) a synthetic phonics program can and will work. HOWEVER, most is not all. Naysayers about England's move to mandated synthetic phonics have pointed out there is still a significant (but small) number of children who are still not learning to read. Is this due to lack of fidelity to the program or due to the fact there our some children for whom the synthetic approach does not work. My experience in the field (which includes 18 years in some highly successful Title 1 programs) is that those children exist. I've used analytic phonics with those children and it does work for them. Why must we require synthetic phonics for all no matter what! (Or analytic phonics only for that matter!) Why not allow the use of analytic phonics IF and ONLY IF, after reasonable attempts at using synthetic phonics the child is still failing to thrive. Teachers need to be taught both approaches. Teachers should be allowed to use analytic phonics for those students who need them. Programs should be designed to use systematically taught synthetic phonics as the main approach with analytic phonics possible as needed. Love to hear your reaction to this thought. Sam

Jeffrey Bowers Jul 09, 2018 04:03 PM

Hi Tim, the paper I linked to ( reviews in great detail all the meta-analyses that have been carried out till date (12 of them). I also review all the other major sets of findings that are taken to support systematic phonics. It is just not the case that the literature supports your conclusion.

I agree that far more studies have been carried out on phonics compared to the alternative approach I've been advocating, but this is irrelevant to the point I was making above. For now, I'm just pointing out that the evidence for systematic phonics does not exist. The emporer has no clothes. But most everyone in the research community is so sure that the evidence is compelling that they are blind to major flaws in the literature. I've read the literature carefully -- it would be great if a few advocates of systematic phonics would read my paper and point out what I've got wrong.

Stephen Parker Jul 09, 2018 04:35 PM

As the "self-proclaimed phonics expert" who is a "fanatic" about synthetic phonics, and who can't recognize the difference between the words "systematic" and "synthetic," I should probably defend myself here in Dr. Shanahan's blog. I don't claim to be an expert on "phonics," so, by definition, I'm not self-proclaimed. The only thing I'm "fanatic" about is civil discourse - and I can certainly distinguish between the words "systematic" and "synthetic."

Here is my response to Dr. Shanahan (from Twitter):

The National Reading Panel condemned Whole Language and endorsed “systematic” phonics. It said that both analytic phonics and synthetic phonics could be viewed as systematic. The Panel specified clearly what it understood to constitute systematic phonics:

1) that it include the “full array of letter-sound correspondences” (paragraph 2-99)
2) that the instruction be “explicit” (2-99) and
3) that the phonics instruction commence immediately (2-93)

Here is the relevant quote from the Panel regarding this last point:

“Phonics instruction, taught early, proved much more effective than phonics instruction introduced after first grade… Phonics instruction produces the biggest impact on growth in reading when it begins in kindergarten or 1st grade, before children have learned to read independently. These results indicate clearly that systematic phonics instruction in kindergarten and first grade is highly beneficial.” (2-93) [emphasis mine]

Now, given the Panel’s published understanding of what constitutes “systematic” phonics, here’s the question: Does analytic phonics, as practiced today, meet the Panel’s understanding of “systematic”? Clearly it does not. The gold standard for analytic phonics can be found in the book Words Their Way (Donald Bear et. al.). It’s in its 6th edition and is widely used by reading teachers.

Reading it, you’ll find that the first 2 years of instruction consist largely in “invented spelling,” “pretend reading,” memorization of sight words, and word-guessing. Little to no phonics occurs in the first 2 years. This is understandable because, for analytic phonics to work, the child must be able to analyze words she can already read. Where do those words come from? They must be sight words. But it takes 2 (or more) years for children to build up a bank of enough sight words so that they can begin to “discover” (through “sorts” and other games) the phonics that explains the spellings of the words they’ve been memorizing.

The “full array of letter-sound correspondences” takes 6 years(!) for children to learn under the best analytic phonics programs. Analytic phonics fails the Panel’s own understanding of what “systematic” phonics should entail. It fails point 2) above, because most of the instruction is not explicit, but rather relies on “discovery.” And it totally ignores point 3). Many children give up on reading precisely during those first 2 critical years. They give up because they judge the skill to be arbitrary rather than logical.

