chapter  13
Enhancing word reading, spelling and reading comprehension skills with synthetic phonics teaching: studies in Scotland and England
Pages 18

Phonics is a method of teaching reading whereby children learn that letter sounds can be used to decode unfamiliar words. While not encompassing all of the skills children need when reading, it does support the development of the basic building block of reading, that is, word recognition skill. Although phonics has historically been taught in English-speaking countries for many years, it has not generally taken the form of teaching children, at the start of reading tuition, to sound and blend the letters, or graphemes, in printed words, e.g. /k/ /a/ /t/ - > ‘cat’. This approach, called synthetic phonics, is commonly used in languages that have a straightforward connection between spelling and pronunciation. For example, German has regular grapheme-tophoneme correspondences, and in countries such as Austria (Feitelson, 1988) children are taught to read using the synthetic phonics approach soon after starting school. It is also used in many other European countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden. There has been considerable resistance, however, to using synthetic phonics in the

UK, in part due to the belief that the English spelling system is not sufficiently alphabetic for it to work. This is because some words contain only a limited guide to pronunciation, e.g. ‘yacht’, ‘aisle’. The suggestion, therefore, that children should learn to read English by using grapheme-to-phoneme conversion right at the start of reading tuition is an anathema in some quarters. In 1994, Goswami argued that a teaching method where children are initially taught to read at the grapheme-tophoneme conversion level poses unnecessary difficulties for them, proposing that children should be taught to read by making analogies between known sight words and unfamiliar words, with a focus on common rimes and onsets, e.g. /k/ /at/ - > ‘cat’ (Goswami, 1994). Although this view has been very influential with teachers in the UK, Goswami (2008) has recently acknowledged that children learning to read need to learn grapheme-to-phoneme conversion skills. However, she still argues that they also need to be taught rhyme-analogy skills, making no comment on the order in which these approaches should be taught. Dombey (2006) has also written about the challenges that English orthography presents to learner readers. She argues that ‘it is never going to be enough to teach children the phoneme-grapheme correspondences of words such as “dog” and “cat” … We need to help them become aware of other patterns. Rhyme is particularly useful here … the rime is a stable spelling that represents a stable pronunciation, and so provides a better clue to word identification than does a grapheme-by-grapheme analysis.’