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phonemic awareness

Synthetic Phonics Accelerates Reading and Writing in Young Students

Blog Type:  Teaching Date Posted:  Thursday, September 27, 2018

teacher doing phonics with student

By Jennie Smith-Brock, M.S.

It’s day eight of kindergarten in a public school in New England and the students are putting out their arms like the wings of airplanes " /nnnnnnnnn/," whisking ants off their arms " /aaaaa/," and puffing out candles (their fingers) "/p/."

“Nap!,” call out some of the skilled blenders in the group. The others may not be able to blend the sounds yet, but evidence from other synthetic phonics classrooms indicates they, too, will be skillful blenders before long.

Students Learn Letter Sounds Before Letter Names

Synthetic phonics programs reduce the cognitive load for students in several ways. For example, the sounds that the letters represent are taught before the letter names. Identifying letter names is useful for alphabetizing and talking about spelling but is not required for reading. Handwriting is taught with the same scope and sequence as the phonics teaching, with lowercase letters taught first since those are most useful for reading.

One synthetic phonics program, Jolly Phonics, has received acclaim from renowned reading specialists, and research supports the success of the program.

Given the effectiveness of research-based reading instruction in reducing the number of students requiring intervention, there are many of us who would be thrilled if all kindergarten classrooms included instruction in phonemic awareness and if the correspondence between the alphabet letters and their sounds were taught, along with the blending of words with short vowels.

U.S. Schools Beginning to Use a British Phonics Program

But what if even more decoding/encoding instruction could be expected, with greater acceptance of this instruction by classroom teachers? Several schools in New England have begun implementing the synthetic phonics method, which is now the primary approach to teaching reading in England.

It is not just the actions for the sounds that make the teaching of this particular synthetic phonics program so different from typical phonics instruction in the United States. Jolly Phonics uses stories and songs associated with each of the sounds to help anchor the learning:

If you’re strong and you know it, say “/ng/!” If you’re strong and you know it, say “/ng/!” If you’re strong and you know it, and you really want to show it... ... If you’re strong and you know it, say “/ng/!” [Tune: “If You’re Happy and You Know It” action and story: a weightlifter lifting a heavy weight above the head]

Students taught with the synthetic phonics method learn letter-sounds at the brisk pace of about four per week, rather than one to two per week in typical classrooms. Starting on day three of the synthetic phonics program, they practice segmenting words into sounds and blending sounds into words; phonemic awareness activities are incorporated into the daily phonics lessons, rather than as a precursor to phonics instruction.

Learning at a Rapid Pace

Typically kindergarten classrooms cover the 25 sounds represented by the alphabet letters (the letters "c" and "k" represent the same sound) and perhaps a few more, such as /sh/, /th/, /ch/, in which case about 15 sounds aren’t introduced until first grade.  In a Jolly Phonics classroom, however, by the end of only nine weeks, the students will have learned one way to spell each of 42 sounds of the English language! (Jolly Phonics focuses on 42 of the approximately 44 phonemes.) This even includes some digraphs (a two-letter spelling for a single sound), such as “ai” and “oa.”

Being able to write a phonically plausible spelling for virtually all of our sounds truly opens up the opportunities of written expression for students, far beyond what kindergartners elsewhere are able to do. Their stories are understandable both to themselves and to others.

The brisk pace also transforms many of the sight words, such as “for” and “out,” into fully decodable words. Later in the year, students begin to learn main alternative ways of spelling the vowel sounds. The split digraphs (“magic e”), such as the “o-e” in “hope” are not taught until after the primary “non-split” digraph for the sound is taught. For example, first “ee” (“tree”), then “ea” (meat) then “e-e” (“these”). This greatly reduces common confusion between the spellings and sounds of the short and long vowels.

Approachable for Teachers

This is phonics instruction that kindergarten teachers are very happy to embrace: the training is short and fairly simple; the approach is kinesthetic and engaging. Once the teachers see confident readers and writers in their classrooms, they spread the word to colleagues.

phonics success chart

Brown, R., Swan, J., & Smith-Brock, J. (2017) The Efficacy of Jolly Phonics When Used as Tier 1 Classroom Instruction with Kindergarten Students. Unpublished data.

Proven Results

In the past year in New England, we have had local data that have dovetailed with the results found in empirical studies and case studies elsewhere: this approach “lifts all boats.” Students who are English language learners (ELLs), have summer birthdays, or are disadvantaged socio-economically achieve quite similarly to the other students. The long tail of achievement virtually disappears. The percentage of students achieving above-grade-level results increases.

For example, in one low socio-economic status school in New England, a University of Southern Maine study indicated that while the number of students in the control classroom who fell below the 10th percentile on letter-sound fluency (L/S), phoneme segmentation fluency (PSF), and nonsense word reading (NWF) increased over a 14-week period, the number of students below the 10th percentile on each measure completely disappeared in the synthetics phonics classroom.

In case studies in New England, data from literacy assessments including MAP Growth (from NWEA) and the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) has shown a doubling of the percentage of kindergartners performing above grade-level compared to those in comparable non-Jolly Phonics classrooms. Additionally, the data has indicated a reduction by 1/3 to 1/2 in the percentage of kindergartners performing below grade level.

Although neither the UK-style synthetic phonics approach, nor the Jolly Phonics program in particular, is well known in the United States, one of the studies involving the program was included in the National Reading Panel Report in 2000. Sally Shaywitz specifically pointed out the program in her 2003 book, Overcoming Dyslexia:

“According to the National Reading Panel, Jolly Phonics... seems to have gotten it right. It is a highly effective program that, according to children, is also fun. The program is intended for the youngest beginning readers in school; this means 4- and 5-year-olds in England and 5- and 6-year-olds in the United States... According to the panel’s review, when groups of children using Jolly Phonics or a whole-language approach were compared after one year of instruction, the children in the phonics programs were reading and writing significantly more words.”


