Blast from the Past: This blog was first posted on February 4, 2018 and was revised and reposted on August 28, 2021. Recently, a research study on "connected phonation" appeared (Gonzalez-Frey & Ehri, 2021) that addressed a problem with synthetic phonics discussed below. It found that teaching students to sound out words in a more blended fashion improved student reading performance. This reminded me of a study that Suzanna Pflaum and Ernie Pascarella did back in the 1980s; they found that explicitly teaching blending also improved synthetic phonics outcomes. The point is that one of the major problems of synthetic phonics can be addressed successfully through instruction, but it is not clear that this adjustment is sufficient to make synthetic phonics better than analytic. Though folks have argued over this for over 50 years at this point, there is still not a direct experimental comparison. In other words, despite the new study, the advice given here still appears to be sound.
I’ve taught literacy and literacy courses in every grade from K-graduate school. I take the view that synthetic phonics taught directly and systematically is essential to any literacy program. However, we also propose that teachers be given the training an option to use analytic phonics when, after reasonable attempts of using direct instruction, the synthetic phonics approach fails a particular child. I recognize that currently virtually no one is doing it that way. Now my criticism of systematic synthetic phonics is not that it shouldn’t be done, I believe that it should. Rather it’s that the way it is being done in many places is taking up far too much instructional time. Is there a middle ground that would help teachers help students? I await your answer.
Forty-eight years ago, I was taking my first course in the teaching of reading. The previous fall I had been tutoring reading in an inner-city classroom in Pontiac, Michigan. I didn’t plan on becoming a teacher, but the experience intrigued me, so I wanted to know more.
I was taught in that college class that there were two kinds of phonics: synthetic and analytic. These supposedly differed in effectiveness and so the only reasonable approach was analytic phonics. I dutifully recorded this in my notes. Basically, synthetic phonics taught children letter-sound correspondences and then had kids synthesizing words by blending the sounds for each of these in the following fashion:
“b makes /b/, a makes /?/, t makes /t/… so, it is buh- ?-tuh… buh ? -tuh… /bat/.”
Analytic phonics, on the other hand, focused on combining larger sound units (such as word families or phonograms: ab, ack, ad, ag, am, an, ap, at, etc.), or using known words as analogies for figuring out unknown words. Using that a student might approach decoding like this:
“I already know the words big and rat and here is a new word bat… so it starts out like /b/ig and ends up like r/at/… so it must be /bat/.”
My professors claimed analytic phonics was better because students wouldn’t get confused by all those extra vowel sounds that plagued synthetic phonics (it’s impossible to pronounce most consonants without adding a vowel sound, hence we may end up with /buh/ rather than /b/.
Then I became a first-grade teacher.
I taught analytical phonics lessons, following all the steps, and my kids—well some of my kids—did fine. The others struggled to make sense of those lessons. They were trying to learn what I was teaching but found it too complicated or abstract. These 6-year-olds were just confused by it all.
So, I started to “cheat.”
Because my students were having trouble I began “simplifying” my instruction by teaching synthetic phonics lessons and that seemed to help. I saw it as a useful expedient, teaching synthetic phonics to get the kids started more straightforwardly.
Jump ahead 28 years... I served on the Alphabetics committee of the National Reading Panel. We reviewed the 38 existing experimental studies on phonics instruction in grades K-12.
We found that systematic phonics instruction was best. Please note the highlighted word. It is amazing how many phonics proponents mistakenly read that word as “synthetic.”
What we meant by systematic is that successful decoding instruction employed a specific sequential phonics curriculum. Kids did best when their teachers employed such a regimen. This was better than trying to teach phonics skills as kids seemed to need them. We didn’t conclude that one particular sequence was best, since so many of these schemes had worked well, only that schools needed to follow a well-planned sequence.
What did we find out about synthetic versus analytic phonics?
Across those 38 studies, synthetic instruction led to higher average effect sizes. That means kids taught synthetic phonics scored higher on reading tests than those taught analytic phonics. However, that difference wasn’t statistically significant. That means that the difference was so small that could just be a chance occurrence rather than any consistent genuine superiority.
Since then, there have been some reviews that have claimed that synthetic phonics really is better, but these have not controlled for some important differences, so I wouldn’t trust those.
That means that phonics instruction is beneficial, but there is no clear learning difference between synthetic and analytic phonics.
Given this, based on my personal teaching experiences, I’d begin with synthetic phonics (or would insert synthetic supports into an analytic program if I were required to teach that). It’s just easier for kids.
However, at some point kids do need to analyze words (and this analysis should consider both phonemic and morphological features, addressing pronunciation, spelling, and meaning implications of these patterns).
The big take away:
If kids are having trouble learning something, simplify it.
No matter what your beliefs about learning the alphabetic system, we are teaching it to young children. Simplifying things to get them started makes a lot of sense—and synthetic approaches are relatively easy to understand.
However, if kids are having trouble applying something that they have learned, then you need to complicate it.
When children know their phonics skills but struggle to read or spell words, then working with word analogies and getting kids to thinking about alternative pronunciations of spelling patterns (bread, break, bead) is the way to go.
The idea of combining synthetic and analytic phonics instruction violates no research, and if done well, may help more kids to succeed.
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