Elizabeth Nonweiler, November 2022

INTRODUCTION

In spite of numerous studies over decades, the controversy about how best to teach children the foundations of literacy continues. In England, nearly all schools teach ‘systematic synthetic phonics’, at least to some extent, but in most of the English speaking world ‘balanced literacy’, and similar teaching methods [1], are still widely used. Even in England, prominent voices continue to express antipathy to systematic synthetic phonics.

The details of both balanced literacy and systematic synthetic phonics teaching vary considerably. My aim is to describe the fundamental differences between them and why I am convinced that systematic synthetic phonics is much more effective than balanced literacy.

SYSTEMATIC SYNTHETIC PHONICS

Synthetic phonics means blending (synthesising) the sounds represented by letters to read words. When synthetic phonics is taught systematically it is known as systematic synthetic phonics (SSP).

A systematic synthetic phonics programme teaches children [2] to decode words by saying the sounds represented by the letters and blending those sounds to read the words. For example, children are taught to read ‘ant’ by looking at the letters and saying, “/a../n/../t/ … ant,” and ‘sheep’ by looking at the letters and saying “/sh/../ee/../p/ … sheep”. They are taught how to read words accurately and independently from the start.

In addition, children are taught spelling as the reverse of reading. They listen to a spoken word, identify the sounds in the word [3] and write letters for those sounds. For example, they listen to the word ‘moon’ and identify the sounds /m/../oo/../n/. Then they write letters for the sounds: ‘m oo n’. Teachers dictate words and sentences, to give children practice in spelling and forming letters without having to think about composition at the same time.

So reading and writing are taught like a code where letters are code for sounds. To read, children decode [4] written words and to write they encode spoken words. After they have been taught a simple code for reading and writing, they are systematically taught the most common alternative spellings for the sounds, for both reading and spelling. For example, they are taught that the sound /ae/ may be spelt with <ai> (as in ‘paint’), <ay> (as in ‘play’), <a-e> (as in ‘make’), and <a> (as in ‘apron’). Words with less common alternative spellings (like ‘o’ in ‘to’) are usually taught as ‘exception’ or ‘tricky’ words, although they may be taught simply as words with alternative spellings.

Synthetic phonics programmes provide words and texts with cumulative code to practise reading and writing. That means children constantly revise the code they learnt earlier as they learn to decode and encode words with an increasingly complex code. For example, when they have been taught that ‘ea’ is sometimes /e/, they may be asked to read ‘thread’, which includes revision of ‘th’, ‘r’, ‘d’ and practice in blending the consonant sounds /th/ and /r/.

Until children can read common and familiar words at a glance and work out most unfamiliar words without help, teachers are careful to ask them to read only texts that are decodable for them. There is a wide variety of books available that introduce letter-sounds systematically, to make them decodable at an early stage for children taught synthetic phonics. These books are often referred to as ‘decodable books’, although all books are decodable for those who can read the words in them.

Some are concerned that synthetic phonics teaching is dull and may put young children off reading. The opposite is true. When synthetic phonics is taught well by a teacher who understands young children, the children begin to read and write at a pace that surprises adults who have no experience of this kind of teaching. It is a joy to see the pride children show when they find they can read and write words by themselves.

There is extensive evidence that teaching phonics is the most effective way to teach children to read. Further evidence shows that teaching synthetic phonics is especially successful. (See evidence at the end of this article.) There is no need for more evidence, although more studies are useful for improving details of teaching and for identifying and responding to successes and difficulties in implementation.

Teaching alphabetic decoding skills explicitly is “helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some.” [5]

BALANCED LITERACY

Teaching based on balanced literacy aims to develop reading comprehension and teach phonics in a balanced and integrated way. In practice, this means children are asked to understand texts [6] before they know how to read words independently. They are expected to memorise the shapes of whole words, guess words (predict from pictures or context) or ask the teacher to tell them the words in a text. It is impossible to memorise enough words to access most texts, as English includes tens of thousands of words. Guessing words works only with texts designed to teach children to guess; it does not work with more advanced texts, especially if they have no picture clues.

