Tell me: How do I teach high quality phonics?

“I start my ATP next week and I have no idea how to teach phonics.”

This was a conversation I had with a pre-service teacher who I have had the pleasure of mentoring. Similarly, during other recent mentoring conversations, questions along the same lines keep popping up:

My literacy group rotations aren’t working, what should I be doing?

How should my phonics teaching look?

So for all of the wonderful teachers that have ever wondered if their phonics approaches are aligned with what makes the greatest impact in reading and spelling, then this is for you.

Before we dive in though, it is important to note that phonics is only one of the 5 key essential skills students need to be explicitly taught to be skilled readers. Otherwise known as the Big 5, they are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Phonemic awareness has the greatest effect when taught with synthetic phonics

Following on from the importance of explicitly teaching the Big 5 of Reading, although they are identified as 5 distinct skills, phonemic awareness has the greatest impact on student learning when it is taught using the letters to accompany the sounds, i.e. with phonics instruction. This is because for most students, segmenting and blending individual sounds in words is an abstract concept but when students have a letter to hang the new sounds learnt onto (such as the satpin letters), they have a visual representation to scaffold their learning. Think of the letters as a visual clothes hanger in which to hang the phonemes.

Synthetic phonics is more effective than analytic approaches

National enquiries into the teaching of reading from Australia (2005) and United Kingdom (2006) stated that synthetic phonics is the most effective approach to teaching phonics. So the first consideration I would ask, is what type of phonics instruction are you teaching? Is it a synthetic phonics, analytic phonics approach or a mixture of both?

One particular well-known study, in 2004, in Clackmannanshire, Scotland compared groups of Pre-Primary students who engaged in synthetic phonics, analytic phonics and a group who were taught a combination of both. The students engaged in explicit teaching for 20 minutes a day for 16 weeks. After 16 weeks, there was a 32.3% improvement in the analytic phonics group and a 56.9% improvement in the synthetic phonics group.

Two years later, when the groups were compared, the synthetic phonics group read 7 months ahead of the two analytic groups. In addition, the synthetic phonics group was spelling at a level that was 8-9 months ahead of the other groups. (Joyce & Showers, 2007).

So what is the difference between synthetic and analytic phonics?

Synthetic phonics programs use a part-to-whole approach that teaches children to synthesise graphemes (letters) to make words. For example, ‘These are the letters that make the word ‘stop’. We are going to sound out each letter /s/ /t/ /o/ /p/ and blend them together to read the word ‘stop’.

Analytic phonics on the other hand, uses a whole-to-part approach where children are taught to analyse letter-sound relationships after the word is identified. For example, a teacher might write the letter ‘p’ followed by several words: put, pig, pet, play. The teacher would help students to read the words by noting that each word begins with the same sound that is associated with ‘p’.

Synthetic phonics is taught at a fast pace, in a structured, sequential approach

Synthetic phonics is taught at a rapid pace, teaching students how to segment and blend phonemes, using a small group of letters e.g. satpin from the beginning of the first year of full time schooling. From the outset, each week or 2 weeks, students are explicitly taught 3 or 4 letter sounds (usually 3 consonants with one vowel), synthesising these sounds to make words. This is in contrast to an analytic approach, which is much slower; and may focus on one letter per week. Synthetic phonics approaches focus on a carefully sequenced progression of teaching the alphabetic code, from CV (consonant vowel words eg on, at, in) to CVC, then CCVC, CCVCC and so on, before moving into digraphs, trigraphs, spelling generalisations and morphological knowledge etc;

High frequency words are taught alongside the alphabetic code

Other differences involve high frequency words. In a synthetic phonics program, students are taught one or two high frequency words alongside the sequential code and are also taught that although they are trickier than other words, they can still be decoded. On the other hand, analytic approaches tend to teach the words as ‘sight words’ that aren’t decodable and they are often taught as lists of words, frequently placing minimal emphasis on decoding.

High quality synthetic phonics approaches also explicitly teach the letter formation and orientation of letters/graphemes as part of their whole class phonics instruction so children are learning these fundamental motor skills alongside the phonics learning.

Explicit instruction has a greater impact than literacy groups or rotations. Synthetic phonics instruction needs to be taught explicitly within a gradual release of responsibility model such as: I Do, We, do, You do. On a daily basis, the teacher clearly states the learning intention, models the phonic concepts or skills, students are provided guided practice with a high success rate initially, before students work independently with ongoing teacher feedback and monitoring. When we only explicitly teach once or twice a week to introduce the skills/concepts to be taught, the potential impact on student learning is significantly reduced.

