Synthetic phonics, reading and spelling

There has been much debate in recent years about synthetic phonics versus whole language learning. It is not possible for your child to learn whole word recognition for every single word in the English language (of which there are nearly one million). However, there is much utility in the approach of whole word spelling when it comes to learning the most common 300 or so High and Medium Frequency Words, particularly for those children who are visual learners and find it hard to remember spelling rules and grapheme combinations when writing under pressure. (grapheme = a letter or sequence of letters that represents a phoneme; a phoneme = a unit of sound)  

In most schools, we use synthetic phonics, which is a system of teaching reading by first teaching the sounds that are associated with each letter and then building up to blending these sounds together to pronounce the whole word. Synthetic Phonics comes from the idea of ‘synthesising’, which means ‘putting together’ or ‘blending’. What is synthesised or blended in reading are the units of sounds (phonemes) prompted by the letters in the word. Synthetic phonics teaches children to recognise the 44 phonemes of the English alphabet. 

Good phonemic awareness makes a big difference in children’s ability to read, spell and comprehend the written and spoken language. We start by teaching children the sounds represented by each of the vowels, vowel diagraphs, consonants, consonant blends and then move on to other sounds like ‘ch’, ‘th’, ‘sh’, ‘wh’, ‘ng’ and so on. For example, to read the words ‘thin’ or ‘farm’, we don’t sound out each letter ‘t-h-i-n’ or ‘f-a-r-m’, the correct way to read the word is to sound out and blend each phoneme: ‘th-i-n’ and ‘f-ar-m’. Children are taught blending skills by merging individual phonemes and segmentation skills, by hearing the phonemes within a word.  

Children need to be able to distinguish units of sounds in order to be able to master how to spell. Once you identify the sounds, you then have to  choose the correct graphemes and also apply spelling rules. Many dyslexic children and non-dyslexic children find choosing the correct grapheme and remembering spelling rules extremely hard indeed, hence the importance of learning High and Medium Frequency Words by sight.

The Phoneme Table below lists the 44 phonemes of the English Language, from the National Strategies Standards’ phonics sounds.[i]

Consonant phonemes 

 – with sample words 

Vowel phonemes 

 – with sample words 

1. /b/     – bat 13.  /s/     – sun 1.  /a/      – ant 13.  /oi/      – coin
2.  /k/    – cat 14.  /t/     – tap 2.  /e/      – egg 14.  /ar/     – farm
3.  /d/    – dog 15.  /v/    – van 3.  /i/       – in 15.  /or/     – for
4.  /f/     – fan 16.  /w/   – wig 4.  /o/      – on 16.  /ur/    – hurt
5.  /g/     – go 17.  /y/    – yes 5.  /u/      – up 17.  /air/    – fair
6.  /h/    – hen 18.  /z/     – zip 6.  /ai/     – rain 18.  /ear/   – dear
7.  /j/     – jet 19.  /sh/  – shop 7.  /ee/     – feet 19.  /ure/   – sure
8.  /l/     – leg 20.  /ch/  – chip 8.  /igh/   – night 20.  /Ə/       – corner
9.  /m/  – map 21.  /th/   – thin 9.  /oa/     – boat (the ‘schwa’ /Ə/ – is an unstressed vowel sound which is close to /u/)
10. /n/  – net 22.  /th/   – then 10. /oo/     – boot
11. /p/   – pen 23.  /ng/   – ring 11. /oo/     – look
12. /r/   – rat 24.  /zh/   – vision 12. /ow/   – cow


Take a look at the Jolly Phonics website about the 5 basic skills needed  for reading and writing:   

1. Learning the letter sounds
2. Learning letter formation
3. Blending
4. Identifying sounds in words
5. Spelling the tricky words (irregular or High Frequency Words)  

[i] Department for Education and Skills (2007:11): Phoneme Table: Letters and Sounds: Principles &Practice of High Quality Phonics

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