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Teaching reading with synthetic phonics

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Authors: Jo Earp
Teaching reading with synthetic phonics

A large-scale study tracking the progress of more than 270 000 students has concluded that teaching reading through a synthetic phonics programme has long-term benefits for children from poorer backgrounds and those who do not speak English as a first language.

The analysis, from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics, also found the teaching method has large, initial benefits for all students at age five and age seven. 

The phonics programme – rolled out in primary schools across England between 2005 and 2010 following positive results from a small-scale study in Scotland and an independent review into the teaching of reading (Rose, 2006) – is typically completed at age seven.

The CEP study differs from previous research as it also assesses the impact four years down the track. It found no measurable benefits for the average child at age 11. Study authors Professor Stephen Machin, Professor Sandra McNally and Associate Professor Martina Viarengo say this is probably because most children learn to read eventually, regardless of the teaching method.

At age seven, those taught to read using other methods were behind those using synthetic phonics, but they caught up later. However, the academics note: ‘Most interestingly, there are long-term effects at age 11 for those with a high probability of starting their school education as struggling readers. The results for our study suggest that there is a persistent effect for those classified as non-native English speakers and economically disadvantaged (as measured by free school meal status).’

The results of the study have been published in a CEP discussion paper ‘Teaching to Teach’ Literacy. It also explores different strategies advocated for the teaching of reading.

‘How reading should be taught in schools has been, and remains, hotly debated amongst educationalists,’ the academics say. ‘The historic division has been between proponents of “whole language” versus “phonics” approaches.’

The ‘whole language’ method, it explains, involves being introduced to language through context, such as through stories and picture books, and the ‘phonics’ method teaches spelling patterns that correspond to sounds.

‘Synthetic phonics … involves learning to pronounce the sounds (phenomes) associated with letters “in isolation”. These individual sounds, once learnt, are then blended together (synthesised) to form words. By contrast, [in] analytic phonics … children are taught to recognise the beginning and ending sounds of words, without breaking these down into the smallest constituent sounds. It is generally taught in parallel with, or sometime after, graded reading books, which are introduced using a “look and say” approach.’

The paper notes that ‘systematic’ phonics instruction was advocated in the US in 2000 and in Australia in 2005. Until 2006, England’s National Literacy Strategy recommended the use of analytic phonics as one of four methods, alongside knowledge of context, grammatical knowledge and word recognition and graphic knowledge. Following the 2006 Rose Report, primary schools were required to use synthetic phonics as ‘the first and main strategy’ for teaching students how to read.

The staggered implementation of the programme in different schools allowed the CEP study authors to analyse its effects using census information from the National Pupil Database.

Ultimately, the study concludes the programme’s implementation has been money well spent – the costs involved employing a literacy consultant to work with a school for a year offering intensive training support to teachers. ‘The effect sizes for the most disadvantaged group seem high enough to justify the costs of the policy.

‘This study therefore shows that good teaching can indeed be taught and this is an example of a “technology” which is helpful in closing the gap between students who start out with disadvantages (whether economically or in terms of language proficiency) compared to others.’


Machin, S., McNally, S., & Viarengo, M. (2016). CEP Discussion Paper No 1425: ‘Teaching to Teach’ Literacy. Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science. Retrieved from (852 KB)

Related reading

National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (Australia) (2005-12). Teaching reading: report and recommendations. Department of Education, Science and Training.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups (00-4754). Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. Department of Education and Skills.

To download the CEP discussion paper, Teaching to Teach’ Literacy, click on the link (PDF 852KB)

Allan 05 May 2016

Because English has such a polyglot pedigree, there ar (sic) bound to be complications in its structure, which make for difficulties in learning and teaching it.

Fortunatly, learning the language is a natural function for its nativ speakers, and they mostly cope. Learning to rite it, OTOH, is not a natural function. Literacy is an artificial creation, and so ar the tools used to teach it: alfabets, spelling, hieroglyfs, logograms, etc.

