Which is best? Analytic or synthetic phonics?

  • 04 February, 2018

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.

Teacher question:

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.

Shanahan response: 

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.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Rebecca Feb 06, 2018 02:42 PM

Nice article! Thanks.

Beatriz Maldonado Feb 07, 2018 03:36 PM

What approach would be recommended for students who are dual language learners? Students with home languages of Spanish or English who are learning to read in both languages at the same time (English and Spanish).

Tim Shanahan Feb 07, 2018 07:36 PM

I’d still include phonics, with a bit of special attention to those few sounds that differ between Spanish and English. Spanish is one of the most transparent languages in the world so phonics is a no brained there. Research shows that Spanish speakers learning English benefit from phonics too.

Donna M. Soukup Feb 13, 2018 06:04 PM

Thank you for confirming that we need to focus on what is important, making decisions on the needs of the reader and not a program.

Sam Bommarito Feb 23, 2018 09:49 PM

Nicely Done! Two of the major players in the literacy world are each about to launch their own version of a phonics program (F&P and Calkins). Have you had a chance to look at either yet? How would you characterize them, analytic, synthetic, a blend of each or ???? ? Looking forward to your answer.

Faith Gerber Apr 03, 2018 12:31 AM

I appreciate the clarity of your discussion. My attention was piqued by the following statement:
If kids are having trouble learning something, simplify it....However, if kids are having trouble applying something that they have learned, then you need to complicate it.
I can think of many ways to apply this principle, in other subjects as well. I'm going to hang on to this one!

Denise Kelly Aug 28, 2021 06:32 PM

It seems that marrying reading AND writing instruction would support systematic AND analytical. So often, we “teach” students to read and then “add on” writing when the student finally learns to decode.

steven Aug 28, 2021 08:56 PM

I taught students to synthesize phonemes represented by letters into words for reading.
I taught students to analyze orally presented words into phonemes and represent them with letters for spelling.

At the same time that they were learning letter-phoneme relationships for reading, they were learning phoneme -letter relationships for spelling.

Anila Nayak Aug 28, 2021 09:13 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,
Thank you for the article. Like Faith, my interest was also piqued by your statement: 'However, if kids are having trouble applying something that they have learned, then you need to complicate it.'
Could I ask you to give me an example of "complicate it" - let us assume kids are having problems applying the generalization of
-tch vs -ch, to take an example or anything you would like to shed more light on. Thank you.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 28, 2021 09:44 PM


In this context, showing the student how to use known words as analogies for unknown ones (in other words, working with word families) would be a complication that might help students to better apply their phonics skills.

Or, let's say you have been teaching students to construct main ideas for paragraphs... then shifting that skill to stories or sections of textbook chapter would be a complication (because of all the other information they'd have to consider).



Julie Lewis Aug 29, 2021 02:55 PM

Looks like this is a reprint. I, too, learned in my graduate training, that analytical phonics was best. When I started my first job teaching special education in a resource room many years ago, I found that some of my students needed more specific and intensive instruction. Today I might argue that these are students who have weaker phonemic awareness. In those days, this was not part of the vernacular. (I am almost as old as Tim.) My students who might today be considered dyslexic could not wrap their minds around segmenting the in initial or final consonant sound and exporting it to another word. They needed very explicit instruction, and so I immediately, right out of the gate began to "cheat." I do agree that a good phonics program can and does include elements of both, so the discrimination between analytic and synthetic is really misleading. I advocate teaching students what they need. For our students who struggle with most or all aspects of phonological processing, which includes phonemic awareness, we need to teach more explicitly and we may need to back up and teach "skills" that our typically developing readers come already equipped with. For example, I also found that first year my more disabled readers often had no grasp of "rhyme." How could I use onset-rime activities (word families) to teach and train when my students could not identify or produce rhyming words. Today I know that this is a common deficit in children who struggle with phonemic awareness. I "screened" my granddaughter when she was 2. She caught on to rhyme immediately (of course we read aloud extensively and so many books for young children emphasize rhyme and rhythm). Today I find myself disagreeing with putting children like my granddaughter, who for all intents and purposes appear to be developing "normal" word reading circuitry in their brains, though too many hours of phonemic awareness training (some folks insist we keep this up through second and even into 3rd grade). Why would I waste her time on something she is good at when I can differentiate and engage her in other more valuable activities while I practice phonemic awareness activities with the 1/3, or so, of the class who do need extra time and practice? Or, once she is clearly engaging successfully in orthographic mapping while reading and encountering "new" words in print, she is demonstrating she has these skills well-developed and is ready for focused instruction elsewhere.

Anila Aug 31, 2021 04:17 AM

Dr. Shanahan,
Thank you for your answer. Appreciate you taking the time to respond. I get it - giving students the opportunity to think more deeply about the concepts by applying within related but denser contexts to provide an interntional "productive struggle".
I always enjoy reading your blog.

Lise L'Heureux Aug 31, 2021 08:15 PM

Merci! Toujours très intéressant de vous lire! :-) Lise

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Which is best? Analytic or synthetic phonics?


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