Balanced literacy also includes teaching some of the letter-sounds children need to decode words independently. However, children are asked to read numerous words ‘by sight’ before they have been taught the letter-sounds in those words. The pace of teaching letter-sounds is slow and the total number of letter-sounds taught is usually too few to enable children to read most words independently.

The books children are asked to read fit with the idea that children should understand them before they know how to decode the words in them. Texts are repetitive to help children memorise whole words and guess what comes next. They include simple pictures which match the words in the text unambiguously to give more help with guessing. It is considered acceptable for children to guess a word incorrectly if the meaning of that word is close to the meaning of the actual word. For example, a child who reads ‘horse’ for ‘pony’ may be praised and not corrected.

Some children learn to read in this way, because they notice how letters correspond to sounds before they are taught them and they subconsciously teach themselves how to decode unfamiliar words. However, many children cannot do this. When they are faced with words they do not remember and cannot decode, they can only guess or rely on an adult to tell them the words. Some children who are encouraged to guess choose to guess unfamiliar words, even when they have been taught how to decode them independently. Guessing has become a habit that is difficult to break.

Balanced literacy may include activities to help children become phonemically aware [7] and teaching reading may be delayed until they are judged to be aware enough. In contrast, with systematic synthetic phonics, there is no need to delay teaching until children are phonemically aware. They become phonemically aware when they read words by blending phonemes, and spell words by identifying the phonemes in spoken words.

With balanced literacy the concept of ‘emergent writing’ is often the basis for teaching writing. Children are expected to go through stages of writing from scribbling, imitating writing, drawing strings of letters, writing letters corresponding to a few of the sounds in words, phonetic writing and finally conventional writing. They may compose a sentence for the teacher to write and copy it. They may use personal dictionaries in which the teacher writes words for them to copy.

It is hard to find evidence suggesting that it is more effective to teach ‘balanced literacy’ than synthetic phonics.

WORD READING AND LANGUAGE COMPREHENSION

The Simple View of Reading is that “reading equals the product of decoding and comprehension”[8]. Proponents of both balanced literacy and systematic synthetic phonics recognise the importance of teaching decoding and developing comprehension.

Both understand the value of reading aloud to children every day to develop comprehension; it  increases their vocabulary and helps them become familiar with the structures of English grammar. Other benefits include tuning children into the sounds of English, teaching them about the world around them and far away, encouraging empathy, and inspiring a love of literature.

The difference is this: With balanced literacy, children are asked to comprehend texts they read when they cannot decode the words in the texts independently, as already explained. With systematic synthetic phonics, comprehension for beginners is developed mainly through spoken language. When children can read common and familiar words at a glance and work out other words independently, decoding and comprehension come together as reading comprehension. Then children can enjoy reading any age-appropriate text and their vocabulary and language comprehension improve rapidly through their reading.

Similarly, written composition involves composition (self-expression) and transcription (spelling and letter formation). With balanced literacy, children are encouraged to write their own compositions according to theories about emergent writing, before they know how to write words, as already explained. With systematic synthetic phonics, composition for beginners is developed through children’s spoken language. When they can form letters correctly and spell words confidently, they can begin to write down their ideas. At first they may spell some words incorrectly, but in a way that the reader can understand. For example, a child beginning to learn to write might write ‘sed’ for ‘said’. Later the child will learn that /e/ in ‘said’ is spelt with ‘ai’.

SOME EVIDENCE FOR TEACHING SYNTHETIC PHONICS SYSTEMATICALLY ACROSS THE WORLD

The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programme on Reading, Writing and Spelling (England)

“Crucially, these studies have demonstrated how an early grounding in synthetic phonics can make it possible for all children to leave primary school better able to access the secondary-school curriculum.” http://rrf.org.uk/pdf/Grant%20Follow-Up%20Studies%20-%20May%202014.pdf

The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment (Scotland)

“At the end of the programme, the synthetic phonics taught group were reading and spelling 7 months ahead of chronological age. They read words around 7 months ahead of the other two groups, and were 8 to 9 months ahead in spelling … At the end of Primary 7, word reading was 3 years 6 months ahead of chronological age.” https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/14793/1/0023582.pdf