Unfortunatly, the English tool is badly chipped and broken, and so does not work efficiently. Our spelling is a huge handicap to young learners. If it was regular, logical, and predictable, as in Finnish or Estonian, fonics (sic) would be the only way to teach it. And as in Finland or Estonia (or many other nations) there would be no need to devise differing, often competing, methods to teach literacy.

Using synthetic fonics may well be an improvement, but we will never attain complete success until our spelling system is upgraded and modernized so that it aids learning, instead of being a handicap requiring creativ and evasiv action.

léo 05 May 2016

ah bin dare…..phonetic spelling of i’ve been there in east London…...capitals are unnecessary in written English…..if what is writtten is comprhensible, is it necessary to conform to dictionary (usa or English) spelling?....and why do we say English dictionary rather than british

Masha Bell 05 May 2016

Because learning to read and write English is uniquely difficult -  giving more help to children who are struggling is what helps most, rather than any particular teaching method. Nobody has ever disagreed that children should be taught the basic English sounds-to-letters and letters-to-sounds correspondences. That is the easy part.
Reading problems are caused by the irregular sounds of spellings like [a] in ‘an, at - any, able, father’ or [o] in ‘on, often -  only, once, other’. Writing difficulties are cause by different spellings for identical sounds, like ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, to, you, two, too’.
Some children find both of these much more difficult than others, and therefore need far more help. And some children never become proficient readers or writers, despite a great deal of help, because coping with the irregularities of English spelling is simply beyond them. It’s as simple as that.

Louise 17 May 2016

The point of synthetic phonics is that the irregularities are addressed. There are actually very few exceptions to the rules of English spelling. The average adult just doesn’t know the rules because you were taught using analytic phonics or whole language, which just gives a smattering of simple rhymes and then says “oh that’s an exception, memorise that”. The rules of English are knowable and understandable. Synthetic phonics works because it explains them all, especially for those kids who do not subconsciously absorb the spelling patterns of our language.

Allan 19 May 2016

Louise: So how would u teech a lerner how to master these words from your message:
synthetic (y, vowel or consonant?), phonics (cf, shepherd), are (cf, bare, hare), very (cf, berry, merry), average (silent e, soft g), works (cf, words, forks) know(able)?

It would be much simpler if eech letter and digraf had only one sound (just as numerals hav only one value) which could be quickly lernd (as in Finland), and the student could then move on in thare seccond yeer to mor substantiv subjects.

Masha Bell 20 May 2016

‘Few’ is a relative term. To put debates about English spelling on a factual putting, I have summarised its details at
English has 73 MAIN spellings, or rules, for its 43 clear sounds and another 10 spellings for endings with unstressed vowels, such as -able, -ary, -er.
But in addition to those 83 main spellings, English also uses another 122 VARIANT spellings, which are unpredictable and have to be learned word by word. The short /e/ sound, for example, is spelt mainly with ‘e’ (in 301 common words like ‘bed, bend, trend), but differently in 67 words like ‘head, said, friend’. Regardless of teaching method, pupils have to learn word by word exactly how to spell the /e/ sound in all 67.
Matters are made slightly worse still by 7 of the clear sounds (air, au, ee, er, o-e, long oo and short oo)  not even having a clearly dominant main spelling pattern (air care,  awful autumn, eat eel, her third turn, show toe, blue shoe too, good woman would). - They have a spelling which is used in more words than any of the others, but more words in total spell those sounds differently. 
Consonant doubling in words of more than one syllable is also completely erratic. It is the least predictable aspect of English spelling, closely followed by the 335 words with 2 spellings (e.g. there/their,  its/it’s).

The only thing that helps pupils cope with the shambles of English spelling is lots of writing practice. It is perfectly possible that teachers who use synthetic phonics teach all the foibles of English spelling more systematically and give pupils more practice with them and thereby enable their students to learn them better. English has some rules. Consonant spellings are relatively stable, but vowel spellings are mostly unpredictable. Most adults don’t know what the rules of English spelling are, because of all the exceptions, not because they were not taught the rules.

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