My book on phonics, offered freely, uses synthetic phonics – the only phonics out there tha meets the expectations of the National Reading Panel.

---------- end of Twitter response-----------

Regarding the problems with "blending" in synthetic phonics that Dr. Shanahan mentions 3 times in his blog, my synthetic phonics program sidesteps it entirely (see Stage 2 in my book). Every time he criticizes me, it is crystal clear to me that he has not read my book!

The "blending" problem belongs to analytic phonics (not me) when it expects kids to read a word like BLAST because PAST is already a sight word for them. How are children taught the sound of an onset like BL? Is it bluh? Is it blah? Is it bleh?

My free phonics book can be found at parkerphonics (dot com). Dr. Shanahan, I encourage you to read it if you wish to continue criticizing my attempt to help teachers.

Jeanette Jul 09, 2018 04:52 PM

Great post! I am a K-1 reading teacher. I use both synthetic and analytic approaches. However, I find that with some students-synthetic seems to be a better approach, especially early on. The problem I often see with analytic phonics is over generalizing the rime. If students learn -am (as in ham) and later learn the chunk an (as in pan), they read am. They don't look carefully at ALL the sounds. If they learned am they apply that to all subsequent rimes they are exposed to that have the same vowel. I have seen this so often. I feel that with some students, analytic phonics causes them to guess words. I like my students to understand that each phoneme/graphemes in the word is important and they have to pay close attention to all of them when decoding. (I think this complements Phonemic awareness, because we ultimately want students to orally blend, segment and manipulate all the sounds in a word seperatly, and we map those sounds to print). Later when we begin learning more complex sound-symbol correspondences, I find the analytic approach works well because I am teaching them to look for patterns with both regular and irregular words. (head, bread, dead) (could, would, should). Both approaches work well, but from my experience I find synthetic better early on. I also see it as a more explicit and more efficient approach. I also noticed that The Rose Report out of the U.K. (2006), does advocate the use of synthetic Phonics.

Jeffrey Bowers Jul 09, 2018 05:13 PM

I think the quote provided by Stephen Parker provides a nice illustration of how the meta-analyses are taken to support stronger conclusions that warranted. Stephen (correctly) quotes the NPR report:

“Phonics instruction, taught early, proved much more effective than phonics instruction introduced after first grade… Phonics instruction produces the biggest impact on growth in reading when it begins in kindergarten or 1st grade, before children have learned to read independently. These results indicate clearly that systematic phonics instruction in kindergarten and first grade is highly beneficial.” (2-93) [emphasis mine]

From this, it seems fair enough to conclude that it is important to start phonics early. But here is a quote from Ehri et al. (2001) -- the authors of the phonics section of the NPR report. They write:

"The conclusion that phonics instruction is less effective when introduced
beyond first grade may be premature, however. Several mitigating factors may
have reduced effect sizes in the studies we examined. The majority of the comparisons
in the older group, 78%, involved either low achieving readers or students
with RD. Remediating their reading problems may be especially difficult. There
were only seven comparisons involving older, normally progressing readers, and
four of these came from one study using the Orton-Gillingham method. This
method was developed not for upper-elementary-level, normally achieving readers
but rather for students with RD. Other types of phonics programs might prove
more effective for older readers without any reading problems, for example, phonics
programs that improve the decoding of multisyllabic words. Another factor
constraining conclusions here is the reliability of these findings, which are based
on relatively few comparisons and hence lack statistical power. Thus, determining
whether appropriately designed phonics instruction might prove effective for older,
normally progressing readers needs further study".

So, contrary to the NPR quote, the evidence for the importance of early phonics is "premature". When reading over all the meta-analysis I find countless cases of the authors making summary statements that are not supported by the data. But then others cite the summary statement, and then strong conclusions become the conventional wisdom.