Longitudinal Study of the Effects on Reading and Spelling of a Synthetic Phonics and Systematic Spelling and Grammar Program (Australia)

“By the end of their second year of formal schooling, students …  aged between 6 years 5 months and 8 years 2 months … had made a very strong start with the development of their reading and spelling skills. The average gain in reading [was] 14 months above chronological age.” https://auspeld.org.au/2012/07/27/speldsa-longitudinal-study-of-the-effects-on-reading-and-spelling-of-a-synthetic-phonics-and-systematic-spelling-and-grammar-program/

A synthesis of research on reading from the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) (USA)

“Research shows quite clearly that overemphasizing prediction from context for word recognition can be counterproductive, possibly delaying reading acquisition.”

http://www.nrrf.org/old/synthesis_research.html

Synthetic Phonics as a Tool for Improving the Reading Skills of Nigerian Pupils

“The study found that pupils were more eager to learn in the collaborative and engaging environment offered by the synthetic phonics programme … Moreover, there was a significant difference in the improvement in the reading skills of the pupils in the synthetic phonics groups compared to the pupils in the control groups.”

https://jolly2.s3.amazonaws.com/Research/Busola’s%20thesis%20executive%20summary.pdf

Links to further evidence:

http://www.iferi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Collection-of-Phonics-Quotes-by-Kerry-Hempenstall.pdf

CONCLUSION

The overwhelming research evidence for teaching synthetic phonics, combined with the logic of the approach and the experience of those who have been involved in teaching it, should leave no doubt that teaching synthetic phonics systematically is more effective than teaching balanced literacy.


[1] For example, ‘integrated literacy’, ‘mixed methods’, ‘a range of strategies’

[2] This is about children. However, learning synthetic phonics is important for everyone who has not mastered the knowledge and skills needed to read words, including older students and adults.

[3] identifying the sounds in words is often called ‘segmenting’, but on its own ‘segmenting’ is ambiguous. For spelling, children segment spoken words.

[4] In this context, the term ‘decode’ means to convert written words into spoken language, so ‘decode’ means the same as ‘read words’, ‘read texts’, ‘recognise words’, ‘decode words’ and ‘decode texts’.

[5]  P. Snow, The Snow Report, 2017

[6] In this blog, the term ‘text’ means any writing with meaning: story books, non-fiction, notices, articles, newspapers, instructions, menus, exam questions and so on.

[7] ‘Phonemically aware’ means being aware of the phonemes in words. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that indicates a difference in meaning. In this blog, the word ‘sound’ is used to mean ‘phoneme’. There are between 40 and 46 phonemes in English, depending on accent.

[8] This simple view of reading was proposed by Gough and Tunmer in Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability (1986)

‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ and ‘Balanced Literacy’: What’s The Difference?

2 thoughts on “‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ and ‘Balanced Literacy’: What’s The Difference?

  • 3rd November 2022 at 1:08 pm
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    Thank you for this informative, and pertinent, post Elizabeth. The arguments around differences and superiority/advisability of ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ versus ‘balanced literacy’ still continue both internationally and in England’s context. There is still much misunderstanding and debate – and certainly what teachers provide in different countries and contexts continues to remain nothing more than ‘chance’ for the children – whereas it really is the ‘same’ alphabetic code and phonics skills for reading and spelling that all learners should be taught thoroughly and well. This is the responsibility of teachers.

    Teacher and renowned blogger, Greg Ashman, has written a number of posts over the years pointing out the proven efficacy of systematic phonics and clearly he despairs that the arguments still rage on!

    Here Greg refers to the undermining work of Wyse and Bradbury (in England):

    https://fillingthepail.substack.com/p/has-synthetic-phonics-been-demolished/comments

    A visit to Greg’s blog leads to further posts on the underminers of phonics provision!

  • 29th March 2023 at 5:05 pm
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    Elizabeth, I just read your blog for the second time and it seems more relevant each time I read it. I want to share it with as many teachers as possible in my neck of the woods.

    Thank you for your continued commitment to education the world over. You are a tremendous support and I really appreciate that.

    Coreen

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