Understanding Synthetic Phonics

This section is designed to help you understand phonics yourself, so you will be able to support the development of your child's phonic knowledge and skills at home.


What is synthetic phonics?:

In English there are about 44 different sounds (phonemes). Children are taught the letters (graphemes) that represent these sounds (phonemes). They learn to put the phonemes together (blend them) to read words. They also learn to break words into phonemes (segment them) for spelling. 

Graphemes:

A grapheme is a representation of a phoneme (sound). There are 3 key facts to remember about graphemes:

  1. A grapheme can be represented by 1/2/3/4 letters. The following are all graphemes
    p, t, ai, ll, ck, sh, igh, eigh, ough
  2. A phoneme can be represented by different graphemes. The following words all contain the /ai/ phoneme (sound), but it is represented by a different grapheme in each word:
    angel, late, train, lay, eight, straight
  3. A grapheme can represent more than one phoneme.
    ‘ea’ makes a different sound in ‘bread’ and ‘mean’
    ‘i’ makes a different sound in ‘milk’ and ‘mind’

The simplest graphemes are single letters of the alphabet eg 's', 't'. These are usually taught first.
A digraph is a grapheme in which 2 letters represent 1 sound eg ea in 'sea', ch in 'chin'. 
A trigraph is a grapheme in which 3 letters represent 1 sound eg igh in 'night'.

Click on the link below to download a document showing the most common graphemes for each phoneme (sound).

download_btn.gif

 

 

Click here to go to a page listing the most common graphemes. Click on a grapheme to hear the sound(s) it represents.

Don't confuse digraphs with blends/clusters. A blend/cluster is a group of 2 or 3 letters making 2 or 3 separate sounds eg the letters in bold in lost, sprite. You can distinguish a digraph (1 sound) from a blend/cluster (2/3 sounds) by noticing what happens in your mouth when you say the sound(s). Generally if your mouth, throat or lips move, your body is producing a different sound. Eg
When you say 'st', you will notice that your tongue moves up to the roof of your mouth to say the /t/, therefore the /s/ and /t/ are 2 separate sounds (a blend/cluster).
When you say ‘ip’, your lips move together to pronounce /p/, so /i/ and /p/ are separate sounds (a blend/cluster).
When you say 'oo', nothing moves, so it is 1 sound (a digraph).

Click on the link below to download a document showing which groups of letters are digraphs (1 sound) and which are blends/clusters (2 or 3 sounds). Lots of people have found it really useful to look up letters on this when they are unsure about how many sounds they represent.

downloadButton.gif

 

Reading (Blending) & Writing (Segmenting) words:

This section will show you how sounds can be blended to read words and how words can be segmented into sounds to spell them. The line in between letters/groups of letters shows where the boundaries between the sounds are. Most synthetic phonics programmes will broadly follow the progression outlined below from simpler words to more complex ones.

The first words children are usually taught to blend and segment have 2-3 sounds. Each sound is represented by a single letter. Eg

c-a-t
p-i-n
o-n
h-o-t
m-a-n
g-e-t

Consonant digraphs consisting of double consonants may be introduced into words with 2-3 sounds. These tend to occur at the end of words, following short vowels. A short vowel is a vowel sound which is short - there are 5 of them: /a/ (as in back), /e/ (as in neck), /i/ (as in miss), /o/ (as in m-o-ss), /u/ (as in huff). Eg

p-i-ck
m-e-ss
k-i-ss
o-ff
t-o-ss
b-u-zz

Other consonant digraphs are introduced into words with 2-3 sounds. Eg

ch-o-p
th-i-s
sh-u-t
s-i-ng
qu-i-ck

Words containing one way of representing each of the 44 phonemes not yet covered. Different synthetic phonics programmes choose slightly different digraphs/trigraphs to introduce first. Words usually still have only 2-3 sounds. Eg

r-ai-n
b-ee
f-igh-t
c-oa-t
t-oo
b-oo-k
c-ar
f-or
h-ur-t
c-oi-n
c-ow
h-air
h-ear
l-o-ng-er