I should note that Ehri's claim that early phonics improves reading is also not supported. In the post above I cited the work of Camilli. For more recent work check out the meta-analysis of Suggate (2016):

Suggate, S. P. (2016). A meta-analysis of the long-term effects of phonemic awareness, phon-ics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. Journal of learning disabilities, 49(1), 77-96.

Harriett Janetos Jul 09, 2018 05:53 PM

There have been lots of reading recommendations in these posts, which I'll pursue. I've just finished reading Linnea Ehri's article, "Mentoring Teachers in Systematic Phonics Instruction: Effectiveness of an Intensive Year-Long Program for Kindergarten through 3rd Grade Teachers and Their Students", published in Reading and Writing in February, and her references provide more interesting reading, including Susan Brady's chapter "Efficacy of Phonics Teaching for Reading Outcomes: Indications from Post-NRP Research" in Explaining Individual Differences in Reading: Theory and Evidence (2011).

An early post referred to Phono-Graphix, which I was trained in a decade ago. Although I don't utilize the program, I do adhere to its principles, which are outlined In the book Early Reading Instruction, What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading. Diane McGuinness details what she calls a "prototype" for "what a successful reading/spelling program should or should not contain" (p. 121), and I do follow these principles:

1) No sight words (except high-frequency words with rare spelings)
2. No letter names.
3. Sound-to-print orientation. Phonemes, not letters, are the basis for the code.
4. Teach phonemes only and no other sound units.
5. Begin with an artificial transparent alphabet or basic code (a one-to-one correspondence between 40 phonemes and their most common spelling).
6. Teach children to identify and sequence sounds in real words by segmenting and blending, using letters.
7. Teach children how to write each letter. Integrate writing into every lesson.
8. Link writing (spelling) and reading to ensure children learn the alphabet is a code, and that codes are reversable: encoding/decoding.
9. Spelling should be accurate or, at a minimum, phonetically accurate (all things within reason).
10. Lessons should move on to include the advanced spelling code (the 136 remaining common spellings).

Two of the principles refer to phonetic spelling and sight words. For more on these points, I recommend, "Testing a Nested skills Model of the Relations Among Invented Spelling, Accurate Spelling, and Word Reading, from Kindergarten to Grade 1" by Monique Sénéchal published in Early Child Development and Care, 2017, and "Rethinking Sight Words" by Katherine Pace Miles in this month's The Reading Teacher.

Patty Wanker Jul 09, 2018 06:37 PM

Thank you!! It seems to me we tend to complicate things! If it works use it! If it doesn’t then use something else! Jul 10, 2018 03:00 AM

Hello, Harriett Janetos,

I have many thoughts on this discussion, but for the moment, I would like to ask about one very specific point in your list Harriett. In the list of principles, I'm most interested in any research or theory behind principle #2 "No letter names".

If I understand your post correctly this set of principles comes from a publication titled, "What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading" by Diane McGuinness.

If that is correct, the logical assumption is that this is presented as a research based recommendation - not to teach letter names.

Regardless of whether that is the claim, I would be very interested in any research supporting that instructional practice. With or without that research, I am very interested in the theory behind it and what it would look like in practice.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding something, but am trying to understand how one could adhere to this principle and teach the reading or spelling of any word with digraphs. How would one teach "the" or "sea" or "you" or "book" or "ship" if we referred to letters by their "sounds"?



Harriett Janetos Jul 10, 2018 04:32 AM

Hi Pete,
I spent a year teaching kindergarten without referring to letter names, and I found it was less confusing for struggling students. The biggest perk was that my kids never went throught the "letter name phase" of spelling (as outlined in Words Their Way). Instead of YN for when, they represented all three phoemes and wrote "wen". I can still see my biggest struggler writing a story about a new toy and asking me what /oy/ looks like because he knew that letters are pictures of sounds, but he just didn't know the picture for /oy/. So I showed him on his white board. I also used Zoophonics as my "letter-embedded picture mnemonics" (See Ehri (2014) Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight words reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning in Scientific Studies of Reading), so I sometimes referred to the Zoophonic names, in this case Ollie and Yancy.

