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Learning to read is an important part of every child’s development. It helps children build important, lifelong skills in areas such as language, concentration, critical thinking and memory. Plus, it can be a lot of fun for many children as it expands their imagination and teaches them about a range of interesting topics.

There are six components of effective reading: oral language, phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Children may struggle in one or more of these areas when they are first learning to read. But for some children, such as those with Dyslexia and other learning difficulties, these challenges can persist and make reading a struggle.

An explicit instruction approach to reading, called Systematic Synthetic Phonics, can help all children learn to read, and it is especially helpful for children with learning difficulties. This approach can empower children with the specific skills and strategies they need to read effectively alongside their peers.

What is Systematic Synthetic Phonics?

Systematic Synthetic Phonics is an evidence-based, structured approach to teaching children to read. This method of reading helps children to learn the relationships between the sounds (phonemes) of spoken language and the letter symbols (graphemes) of the written language. There are 44 speech sounds in the English language that can be combined to form words. With just 26 letters in the English alphabet, some sounds are visually represented by an individual letter while others are represented by a combination of two or more letters. The relationship between these sounds and letters is referred to as sound/letter or phoneme/grapheme correspondence. Being able to match the speech sounds with their corresponding letter symbol or symbols helps children to simultaneously learn to read and spell words.

A typical Systematic Synthetic Phonics program introduces children to only a small group of sounds at one time. Often this starts with the most commonly occurring sounds of ‘s’, ‘a’, ‘t’, ‘p’, ‘i’ and ‘n’. This allows children to learn a large number of letter combinations to form simple words and read basic sentences from the beginning of their learning. With these six letters, children can learn to read words such as sat, pat, nap, tip, nip, sit, pit etc. Once children have mastered these small words, you can then introduce them to new sounds and letters to read longer and more complex words.

When learning to read using a Synthetic Phonics approach, children are first taught individual sounds and then learn to blend, or ‘synthesise’, these sounds to form words. For example, a child might be taught to read the word ‘sat’ by first learning the individual sounds that represent the letters ‘s’, ‘a’ and ‘t’ and then blending these sounds together to make the word ‘sat’. This process of recognising and combining sounds to be able to read is known as decoding. In reverse, a blended word can be broken up into individual sounds to spell, which is known as encoding.

There are some words that are used frequently that help sentences make sense. These are called high frequency words. Some high-frequency words are explicitly taught to enable sentences to be read.

The goal is for students to blend and segment sounds to make words until the words are so familiar that the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of specific words is held in the child’s memory and the words are recognised automatically or at sight. This is known as orthographic mapping.

Terminology to Understand

Some of the terms used in a Systematic Synthetic Phonics program can sound confusing. Here’s a basic run down of the most common terms you’ll hear:

  • Phoneme – the smallest unit of speech sound in a word
  • Grapheme – the written letter or group of letters that represents a speech sound
  • Phoneme/Grapheme Correspondence – the relationship between speech sounds and letter symbols.
  • Decoding (Reading) – the process of reading a word by recognising which sound (phoneme) corresponds with each letter (grapheme) and then blending these individual sounds/letters to make words.
  • Encoding (Spelling) – The process of spelling a word by deciding which letters represent the speech sounds.

Tips for teaching reading with Synthetic Phonics

  1. Keep lessons short and consistent
    Spend about 10-20 minutes each day revising and learning new sound/letter correspondences. This will allow children to remember and master the information being taught.
  1. Keep the lesson focused
    Limit the number of sound/letter correspondences you teach at one time. Children should be able to successfully recognise and recall a phoneme/grapheme correspondence before a new one is introduced. The goal of Systematic Synthetic Phonics is not to teach children to read every letter at once, but to first master the most common sounds to make up words and begin reading more quickly.
  1. Repeat sentences
    When reading a decodable sentence or book, have students read each sentence aloud a few times before moving on. Repetition will help to improve the speed and fluency of their decoding (reading). If they are able to read fluently, encourage them to try adding more expression to their reading to develop their storytelling voice.
  1. Make phonics lessons fun
    Incorporate a variety of phonics games and activities to help to keep children engaged and revise what they’ve learnt. This could be as simple as a game of letter bingo or something more complex such as an interactive online game.
  1. Encourage independence
    While you will need to model an activity when introducing it for the first time, allowing students to perform each task themselves can give them confidence and support their learning. This could be holding up flash cards and pointing to graphemes in words while making the associated sounds.

Tips for parents to support reading practice

  1. Learn the basics of phonics for yourself
    Make sure that what you are practising with your child is consistent with what they are being taught at school by learning the principles of Synthetic Phonics for yourself. A good place to start is learning to say each letter sound (e.g. /s/ as in ‘sit’) correctly for reading instead of using the letter name (e.g. ‘ess’) to identify a letter.
  1. Look for opportunities to model phonics
    When you’re out and about, look for opportunities to demonstrate sound/letter correspondences such as on signs or on menus at restaurants. Demonstrate the sound and letter yourself and then ask your child to do the same.
  1. Ask questions
    Once your child has successfully decoded a sentence, ask them questions about what they have just read. This will help them to build comprehensions skills, which is another essential component of effective reading. You could ask questions like, ‘What do you think that means?’ or ‘What do you think will happen next?’.
  1. Offer encouragement and praise
    Build your child’s confidence by acknowledging when they have read successfully. Depending on your child’s reading skill, success could be making the correct sound for a letter or reading a complete sentence without assistance. If your child makes a mistake, acknowledge what they have done well and offer corrective feedback for them to try again.

You can read more tips for reading with your child here.

While using a Systematic Synthetic Phonics approach is effective in teaching most children to read, some may still struggle to build these foundation skills, which can put them at risk of falling behind at school. Learning Links’ experienced teachers work with children every day to support reading and literacy through our Specialist Tutoring program.

Our professionals also offer professional development for teachers, to help them empower students who find learning difficult.

How Learning Links Can Help

Learning Links has developed a comprehensive teaching guide, Dyslexia Support – Synthetic Phonics, to provide teachers with guidance on selecting the most effective synthetic phonics intervention for their students. Our professionals share the what, why and how, in addition to providing the resources you need to help children to thrive and combat reading challenges that may otherwise hold them back

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