About the Author

jennie smith brockJennie Smith-Brock is a Special Education teacher, phonics consultant, and certified teacher trainer of the Jolly Phonics program. Her career as an educator also included being the Director of the SMART (Southern Maine Area Resource Team) Learning Lab at the University of Southern Maine.








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The Whole Language vs Phonics Controversy Rages On

Blog Type:  Teaching Date Posted:  Wednesday, June 5, 2019


teacher and students working

By Donna J. Sullivan, M.A.

What a surprise it was to learn that controversy regarding the teaching of beginning reading is still alive and well!  Specifically, I recently learned that what is known as the whole language philosophy is still alive and breathing, despite the large body of highly scientific, rigorous research, especially under the auspices of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, pursued vigorously beginning in the 1980s. This highly conclusive research, long-term and multidisciplinary, yielded consistent, replicable results, which led to specific recommendations for the teaching of reading skills directly, contrary to the whole language philosophy.  

Whole language is a method of teaching reading that emphasizes learning whole words by encountering them in meaningful contexts rather than by using phonics.  Students are encouraged to guess at unknown words based on what fits into the reading material.

What Is Phonological Processing?

Phonological processing is the primary area where children with reading disabilities differ from other children. Phonological processing is the ability to identify the number and order of sounds (phonemes) in a spoken word. We are generally not consciously aware of the number and order of sounds in spoken words, but for many of us, learning to read enables us to do this to a greater or lesser extent. For individuals with a reading disability, if not remediated, this difficulty in segmenting syllables and words into constituent sounds persists into adulthood, and it is a major obstacle for learning to read regardless of age. Direct, explicit instruction is effective in developing this skill and should be available in every kindergarten, first grade, and remedial reading program.

Interestingly, I was involved in teaching a 30-year-old man, who had been previously involved in remedial programs, to read after developing his ability to perceive the number and order of sounds within words.  “Where were you 25 years ago?” he asked me in frustration. Think about it: when we spell and read, we are attaching symbols (letters) to sounds. If we cannot identify the number and order of sounds in a word, how can the alphabetic principle make any sense?

Direct, Explicit Instruction Benefits All Students

Explicit, systematic, direct instruction in sound/spelling relationships (phonics) should be incorporated along with phonemic processing. Every student benefits from this instruction, not only the reading challenged. Not all phonics programs are effective, however, especially those that are random and those that rely on visuals, such as pictures to represent specific sounds. Sounds should be taught orally in isolation and practiced each day until they become automatic. This need not be a long or tedious practice, but it should be consistent within a structured program. The use of systematic direct instruction in phonics is the primary reason that schools such as Landmark, which developed its own systematic phonics program, and others who use an Orton-Gillingham structured phonics approach, have been largely successful in teaching those with reading disabilities.  Children need to be shown exactly how to blend sounds into words, and they need to use decodable connected text to practice the sound/symbol relationships they have learned.

A reader needs to be able to decode at least 80% of the words on the page in order to comprehend what they are reading.  

Decodable text is made up of words that use only sound/symbol correspondences that children have learned to that point and a limited number of “sight” words that do not “play fair” and need to be learned individually. A reader needs to be able to decode at least 80% of the words on the page in order to comprehend what they are reading. This is not going to be interesting and exciting reading. What is exciting is the realization that one is actually decoding, actually reading the text, not guessing at it.

Now, it is true that reading these predictable, decodable stories is not going to develop language comprehension, which is emphasized in the whole language philosophy, and comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction. During the early stages of learning to read, children’s oral language comprehension will be much higher than their reading comprehension level. This means that it is vital for the teacher to read more sophisticated stories regularly to children to develop vocabulary and comprehension skills, and they should encourage making inferences and discuss meaning with students based on the stories read to them. Then, after the children become more fluent, they will know how to apply comprehension strategies on their own.

Providing teachers with the knowledge and the skill necessary to teach reading effectively has to become our very highest priority in education.

There is a plethora of research to support direct systematic beginning reading instruction. This begs the question of why it has not been more widely implemented in schools?  The fact is that many of our teachers have not been exposed to recommended methods of teaching reading, and were not themselves taught by them. Having attended college as an adult in the 1980s, after 25 years at home with my children, I had one reading course as part of my program which was whole-language oriented. Subsequently, pursuing a master’s degree in special education, I had no additional reading course, because the assumption was that because we were all teachers we knew how to teach reading. This was despite the fact that a majority of the special needs students we would be servicing had reading difficulty as a primary issue. From this, my conclusion has to be that these proven methods have not been widely implemented because teachers may not know them, through no fault of their own. What a pity! The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicates that only 36% of grade four students, 34% of grade five students, and 37% of grade 12 students are at or above proficient in reading. That means that everyone else is less than proficient! 63% of our high school graduates cannot read at the level expected of a high school graduate! Providing teachers with the knowledge and the skill necessary to teach reading effectively has to become our very highest priority in education.

About the Author

Donna J. Sullivan, M.A. is the founding director of the Commonwealth Learning Center in Needham, an instructor and program coordinator for the Simmons College graduate program in Special Needs, director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Carroll School in Lincoln, and served most happily as director of Reading Programs at Landmark School from 1998 to 2003. Currently retired, Donna maintains contact in the field by providing private tutoring services and consulting in the field of reading. 

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