My understanding, recently confirmed by an email correspondence with Daniel Willingham about his book The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads (2017), is that current research shows no difference in teaching names or sounds or both. He writes:

"I have to tell you: (1) "teach associated sound, not names" always made perfect sense to me and ; (2) my wife is a Montessorian who has taught early elementary for years (and is now a reading specialist) who swears by teaching sound. But...there are enough studies indicating "no difference" that that is what I had to report in the book. It may well be that there is a slight edge for teaching sounds, but it's only for some letters, and only for some kids, who knows. But at the least, there's NO indication that teaching names is better than sounds, so no argument to switch."

However, when I first became a reading specialist working with struggling readers a decade ago, I was influenced by two Diane McGuinness books: Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading (2004) and Language Development and Learning to Read: The Scientific Study of How Language Development Affects Reading Skill. In the latter, she states:

"Naming speed for letters and digits is identical, showing that the naming speed/reading connection is not specific to knowing letters or letter names. This means the critical variable is the common denominator between them: the efficiency of paired-associate learning (the time it takes to memorize the sound-symbol pairs and the speed at which they can be retrieved).

And in the former, she refers to how letter names are mostly syllables rather than phonemes and states:

"Letter names are something a child has to unlearn to be able to spell . . . Letter names mislead children in two ways, by directing attention to the wrong phonological unit for the writing system, and by causing them to misrepresent the sound to print correspondences. There is a vast literature on letter-name knowledge and letter-naming speed that proves conclusively that knowledge of letter names per se has nothing to do with reading or spelling skill.

Interestingly, the Russian psychologist Elkonin--of Elkonin box fame--said that coming to school knowing the names of letters is one of the worst habits children have. And neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehane (Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, 2009) states:

"Sometimes the child knows the names of letters . . . Unfortunately, this knowledge, far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading . . . Letter names cannot be assembled during reading--the hookup only concerns phonemes. But phonemes are rather abstract and covert speech units. A true mental revolution will have to take place before the child finds out that speech can be broken down into phonemes . . . They must first discover phonemes, then map letters into sounds, and then estabish a second lexical reading route. Learning to read implies a literal search for a proper "neuronal niche" for written words in the patchwork of cortical areas for face, object, or color perception."

My kindergarteners all learned their letter names, but not from me, and the first and second grade struggling readers I currently work with all know them. But I find that not referring to letter names is simpler, especially since many of my struggling students attempt to blend with names rather than sounds. And I will never forget a third grade non-reader I had who, when I asked him to say the sounds in the word "play", replied: "That's easy p-l-a-y. Then when I asked him to read the word "gray", he said "green". When I covered the "gr" and asked for the sound, he said /a/. By contrast, my kindergarteners learned the word play as /p/ /l/ /ay/, which is why one of my students went on to write the word "make" as "mayk", a phonetic spelling that was perfectly fine until she learned the other pictures for /ae/.

Hope I answered your question.


Timothy Shanahan Jul 10, 2018 01:00 PM

You really must read the NRP report...we condemned Whole Language? Show me where.
We found that analytic phonics worked, but the analytic phonics versions were different than today’s versions of analytic phonics? Go read the studies that we reviewed on that topic.
Lord protect us from those who aim to explain what we said.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 10, 2018 01:18 PM

Two things... the standard for research that you set is very high... but I'm willing to accept it, if you are. What it means is that there are no instructional studies whatsoever (not even 1) that support your recommendations for what teachers should teach. You are saying those who want research-based practices should stay away from morphological teaching in the early grades because there are no perfect studies supporting it (the best study on it that you have pointed out to me added morphology to the phonics the kids were already were being taught--which means that there is no evidence that morphology helps unless kids are taught phonics--anyone who recommends morphology teaching without phonics is clearly not following the research). You are correct that NRP didn't look at or comment on Whole Language... I'm not sure why you think that is an important point however, given that whole language opposed explicit instruction (including explicit teaching of morphology).

