Synthetic Phonics in Spain

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Synthetic Phonics


Synthetic Phonics is a method of teaching reading which first teaches the letter sounds and then builds up to blending these sounds together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words. The method relates to the English language only.






The name 'Synthetic Phonics' comes from the concept of 'synthesising', which means 'putting together' or 'blending'. What is synthesised/put together/blended in reading are the sounds prompted by the letters on the page. (, newsletter 54)

According to the Clackmannanshire 7 year longitudinal study, '[Synthetic phonics] is a very accelerated form of phonics that does not begin by establishing an initial sight vocabulary. With this approach, before children are introduced to books, they are taught letter sounds. After the first few of these have been taught they are shown how these sounds can be blended together to build up words (Feitelson, 1988). For example, when taught the letter sounds /t/ /p/ /a/ and /s/, the children can build up the words tap, pat, pats, taps, sat, etc. The children are not told the pronunciation of the new word either before it is constructed with magnetic letters or indeed afterwards; the children sound each letter in turn and synthesise the sounds together in order to generate the pronunciation of the word. Thus the children construct the pronunciation for themselves. Most of the letter sound correspondences, including the consonant and vowel digraphs, can be taught in the space of a few months at the start of their first year at school. This means that children can read many of the unfamiliar words they meet in text for themselves, without the assistance of the teacher.


What it is

  • Synthetic phonics involves the teaching of letter/s-sound correspondences to automaticity, rapidly and systematically (approx 6 sounds per week) and models how the alphabetic code works by sounding out and blending all-through-the-word for reading and segmenting the individual sounds all-through-the-word for spelling. Sounds and letters are taught in all positions of the words, but the emphasis is on all-through-the-word blending and segmenting from week one.
  • Synthetic phonics develops phonemic awareness along with the corresponding letter shapes.
  • Synthetic phonics teaches phonics at the level of the individual phoneme from the outset; NOT syllables and NOT onset and rime.
  • Synthetic phonics involves the children rehearsing the writing of letter shapes alongside learning the letter/s-sound correspondences preferably with the tripod pencil grip. Dictation is a frequent teaching technique from letter level to word spelling, including nonsense words and eventually extending to text level.
  • Synthetic phonics teachers put accuracy before fluency. Fluency will come with time, but the emphasis on thorough letter/s-sound correspondence knowledge and synthesising enables the reader to become more accurate, fluent and to access the meaning of the text at the level of the reader's oral comprehension more readily.
  • Synthetic phonics involves the teaching of the transparent alphabet before progressing onto the opaque alphabet. In other words, children are taught steps which are straightforward and 'work' before being taught the complications and variations of pronunciation and spelling of the full alphabetic code.
  • Synthetic phonics introduces irregular words and more tricky words slowly and systematically after a thorough introduction of the transparent alphabet code (learning the 42 letter/s-sound correspondences to automaticity and how to blend for reading and segment for spelling). Phonics application still works at least in part in such words.
  • Synthetic phonics involves a heavy emphasis on hearing the sounds all-through-the-word for spelling and not an emphasis on 'look, cover, write, check'. This latter, visual form of spelling plays a larger part with unusual spellings and spelling variations although a phonemic procedure is always emphasised in spelling generally.
  • Synthetic phonics teachers read a full range of literature with the children and ensure that all children have a full range of experience of activities associated with literacy such as role play, drama, poetry, but the children are not expected to 'read' text which is beyond them.

What it is not

  • Synthetic phonics does not teach whole words as shapes (initial sight vocabulary) prior to learning the alphabetic code.
  • Synthetic phonics does not teach letter names until the children know their letter/s-sound correspondences thoroughly and how to blend for reading and segment for spelling. Often when letter names are introduced it is through singing an alphabet song.
  • Synthetic phonics does not involve guessing at words from context, picture and initial letter clues. Children read print (at letter level, digraphs, word level, text level) which corresponds with the level of knowledge and skills taught to date. This means they rehearse what they have been specifically taught and do not need to guess. This text level print is often referred to as phonically decodable text. Repetitive books are not necessary and children can rapidly access books described as 'real' because of the effectiveness of the synthetic phonics teaching approach.




Synthetic phonics (Jolly Phonics) classes compared to whole language/eclectic classes.

Large number of children, all 265 non reading, controlled and equal comparison groups

After 6 months monitoring and testing:

  • Synthetic group – Av. reading – 8 months ahead of chronological age.
  • Eclectic group - Av. reading - same as chronological age.
  • Synthetic group - Av. spelling – 5 months ahead of chronological age.
  • Eclectic group - Av. spelling – 16 months behind chronological age.
  • Synthetic group – Av. nonword reading – same as chronological age.
  • Eclectic group - Av. nonword reading – 2 months behind chronological age.
  • Only two activities were significantly related to subsequent reading and spelling success: they were 'phonics' (which included all phonics activities involving print) and letter formation (which involved pronouncing letter-sounds while writing the letter shapes).

