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What is Synthetic Phonics?

The synthetic phonics approach is a part of the whole approach to teaching phonics (Torgerson et al 2006). Students are taught that sounds are represented by letters (PART) and that letter sounds can be blended together (or synthesised) to form words (WHOLE).

Synthetic Phonics differs to traditional phonics in several ways.

1. Direct Teaching & Synthetic Phonics

The synthetic phonics approach teaches students the alphabetic code directly. Over the early primary years, students are taught the various ways the 44 sounds which make up the English language, can be represented by letters and combinations of letters (e.g. students are initially taught that the long sound is represented by ai, then over time other representations are also taught, including ay, a_e, ey, eigh etc) (Dooner 2010).

2. Systematic Synthetic Phonics

The synthetic phonics approach teaches these sound-letter correspondences in a systematic and ordered way, following a defined sequence (Torgenson et al 2006, Mesmer & Griffith 2005, Mesmer & Griffith 2005).

3. Blending All Through the Word & Synthetic Phonics

The synthetic phonics approach focuses on sounds all through the word, rather than initially focusing on first sounds only (Johnston & Watson 2005). In addition, students are taught to blend and sound letters all through the word, which enables them to read and spell words quickly (Ehri et al 2001, Johnston & Watson 2004, Bowey 2006).

Students learn that letters correspond to sounds, letter sounds can be blended to form words and words can be spelled by sounding out and building a sequence of letters corresponding to the spoken sounds.

Hence phonological awareness in an integral part of synthetic phonics (Johnston & Watson 2005) and the critical skills of phonemic awareness, sound-letter correspondence, blending, segmenting, and letter formation are developed within a synthetic phonics program (Hampenstall 1995,Stahl et al 1998). In addition, opportunities to develop reading fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension should also form a part of a balanced synthetic phonics program.

Why Synthetic Phonics?

English is an alphabetic code and therefore Synthetic Phonics, with its emphasis on teaching students sound-letter correspondences, is vital for literacy instruction, however “phonics is a means to an end not an end unto itself” (Mesmer & Griffith 2005, p.368). The ultimate goal of any literacy program is for students to become “skilled and motivated readers who read thoughtfully and purposefully for an array of purposes” (Applegate et al 2010, p.213).

The research consistently supports Synthetic Phonics, with its strong code emphasis, as the most effective method of literacy instruction (Chall 1989, Johnston & Watson 2003, Hampenstall 1995, Connelly, Johnston & Thompson 2001, Ehri et al 2001, Torgerson et al 2006).

The emphasis of the synthetic phonics approach lies on the sounds all through the word and the skills of blending and segmenting. This results in students experiencing less confusion between letters and sounds and have advantages in reading recognition, reading accuracy, reading fluency, spelling, reading irregular words and sight words, reading comprehension and phonological awareness skills (Johnston & Watson 2005, Farrari 2008, Johnston & Watson 2004, Chall 1989, Connelly, Johnston & Thompson 2001, Torgerson et al 2006).

In addition the research has found these gains are maintained and in fact increase over time (Johnston & Watson 2003, Johnston & Watson 2005). The synthetic phonics approach is as effective for students at risk of literacy failure as it is for their peers (Torgerson et al 2006) and some research has suggested boys have a slight advantage over girls in spelling and reading comprehension when taught with a synthetic phonics approach (Johnston & Watson 2003, Johnston & Watson 2005).

As a result of the systematic and direct teaching of sound-letter correspondences and blending skills, a synthetic phonics approach leads to superior word reading (including irregular words) and a lower incidence of reading failure (Johnston and Watson 2004).

Early instruction in synthetic phonics provides students with the necessary skills to become fluent and competent readers and spellers at an earlier age than other approaches to teaching literacy (Bowey 2006, Dooner 2010, Chall 1989). As a result students can “more quickly go about the job of reading to learn” (p.526, R. Dykstra cited in Chall 1989) which is the ultimate goal of any literacy program.

When to Start Synthetic Phonics?

Synthetic phonics can and should be introduced from the first years of formal education, usually from when the student is approximately 5 years of age (Ehri et al 2001).

How to teach Synthetic Phonics?

Synthetic phonics needs to be taught systematically and explicitly.


The sound-letter correspondences should be introduced in a defined sequence with each step building on the previous. The PLD text ‘Phonic and Sight Word Sequence’ provides content divided into different stages which can form the basis of a systematic phonics program.


Synthetic Phonics incorporates direct or explicit teacher instruction which is matched to the student’s developmental level and clearly outlines the lesson goals (Mesmer & Griffith 2005, Torgerson et al 2006). Students are directly instructed on the sound letter correspondences (e.g. “CH makes a ‘ch’ sound”) and given clear, explicit models of how to complete activities using example words from their spelling level.

Explicit teaching is vital and leads to greater improvements in literacy development and decoding than practice alone (Berninger et al 2003, Podhajski etc al 2009).

Problems arise when teachers rely on individual work and worksheets alone with no direct teacher instruction (Chall 1989). Good quality synthetic phonics spelling activities require teacher-student interaction and actively engage each individual student (Mesmer & Griffith 2005).

NOTE: Teach students to initially decode the structure of words, rather than just teaching them as sight words. This approach has benefits to long term reading accuracy and ability to read new words (Berninger et al 2003).

The ‘Spelling Activities for the Junior Primary’ resource is intended to provide a definition of synthetic phonics and related skills, an understanding of the importance of synthetic phonics, and practical suggestions for how to teach synthetic phonics within the classroom, in addition to specific spelling activities which are based on the principles of synthetic phonics and are ready to use with your students individually, within small groups or as part of whole class activities.

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