A second issue: in the 1970s, as a result of Jeanne Chall's efforts, phonics instruction became more prevalent in the U.S. and NAEP 4th grade scores climbed during that decade... then in the 1980s, Whole language became ascendent and NAEP 4th grade scores declined to the lowest levels measured... in the 1990s and 2000s, phonics came back into fashion--first in many states, like CA, and then eventually nationally due to NRP, and NAEP scores have reached highest levels ever in 4th grade (though they have stagnated--not falling, but not rising anymore, during the past 8-10 years).... those results lack the clarity of a well done research study, but the notion that teachers should be flexible on whether to provide such teaching seems like very poor public policy to me.


Timothy Shanahan Jul 10, 2018 01:23 PM


I don't disagree with your experiences in teaching phonics--analytic approaches seem to me (as well) to be most helpful the more complex the spelling patterns in question.

The Rose Report did conclude that synthetic phonics was best, but provided no analysis of research results supporting that particular claim... it was just a claim with no evidence.


Timothy Shanahan Jul 10, 2018 01:28 PM


You caught me. I have not read your book.

I have read your erroneous and misleading claims on Twitter (where all the deepest thoughts go to die) and here.

But we're even I'd say. I haven't read your book and you obviously haven't read the NRP report. The difference, of course, is that I didn't make claims about what your book said based on my non-reading of it.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 10, 2018 01:34 PM

Harriet and Pete-

I agree with Pete on this one. It is true that there are no studies showing that teaching letter names improves literacy. But there are studies showing that adding letter name instruction to phonemic awareness training increases the effects of that training dramatically. I have no doubt that it is possible to teach reading without letter names, but as Mark Seidenberg has shown, there are benefits to having a summary term for the range of sounds that letters represent. (You might not have taught letter names, Harriet, but don't be surprised to find that many/most of the kids' parents did.)


Harriett Janetos Jul 10, 2018 02:40 PM

Tim, my understanding of the research is that adding LETTERS (not specifically letter names) to phonemic awareness training is more effective than without letters, which is why I love Isabel Beck's wordbuilding exercises in her Making Sense of Phonics book. This is the cornerstone of my kindergarten intervention program. As the students build words, I have them say the sound as they move it into their boxes: /c/ /a/ /n/. Can you cite research that involves PA exercises specifically using letter names rather than sounds? Thanks.

Here's what Linnea wrote in an email about letter-embedded picture mnemonics where she refers to concurrent letter name/sound instruction:

"For children who come to school with little letter name knowledge, embedded picture mnemonics are valuable for teaching letter-sound associations and providing instruction that enables children to incorporate this knowledge into segmenting, blending, and remembering how to read words from memory. It is important for this knowledge to become useful for transitioning into reading and spelling rather than sitting as isolated knowledge. It might complicate the transition if you taught letter names and sounds concurrently, as you suggest. Another advantage of the mnemonics is that the shapes of letters are easier to learn and remember. When you teach phonemic awareness, be sure to draw children's attention to mouth positions and movements as they are segmenting words into phonemes. This is more reliable for distinguishing phonemes than sounds that are heard."

I find that my super-strugglers who come to school without letter-name knowledge are confused by concurrent sound-name instruction, and the others either already know the names or pick them up environmentally.

Jeffrey Bowers Jul 10, 2018 03:23 PM

Hi Tim, your claim that the NPR did not comment on whole language is incorrect. It is all over the place, for instance, in the abstract: "Students taught systematic phonics outperformed students who were taught a variety of nonsystematic or non-phonics programs, including basal pro-grams, whole language approaches, and whole word programs [bold added]. (NPR, 2000, p. 2-134)."

As you have noted, the NPR has been cited >20,000 times, most frequenty in support of systematic phonics, and as a challenge of whole language. I'm not supporting whole language, I'm just pointing out that none of the meta-analyses used to support systematic phonics have shown that systematic phonics is better than whole language.

