top of page

Addressing the Gaps in 'Synthetic' Phonics-Based Learning
What's New for You?

A Focus on the Development of Phonemic Awareness and Orthographic Knowledge - Ortho-Know?!

Children learning phonics using a systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP) programme
in the UK?

Add in 'What's New for You! to their learning support sessions.
Send a fabulous TA to a training day and let's get those children excited about spelling: improving phonemic awareness and orthographic knowledge will dramatically improve their reading skills too:-) 

What's new for you?

In my experience, approximately 60 - 70% of KS1 children smoothly transition from explicit phonics instruction to 'implicit learning.' They possess adequate phonemic awareness, making it easy for them to break words into individual sound units, known as 'Sound Pics' in my own 'SSP' - linguistic and visual phonics - approach. Whether they begin with synthetic or linguistic/ visual phonics, their shift to the 'self-teaching' phase is generally trouble-free due to the systematic nature of the approach.

The explicit phonics instruction phase can be even smoother if certain elements are included, especially as phonemic awareness is crucial for successful decoding and encoding. My Speech Sound Pics approach enhances phonemic awareness, making the majority of children 'reading-ready.' It trains them to think of words in terms of speech sounds and their corresponding 'pictures,' serving as a code that translates speech to text. This enables efficient decoding and understanding (reading) as well as encoding (spelling) for written words.

However, a significant difference arises in the way phonics is taught in the UK using DfE validated synthetic phonics programs. Many children face challenges in transitioning, but instead of addressing the underlying issues, they receive more of the same instruction, consistent with DfE recommendations. I delve deeper into this topic in a free webinar available on PATOSS, which you can access here: Webinar Link.


With the 'kick-start' phase - when a 'synthetic phonics' approach is taken, the children learn around 100 high frequency grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence, predominantly starting from the text. So children are shown graphemes and taught a phoneme correspondence. For example a - æ - as in 'ant'.
English has an opaque orthography, and so within what I call 'the whole code' - as seen on the Spelling Cloud Wall - this grapheme can map with at least 9 speech sounds (phonemes) When I ask synthetic phonics programme developers how the children acquire this knowledge (of the whole code) they tend to waft me away like an annoying little gnat, asking pesky questions lol. 

There is an assumption that by teaching children to map /a/ with  /æ/ (and possibly a few other grapheme choices eg /eɪ/ as in 'agent' - although the children may not map the word correctly, mapping the /e/ with the schwa!) will lead to 'skilled reading' - but this is based on a few assumptions that we now know don't actually apply to the highest number of children. No more than 75% of children will be skilled readers by the end of primary school until the DfE and policy makers understand this - and start more effectively supporting teachers.
I'm happy to show schools an alternative - teachers in Reception can follow a 'validated' synthetic phonics programme ADD activities to enhance phonemic awareness and orthographic knowledge, and more effectively error correct during independent writing tasks. They will also send home a wider range of 'mapped' resources eg Mapped high frequency words/ statutory spelling words, and 1,2,3 and Away! 'transition readers' once the children can recognise specific correspondences: the grapheme to phoneme correspondences shown in the Green Purple and Yellow Code Levels. They can also use the SSP Spelling Piano app for tablets eg ipads and more quickly recognise these graphemes and the target phoneme tested in the Year 1 Phonics Screener Check.     

If we get over 90% of children reading for pleasure before the end of Year 1 - with a lot of guidance around 'track back' we can change this really easily. The children who are not engaged with reading and able to read chapter books independently, before the end of KS1, are a risk - regardless of how fabulous their KS2 teachers are. Having these children in the classroom is really hard for KS2 teachers (and even more so for KS3 teachers!) as there is an expectation that the 'learning to read' phase is over with by then. It's frustrating for me as I know over 90% (usually at least 95%) are capable of deep reading / cognitive patience by the end of Year 1. If I'm teaching them (or guiding the reception teacher) I get them there before they start Year 1. I couldn't do that within 'Duck Hands, Lines and Numbers', 'Speedy Paired Decoding/ Code Mapping' and the use of 'transition' readers etc. I basically saturate their day with phonemic awareness, orthographic knowledge and vocab knowledge - around fun, predominantly self-directed activities. I do this using a 'less teaching, more learning' approach - which is very different to the approach expected by the education dept who want the teacher to be the star of the show.  I agree with  Maria Montessori, 'The greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, “The children are now working as if I did not exist'. Some validated synthetic phonics are the complete opposite, with teachers reading scripts. Remove the teacher and everything falls apart. I find it difficult to understand why school leaders - or teachers- choose that. What happens if the child can't attend school? Schools are closed? The child is neurodivergent and really doesn't want to be 'taught' they want to explore at their pace, and love learning with tech, or they find the scripted lesson either too easy or too difficult etc? As a neurodivergent person I just don't 'get' it!       

Synthetic phonics is known to use an instructional approach that goes 'print to text'. It is important that children go 'both ways' ie that they both decode and encode words - but ALSO that they have opportunities to explore the WHOLE code, but it's not as simple as saying that decoding and encoding is taught.
A simple way to ascertain the mindset around this is to ask the teacher (or programme developer!) what the student is expected to do when presented with an unfamiliar word. Examples include words like 'castle,' 'orange,' or 'sugar,' which are likely within their vocabulary but may contain new graphemes that they may not even teach in the programme! Do they tell the child the word (speech) and ask them to then work out the correspondences (as every letter is always used) or tell them the sound value for each graphemes c/a/st/le - o/r/a/n/ge - s/u/g/ar - going text to speech - or what do they do? Ironically, many teachers just tell me they aren't really sure - they may just give the child the word and leave it at that! (and why they have come to my training - they realise this is likely stunting growth, with regard to orthographic learning but aren't sure what else to do)       

The children who easily transition will understand the mapping of any words they can say (or know how pronounced even if nonspeaking) as they can apply their phonemic awareness skills and understanding of mapping speech sounds to sound pics by 'tracking back' So, for example, if they see the word 'orange' and know that is the word, then the children who transition without issues will automatically store in orthographic lexicon (brain dictionary) 
They will add the /a/ - that is new to them - to their 'store'. This is what happens during that Implicit Learning Phase - and why so many children thrive: they are self-teaching, and learning without conscious effort. Orthographic Mapping is how they recognise words by sight.

The children who do not start doing this independently (self-teaching) and especially as they read more and more, are the children who get left behind. They may read well - but aren't using that visual ability, and understanding of the words, to apply this 'track back' technique. We have to activate this for them - so their explicit instruction phase actually last longer - as they needed MORE support in order to move into the implicit learning phase. But they need to be exposed to those words with graphemes not yet known!

So this 'What's New For You' activity is developed for those children.  

Please add this to your daily activities in Year 1 if teaching in the UK: it will enhance YOUR phonemic awareness and orthographic knowledge too! As those in the 'orthographic mapping' phase you will look at those words and 'know them' without conscious effort. To get your struggling learners there you must become aware - no longer 'blinded by the letters'!    

On a final note - please always show graphemes with words - never in isolation. We don't want children to think that they will always map with those 'sounds' but we also cant explicitly teach them all! (and please don't even try!!)    

Speech Sound Wall
bottom of page