Jolly Phonics compared to holistic method (Big Books).

  • large numbers of children, 86% foreign language speakers, controls and well matched comparison groups.
  • tested after 12 weeks and one year later.

Results at the end of 1 year 3 months:

  • Synthetic group - Av. reading – 11 months ahead.
  • Big book group  -   Av. reading -  2 months ahead.
  • Synthetic group -  Av. spelling – 1 month ahead of chronological age.
  • Big Book group - Av. spelling – 11 months behind chronological age.
  • Jolly Phonics children also significantly ahead on comprehension.

Accelerating Reading Attainment: The Effectiveness of Synthetic Phonics. Interchange 57. The Scottish Office Education and Industry Department.
Copies can be obtained from the following website:

  • Although slightly different to Jolly Phonics – the principles are the same.
  • Large number of children, controls and good comparison groups.
  • Three methods compared:
    • 'Analytic phonics' (letter-sounds taught by analysing the initial sounds heard and seen in whole words).
    • 'Phonological awareness plus analytic phonics' (oral training in phoneme and rhyme skills for first 10 minutes, followed by letter-sound teaching identical to 'Analytic phonics' for the final 10 minutes).
    • 'Synthetic phonics' (introduced to letters and their sounds in isolation, taught how to sound and blend all the letters in a printed word, and taught how to segment oral words into sounds in order to spell using letters).
  • After 16 weeks:  
  • Analytic phonics
  • Reading Av. - at age level
  • Spelling Av. – 2 months below
  • Phonological awareness plus analytic phonics
  • Reading Av: at age level
  • Spelling Av: 1 month below
  • Synthetic phonics
  • Reading Av:  7 months above chronological age.
  • Spelling Av:  9 months above chronological age.
  • After the testing, the first two sets of children were taught with synthetic phonics.   All the groups then ended up with much the same results for reading and comprehension.   However, the spelling was significantly higher for the original synthetic group and this group also had no child more than a year below chronological age, whereas the others did have a few.
  • The researchers concluded that it was not the pace but the method of letter-sound teaching that was the crucial factor.

  • at the end of Primary 2 (English Year 1), the 264 children available for testing who had been taught by the synthetic phonics method (1998) were reading and spelling on average eleven months ahead of chronological age.
  • at the end of Primary 5 (English Year 4), the children who had been taught by the synthetic phonics method were reading, on average, 26 months ahead of chronological age.
  • spelling and comprehension scores were significantly above chronological age.
  • boys in Primary 4 & 5 were a significant seven months ahead of girls for reading.

Word reading - 3 years 6 months ahead of chronological age.

  • Spelling – 1 year 9 months ahead of chronological age.
  • Reading comprehension -  3½ months ahead of chronological age  (Clackmannanshire children were from the most deprived 10% of the population).
  • Boys reading 9.5 months ahead of girls.
  • 94% achieved Level 4 (KS2 SATs) compared to 77% nationally
  • 65% achieved Level 5 (KS2 SATs) compared to 29% nationally
  • No children below Level 3B (KS2 SATs) (including a child whose intellectual ability was below the 1st percentile) compared to 7% Level 2 and below nationally
  • 33.3% boys achieved Level 5 (KS2 SATs) compared to 11% nationally
  • no significant difference in literacy between boys and girls;
  • no significant difference between children with summer birthdays and others;
  • no children with English as an Additional Language on the SEN register;
  • no significant difference in literacy skills between children eligible for free school meals and others.

If all schools followed the example of this synthetic phonics school then most of our literacy problems in schools would be solved.

  • Deerpark Primary, Clackmannanshire

Av age: 5.9           Reading Age: 6.8    Spelling Age: 6.11

  • Birstall County J&I School, West Yorkshire

Av age 5.5            Reading Age: 6.7

  • St Michael's Primary School, Stoke Gifford

Av age:  5.4          Reading Age:  5.11             Spelling Age:  5.11

  • Our Lady of Lebanon College, Sydney

Av Age:  5.8         Reading Age:  6.8                Spelling Age:  6.9




Jolly Centre - Segovia

Teacher Training Day

Saturday 17th May, 2014



I did not know that English could be so easy for 3, 4 and 5 year olds, very impressive to see 5 yr. olds reading books in English independently.

Spanish Ministry of Education/ British Council Bilingual Project school in Ávila.

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