Peter and I in our papers have been very careful to be clear that the current emprical evidence does not support SWI -- there is just too little data. What we are pointing out is that few researchers consider SWI or the impact of early morphological interventions because researchers think that the evidence for early phonics is so strong. It discorages people for looking at alternatives. Peter and I have made a strong theoretical case for SWI (Bowers and Bowers, 2017, in press, see links below), and note that the current data is consistent with SWI, and have been encouraging more work to test our hypothesis. The fact that there is so little compelling evidence for systematic phonics despite being intensively studies for decades suggests that more work should be done on alternative approches no?

Bowers and Bowers (2017) Beyond Phonics The Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System. Educational Psychologist, 52, 124–14. See:

Bowers and Bowers (in press) Bowers, J.S., and Bowers, P.N. (in press). Progress in reading instruction requires a better understanding of the English spelling system Current Directions in Psychological Science. Go to:

Miriam Fein Jul 10, 2018 06:00 PM

This is a very interesting discussion. A few thoughts and questions:

For all their value, meta-analyses like the NRP report do have limitations and often cannot provide nuanced information, so we should be careful in the conclusions we draw from them. I wonder if you agree or disagree, Tim (as one of the authors) that, as Kenneth Andersen points out in an article/review in 2000, as “a product of committee and consensus decision-making, the report attempts to pour oil on troubled pedagogical waters but is largely unable to reach conclusions that are plain and robust enough to serve as foundations for public policy.

Having said that, Andersen points out that the conclusions do provide “a faint but crucial ordering of the pedagogies” and “The one clear conclusion that the report reaches—and it is not insignificant—is that without some phonics instruction, whole language pedagogy is not enough”. I agree that beyond that conclusion, the report itself doesn’t give much guidance about analytic vs. synthetic or even a clear idea what exactly counts as systematic. As Diane McGuinness pointed out in Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How To Teach Reading, we need much better descriptors for the different types of phonics and she explains why the attempt in the NRP to specify variations among phonics programs is unsatisfactory (p.129-131). So in the question and answer section (p.2-132-2-136) of the NRP report, the conclusion is that the type of phonics did not matter because the difference between them was not statistically significant (as you pointed out, TIm). However, McGuinness argues that this statement is actually misleading precisely because of the problems with classification that she describes (p.151).

Unlike the NRP report, McGuinness’ detailed analysis of the NRP studies combined with her study of writing systems does provide us with some guidance about what features and elements of phonics instruction are likely to be most effective and important, as noted in the prototype quoted in the comment by Harriett Janetos.

Tim, I’m curious to know if you’ve read Early Reading Instruction and if so, what you think of McGuinness’ analysis and conclusions.

Also, I think the evidence for synthetic vs. analytic phonics in the Rose Report (in that particular definition) is largely based on the Clackmannanshire study. Again, issues of classification and categorization and labels for different phonics approaches arise. The key features of what is described as “synthetic phonics” in these studies (and the term as used in the UK), may be different from what is described as “synthetic phonics” by the NRP..

Tim, are you familiar with the Clackmannansire study? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Here is a review that also clarifies some issues:

The author concludes:
“The synthetic phonics method as implemented in our studies involved, right from the start of school, children learning a small number of letter sounds and using that knowledge right away to sound and blend the letters to find out how to pronounce unfamiliar words. They then rapidly learnt more letter sounds and continued to use the strategy. We found that these children had much better reading and phonological awareness skills than those taught either by analytic phonics, or by analytic phonics plus phonological awareness (Johnston and Watson, 2004, Experiment 1, the Clackmannanshire Study). Unlike broad-based meta-analytic comparisons, there was strict control of the new printed words used to teach all of the groups compared in our studies, so issues of pace of print exposure between studies do not arise. Furthermore, we have demonstrated that the early rigorous start of synthetic phonics teaching led to the children making increasing gains in reading ability compared with age long after the intervention ended (Johnston et al, 2012).”