Daily, whole class explicit instruction has the greatest benefit for all students. There is a large amount of research that backs this up. Whilst differentiation is essential, when students are taught at a whole class level explicitly every day, the outcomes are greater, even for the least able students, as opposed to them working in small groups without the initial group instruction.

Literacy rotations have no research base in teaching reading.

For decades now, the research has been conclusive that students need explicit teaching in the ‘Big 5 of Reading’ and this can’t be achieved when students are left to their own devices in small groups.

Assessment should be both at a whole school universal screening level as well as rigorous progress monitoring at the classroom level.

Assessment of Phonemic Awareness and Phonics should be done during the year at a whole class level in a universal screening approach and then in an ongoing approach tracking progress at the classroom level. When schools adopt this approach, alongside a rigorous system of progress monitoring with data informed practice, as per a Response to intervention framework, it not only improves student learning potential, but also prevents the number of students being identified at risk in the later years of schooling.

Whole school approaches to universal screening and synthetic phonics

To give an example of how this can make a significant impact on student outcomes, in England, since implementing a universal screener and mandating synthetic phonics in all schools since 2012, the percentage of students achieving end of year expectations in Year 1 has grown from 45% to 81%. For students from disadvantaged backgrounds this has increased from 58% to 71%.

South Australia have followed suit and has also adopted the UK Phonics Screening Check for all schools since 2018. Similarly to the English data, our South Australian Year 1 friends have had a gradual improvement in student achievement for consecutive years since its inception. This is only one example of an excellent assessment tool, however, there are other fantastic examples that are freely available, easy to administer and most importantly, provide great diagnostic data for planning, differentiation, monitoring and intervention.

Start every phonics lesson with a daily review.  

Just 5-8 minutes a day of reviewing previously learnt content can make a significant impact on achievement (Rosenshine, 2012). When connections are made to previously learnt material, it activates prior knowledge, promotes rapid recall; frees up space in the working memory and reduces cognitive load. When planning for daily review teachers need to consider what skills are required to be automatic and what skills or concepts need to be reviewed before learning new information. Daily review can be in the form of simple power point slides where students engage with mini whiteboards, practicing previously learnt skills. This could be syllabification, segmenting, blending and manipulation of phonemes, high frequency words, vocabulary, previously learnt digraphs, trigraphs, morphemes and their meanings, and so on.

Practice learnt skills with phonic controlled (decodable) texts.

Otherwise known as decodable texts, when students are provided texts to practice decoding within texts that have previously learnt sounds and graphemes, students are being set up to be successful early readers. When students are provided readers that are not aligned to what has been taught, it is like asking a child to ride a bike before they have learnt with training wheels. This approach leaves students with no choice but to guess the text, which is a completely ineffective strategy for learning to read.

Intervention groups MUST be in addition to the whole class instruction

So often I see students that are the weakest and most vulnerable, being taken out during the whole class instruction time for intervention. I will tell you why this is not effective. These students have been identified as requiring intervention, which means that they require a higher intensity and frequency of Tier 2 intervention than students at expected standard, so this intervention needs to be in addition to the whole class instruction to give them any chance of catching up with their peers. When we take these students out during the whole class teaching, they are not only missing the daily goodness of the whole class instruction by the most valuable person in the school (their teacher) but they are then only getting instruction at their intervention level which means they are not being exposed to that higher level phonics instruction, proven to make an impact even for the weakest students (Joyce and Watson, 2007).

Implement data cut off points for students to implement intervention early.

Using high quality diagnostic assessments is one thing, but we need to be using that data to determine cut off points for students requiring intervention at the first sign of academic difficulties. Using a screener that identifies phonemic awareness and decoding skills, with pre-determined cut-offs for students requiring additional support from the outset, is a recommended practice to ensure social equity for all and prevention of later literacy difficulties for many students. When we do not have rigorous progress monitoring systems in place, too often students slip through and the repercussions of this can be devastating.

Wrapping up

Just to wrap it up, although I have outlined elements of phonics instruction that are aligned to what makes the most significant impact on the development of phonics and decoding, I have to re-state that phonics is only one part of the Big 5 that need to be explicitly taught for students to be skilled readers. High quality literacy instruction encompasses all five of the essential reading components.

~Julie Scali

Recommended research/programs/intervention

For downloadable resources, and monthly research, tips and resources, go to:

For further reading on teaching synthetic phonics, a list of recommended Structured Synthetic Phonics Programs (SSSP), high rigour assessments and interventions, I can highly recommend the following documents and research papers.

Five From Five: The Primary Reading Pledge

Dyslexia Speld Foundation: Structured Synthetic Phonics- A Guide for Teachers and Parents

Louisa Moats: Teaching Reading is Rocket Science