Words with 4-5 sounds may be introduced, using the graphemes children already know. These contain consonant blends/cluster (see above) Eg

s-t-u-m-p
s-t-r-i-ng
s-p-l-i-t
f-l-i-ck
s-w-ee-t
b-r-ow-n
t-oa-s-t

Words with different graphemes for the sounds the children already know are taught. Again different synthetic phonics programmes choose slightly different digraphs/trigraphs to introduce first. The words may have between 2-5 sounds. Eg

sh-ou-t
p-l-ay
g-r-ou-n-d
n-e-ph-ew

There are words in which a grapheme may make more than one sound. The sounds are blended and if the word doesn't make sense, it is blended again, using the other sound that grapheme can make. Eg If 'm-i-s-t-y' is sounded with the 'y' being pronounced /y/ as in yellow, it wouldn't make sense. It has to be sounded out again, using /ee/ for the 'y'. Other words might include:

t-r-y
p-a-ss (in some parts of the UK)
w-i-n-d
s-ch-oo-l
g-er-m
b-r-ea-d

When writing words, we segment them into their sounds, but are then faced with a choice. We may hear the /ai/ sound in a word, but how do we know whether to write a; ai; ay; a-e; ey etc? Certain graphemes tend to occur at the beginning/middle of a word and others at the end. Eg when you hear the /ai/ sound in a word, if it's at the end, its' most likely to be 'ay' eg play, day. If you hear the /ai/ sound at the beginning or middle of a word, it's most likely to be 'ai' or
'a-e' eg rain, make. The Best Bet Train Cards show the rules in a visual way.

Words with 2 or more syllables are introduced from early on in the above sequence. These long words are broken up into their syllables for reading, each syllable being blended separately and then putting the syllables together eg
playground would be sounded: p-l-ay, play, g-r-ou-n-d, ground, playground

A similar process is used for writing. The syllables are tapped out first. Each syllable is then segmented and spelled. Eg
Playground would be spelled out: play, ground, play, p-l-ay, ground, g-r-ou-n-d

Suffixes (endings) are added to shorter root words. Eg
play might become playing, played, playful etc

If you would like to practise breaking words into phonemes, click the button below. You will find 2 documents: the first is a list of words to break into sounds (phonemes), the second is the answer sheet, so you can check how you did!

downloadButton.gif

 

Tricky Words

These are words which can't be completely sounded out. They usually have 1 or more bits which are tricky. The children have to learn to read them as whole words and remember how to write the tricky bit when spelling them. There are some egs below with the tricky bits in red.

to
some
were
said
there

Synthetic phonics terminology:

The following terms are used when teaching synthetic phonics. Those marked with a star can be used with the children from Reception onwards. Other words are just used when practitioners are discussing synthetic phonics/reading teachers’ notes etc

phoneme*
The smallest unit of sound in a word.

grapheme*

Letter(s) which represent a phoneme/sound.

grapheme-phoneme correspondence (GPC):
The relationship between a phoneme and a grapheme. Children need to be able to write/find a grapheme in response to the phoneme and say the phoneme(s) when looking at a grapheme.

digraph*  
     
Two letters which make one sound eg ‘sh’, ‘ai’, ‘ph’

trigraph*   
Three letters which make one sound eg ‘igh’

split digraph*   

(used to be known as magic ‘e’). 
A vowel digraph (eg ‘ie’) which is split up by another letter eg 'time’,make’.

short vowel*
A vowel sound which is short - there are 5 of them: /a/ (as in cat), /e/ (as in bed), /i/ (as in pin), /o/ (as in hot), /u/ (as in hut).

long vowel
A vowel sound which is long - there are 5 of them: /ai/ (as in make, rain, day), /ee/ (as in these, me, tree), /igh/ (as in tie, night, my), /oa/ (as in coat, low, go), /ue/ (as in moon, tune, unit).

blend/cluster

Two (or three) letters making two (or three) sounds eg lost, sprite.

blending*
Reading the letters in a written word eg b-a-t, and merging them to
pronounce the word (‘bat’).  This skill is needed for reading.

segmenting*  
 
Identifying the individual sounds in a spoken word (eg b-a-t) and writing
down or moving letters for each sound to form the word (‘bat’). This skill
is needed for spelling.