Tory Callahan Jul 12, 2018 09:25 PM

The definition of analytic I know is same as this one in the June 2018 Psychological Science journal's "Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert," by Castles, Rastle, & Nation: "In contrast [to synthetic], analytic phonics programs begin with whole words, and grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught by breaking those words down into their component parts."
I was taught that those parts are graphemes, not rimes; that synthetic is phonemic part-to-whole (word), analytic is whole (word) to its phonemic parts. Rimes were yet another approach which led to phonics by analogy and the larger spelling generalizations.

Either way, there is plenty of ambiguity and overlap in how written language actually works and also in the various definitions we all use which is why explicit teaching and definition helps relative to the context in which we are working.

Too often, we lose sight of the goal: awareness of the alphabetic principal. I expect it's the interplay between different methods that is best. It's like how reading/writing are reciprocal. Analytic and synthetic are reciprocal and can be synergistic when designed thoughtfully, whether blending or segmenting. Why not take the word apart and then put it back together or vice versa? Agree: it's not an either/or. I think explicit teaching trumps the synthetic vs. analytic conundrum.

Is it worth noting that we have no optimal sequence as yet? Phonics sequences are based on convention more than evidence. Have we ever collected data on a sequence that teachers long vowels first (no, go, so, me, he, we, be..) or mixes them with short vowels (not, so, met, me...)? Does that provide broader, more pragmatic contrast for beginners, greater novelty and desirable difficulty? Would this then create greater efficiencies overall? I have tried this and I think it might. You wrote about Seidenberg's book (Language at the Speed of Sight). He relates truly exciting research that could upend traditional "best" sequences for phonics and early word teaching. Are there better sequences related to "systematic?" This research direction could be more useful.

I think we have the answers for synthetic/analytic. They just aren't short answer. It's not a program level answer and never will be. It's practice level.

Tory Callahan Jul 12, 2018 09:48 PM

The Clackmannanshire Study, which several of you have mentioned, was included in the June 2018 piece in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest which I referenced in my earlier post:

"Empirical support for synthetic phonics has also come from a longitudinal study conducted in Clackmannanshire County, Scotland: Johnston and Watson (2004, 2005) reported strong and long-lasting gains in reading accuracy and spelling from a 16-week synthetic phonics intervention relative to two analytic phonics interventions. However, in our view, the evidence is not yet sufficient to conclude that a synthetic phonics approach should be preferred over an analytic one: Neither the Torgerson et al. (2006) meta-analysis not that of the National Reading Panel (Ehri, et al., 2001) found evidence for a difference in effect size across the two methods. Both of these reviews concluded that the key ingredient of a successful phonics program is that it is systematic. Beyond that, further research is required to determine which implementations are most effective."

I hope Tim comment as he can do it better and help us all become better "evidence readers." But one reminder as we learn to read the evidence: single studies aren't enough.

Elizabeth Robins Jul 14, 2018 04:58 AM

It seems strange to read comments where the Reading Wars of old - Whole Language (morphed into Balanced Reading) or systematic phonics - seem still very much alive? Surely the outcome of the evidence-based meta-analysis of research of the NRP (2000) , clearly determined that a systematic phonic approach was necessary for beginner readers, and put this old chestnut to bed.
But should that phonics be analytic or synthetic?
Well to continue the story, a few years later in England Sir Jim Rose, former head of the school inspectorate, was appointed by the government to settle this question once and for all. The sole purpose of the ‘named’ Rose Report (2006), of a type not used in the US, was to provide the answer to this seeming conundrum.
The eclectic, far ranging Rose Report undertook an extensive study of reading research from the US (culminating with the meta-analysis of the NRP) and that from the UK; included studies from Scotland, London Dockland and Canada; collected personal evidence from US and UK researchers; policy makers; publishers - both mainstream and those advocating synthetic phonics; and visited schools recommended by the proponents of each method. This diverse evidence led the Rose Report to determine that a synthetic phonic approach, taught first and fast on school entry, was the most effective way to teach early reading.
Why I wonder is there so much blinkered and entrenched resistance to using this proven systematic synthetic phonics approach to teaching beginner readers?

