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: phonics, oral language, 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, such as 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.
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, spell and write 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’, ‘’’ 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 the program. 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 don’t follow phonetic rules, meaning their sound doesn’t match their letters. These words are known as sight words as they need to be memorised as a whole word, by sight, instead of breaking them down by their individual sounds. Sight words are often small, high frequency words that add meaning to the words around them such as ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘or’.
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 written 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 that make up a word.
At the beginning of each Synthetic Phonics lesson, grapheme flash cards are used to introduce new sounds and letters and to revise those that have already been learned. A single letter symbol is displayed on each card while simultaneously making the speech sound that matches it. As children progress, you can introduce them to letter combinations of two or more letters. This is an important step in establishing the connections between letters and sounds before moving onto blending.
When children are ready to start blending sounds, introduce flash cards that display individual words. These flash cards should also include visual cues known as sound buttons to show how the word is broken down into individual sounds. Typically, this is represented by a dot under individual letter sounds ‘s’/ or ‘a’ and lines under combined letter sounds such as ‘sh’ or ‘th’.
Once children can successfully blend sounds to form words, they can then move on to reading sentences. When moving onto sentences, it’s important to ensure that sentences are decodable, meaning they are only made up of the sound/letter correspondences that the child has already learned to read. There are specific books known as ‘decodable readers’ that are designed to support a Systematic Synthetic Phonics program. These books contain simple stories that are written almost exclusively using the speech sounds and letters that children have been taught in their lessons. Pictures in decodable readers don’t directly correspond with the words on the page. This prevents children from relying on the context of the image to guess. Being able to successfully read each sentence, rather than guessing, can provide children with a sense accomplishment that is important for maintaining interest and motivation.
While decodable readers are a great tool for children to practice reading accurately and independently, it’s important to support this explicit learning with other picture books or more complex stories to encourage imagination and build narrative and vocabulary skills. Make time each day to also read a range of stories with your child or the children you work with.
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.
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.
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.
Incorporate a variety of phonics games and activities to help to keep children engaged and revise what they’ve learned. This could be as simple as a game of letter bingo or something more complex such as an interactive online game.
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.
Make sure that what you are practicing 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’) correctly for reading instead of using the letter name (e.g. ‘ess’) to identify a letter.
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.
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?’.
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.
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 a range of professional development courses for teachers, to help them empower students who find learning difficult.
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