Synthetic vs Analytic Phonics? – Pick what fits the child (not the other way round) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

PHONICS 2Synthetic vs Analytic Phonics? – Pick what fits the child (not the other way round)

In the next few weeks I’m tackling the issue of phonics, and the relationship between phonics use and meaning making.  Last week a reader asked what I meant by synthetic and analytic phonics.  That’s as good a place as any to begin, so let’s talk a little about the “big two” approaches to the teaching of phonics and how to use them.

Synthetic Phonics– The heart of synthetic phonics approach is the direct teaching of letter sounds (phonemes). Children learn that t says “t” (not Tuh!), or long a says its name, “a” or short a says “a”.  This approach lends itself to systematic programs, with clear scope and sequence.  Such approaches have the clear advantage over “as needed” approaches in that they avoid the pitfall of unintentionally skipping instruction in important sounds. One of the conclusions of the classic research piece commonly known as the First Grade Studies was that every beginning reading approach examined in the study benefited from a phonics supplement. The supplement used most often was the Speech to Print Phonics kit. This program used a form of EPR (every pupil response). This was in the pre-computer days, so the EPR was accomplished by students holding up small paper slips provided with the program.  The slips had one letter on them, with slips for each letter of the alphabet available. The teacher first saw to it that each child had a small group of slips with letters to choose from (same choices for each child).  The teacher would then say a letter sound.  The students would hold up the letter. Properly done (there are tricks about what to do when students look at other students slips before raising theirs), the teacher was given instant feedback on which students consistently knew the sounds and which needed additional instruction/practice. This is a classic example of on-going assessment.  I mention this kit because it makes clear that synthetic phonics approaches promote the learning and knowing the letter sounds in isolation. Subsequently students learn to blend the sounds into actual words.

Analytic Phonics– Analytic phonics uses discovery approach to learning sounds (indirect teaching).  For instance, to teach the t sound the teacher might say, it’s the same sound that starts toy, and Tom and team. Everyone start to say toy (t)(toy). Start to say Tom (t)(Tom). Start to say team (t)(team). Can you hear the sound they start with? Can you find that sound in other places in this reading? (please click audio file to hear the previous sentence read aloud).


When doing this the teacher should be mindful NOT to accept tuh as the answer. If students add the uh sound to their consonants it will cause endless confusion as they try to figure out words. Proponents of analytic phonics sometimes prefer a “teach as needed approach”. This can lead to potential holes in the students sound symbol knowledge.

Very often teachers using the analytic method will also say things like, “get your mouth ready for the first sound” OR “say the first sound”.  This can lead to word guessing.  This effect of wildly guessing at words can be controlled by instead saying “say the first sound AND think of the clues”, e.g. what word starts with the sound “t” and makes sense in the sentence or goes with picture on this page or makes sense based on how the story is going. Clay called such a teaching move “crosschecking cues”.  Yep, I’m talking like knowing what cueing systems readers use might be useful. In this instance it will result in more accurate guesses, educated guesses, instead of wild guesses. Not everyone will agree with that practice, but my experience in the field has demonstrated to me that it is a very good use of instructional time.  More about that in future blogs.

There are also other approaches to teaching phonics. The ILA has an excellent PDF about this topic that covers more than just analytic and synthetic phonics

.In addition, in a recent blog entry Tim Shanahan does an excellent job of explaining the concepts of analytic and synthetic phones.

Pay special attention to his take aways:

“Make sure young (bold and color added for emphasis) children receive daily, explicit, systematic decoding instruction.”

“But don’t be fanatical about synthetic or analytic approaches.”

I would add- make sure the instruction you use gets the job done but is EFFICIENT and interesting. You want there to be time for meaning making, especially meaning making around complex text. You want to find ways to include a “spoonful of sugar” i.e. teaching the sounds in a way that the students find to be engaging instead of deadly dull.  I’m certain my readers can tell us about commercial programs that do just that.

Here is the key to understanding my beliefs about the teaching of phonics. ALL THE APPROACHES HAVE STRENGTHS.  ALL THE APPROACHES HAVE WEAKNESSES, LIMITS AND LIMITATIONS. Based on both research and my own classroom experiences I’ve found that students can and will benefit from both of the “big two” approaches to teaching phonics. There is a place (and a need) for both synthetic and analytic phonics in every reading program. In several recent blog entries, I’ve advocated adopting a good, systematic, efficient synthetic phonics program as the anchor for phonics instruction.  This then needs to be supplemented with an analytic phonics teaching component for those children for whom a synthetic approach does not work well. And yes, I think the research evidence is overwhelming that such children exist. One of the key criticisms of many of the current programs using synthetic phonics is that they are deadly dull and take up too much time. Here is a link to a video that will help you understand what I mean by that. I think there are other ways to accomplish the very same things including poetry and song. Readers who know about such things please chime in. Also, this year, both Fountas and Pinnell and Calkins have added a phonics component to their widely followed programs. Readers with first hand knowledge of using these, what are they like? Do they include both analytic and synthetic phonics instruction? Are they systematic?  Are they engaging? Do they leave enough time for comprehension work e.g. learning to deal with complex text? I would love to hear from you!!!!

Conclusion So, with all that said, I hope you see why I find myself advocating what some will see as a middle approach, or balanced approach to the teaching of phonics. As I said last time, people taking such a position have historically been dismissed.  Next time I will take up the issue of why I think the views of folks from the middle should be considered and my criticism of what happens when educators from the two “far sides” of this issue mandate that their kinds of phonics AND ONLY THEIR KIND OF PHONICS, be used.

Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito who is solely responsible for its content

3 thoughts on “Synthetic vs Analytic Phonics? – Pick what fits the child (not the other way round) by Dr. Sam Bommarito

  1. authorlaurablog

    Yes, both are important. Not every child learns in the same way, and the analytic reinforces the direct instruction of the synthetic and vice versa. I envision it like a helix.

  2. Eric Litwin

    I found this blog very informative. Again, I think you make a compelling case that the middle road is the most pragmatic. Teachers can observe their students and do what works best for them. Also, I completely agree that music and poetry can help engage students and help synthetic phonetic instruction be more effective, natural, and fun.

    1. doctorsam7

      Thanks again for the kind words. Next week I’ll be talking about why the pendulum seem to never move to the middle. Until then- THANKS for all you do for literacy and Happy Reading and Writing!


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