Stephen Parker Jul 15, 2018 06:19 PM

Timothy, you ask "Show me where" the NRP condemns Whole Language. Such condemnations occur throughout the entire document! Here are two:

“Beginning reading programs that do not teach phonics explicitly and systematically may be of several types. In Whole Language programs, the emphasis is upon meaning-based reading and writing activities. Phonics instruction is integrated into these activities but taught incidentally as teachers decide it is needed.” (2-90)

“Whole Language teachers typically provide some instruction in phonics, usually as part of invented spelling activities or through the use of grapheme-to-phoneme prompts during reading. However, their approach is to teach it unsystematically and incidentally in context as the need arises… Whole Language teachers believe that phonics instruction should be integrated into meaningful reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities and taught incidentally when they perceive it is needed. As children attempt to use written language for communication, they will discover naturally what they need to know about letter-sound relationships and how letters function in reading and writing.” (2-102)

The NRP's condemnation of the Whole Language method, a method heartily endorsed by the reading establishment, but which failed millions of children between 1975 - 2000, is absolutely unequivocal. I don't understand how, 18 years later, you can say what you do.

Stephen Parker Jul 15, 2018 06:26 PM

"Lord protect us from those who aim to explain what we said!"
Timothy, let's keep the Lord out of this.
I'm not trying to explain what the Panel said; I'm reporting what the Panel said in no uncertain terms.
You can't now, 18 years later, reinterpret what the Panel clearly stated.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 16, 2018 09:37 PM

The panel never concluded synthetic phonics to be superior to analytic phonics. If you think it did you’re not a good reader. We didn’t find that in our statistical analyses and we didn’t write that. Your claims that it did may get you a Man Booker for fiction, but it is is fake news.

Pete Bowers Aug 09, 2018 12:47 AM

Sorry for the enormous delay in following up on your comment. I started writing this response long ago, but then got side tracked. For what it is worth, here is what I wanted to pass on...

Thank you for your response to my question on whether there is a research basis for your preference for not teaching letter names, but instead having children refer to letters by an associated sound.

It turns out we have very different views on this practice -- and that is fine.

You cite your own anecdotal experience to show why you find this helpful. My own experience is quite different. On the occasions when I have worked with students coming from this background, I've found serious challenges undoing the one phoneme associated with a given letter (e.g., the as /k/) when attempting to make sense of a word a word like "city" or "pencil" that use the grapheme for a different phoneme, or in a word with the letter in a digraph (eg. "chip") or a trigraph (e.g. “catch”). My guess is that that you would not introduce written words with these structures in early instruction - and that takes us to another difference in our instructional choices.

But for the moment, the focus of my question was not about our different preferences. What I wanted to know was the extent to which your instructional preference was based on research evidence.

The fact that this practice of "no letter names" was mentioned in reference to a publication titled, "Early Reading Instruction, What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading." gives a sense that it is a research-based practice, but I didn't know of any research on this question. I was curious to know if you could point me to some that I was unaware of.

I think it is totally appropriate for a publication with a research focus to provide instructional suggestions that go beyond what has been shown for the research. But it should also be clear when suggestions are based on research findings that we can inspect and when they are hypotheses for instruction based on other research and theory.

I really appreciate that you were able to confirm with the author of the text that there was not direct research evidence one way or the other. I have not seen the book, but I do hope that in that publication the author does not leave that understanding ambiguous.

When there is no clear research evidence for one condition of instruction compared to another condition of instruction we are left to draw on theory and practice. I’m sure we could have a productive debate about our differing positions. But if we did that now, we would know that we are doing it in the absence of direct research evidence.

Arielle Adamy Aug 17, 2020 10:36 AM

I am a homeschooling mom in the US and have taught my first child to read by 20 months and am now teaching my 3 years old. I use flashcards that go through all the phonemes. Then I use a program called Distar (how to read in 100 easy lessons). I am enjoying your blog so much, thank you!

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Synthetic Phonics or Systematic Phonics? What Does Research Really Say?


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