In a program using a synthetic phonics approach, children start by learning about the sounds within spoken words. They need to be able to: hear that sentences are made up of words; that some words rhyme; that some words start (or finish) with the same sound; and, that words are made of speech sounds that are blended (synthesised) together. As part of learning about the different sounds we use to make words, children should be taught about the letter (or letters) we use to write the sound down. For example, if children are learning about the /s/ sound through matching games, rhyming, alliteration (the slimy, slithery snake slid slowly somewhere special) and other oral language activities, it is important to explicitly link the sound with the letter we use to write the sound down.
When introducing the letter we use to write the /s/ sound down a teacher might write or display the letter ‘s’ and say “we use this letter to write down the /s/ sound. The name of this letter is “ess”. Children learn letter representations for each of the 44 sounds of English. When they see a letter or digraph they should be able to say its sound. They then learn to blend (put together) these sounds to make words. Once they can do this they are reading words.
There are numerous ‘Synthetic Phonic’ programs available and they all have more or less the same set of sounds. There are a few small differences. Each program has its own order for introducing the sounds, but evidence suggests that as long as all the sounds are covered, the order doesn’t seem to matter. Generally programs introduce commonly used consonants and short vowel sounds first, followed by long vowels, digraphs, adjacent consonants and r-controlled vowel sounds (such as /er/ and /or/). Children learn one way of writing down each of the sounds and are then gradually introduced to spelling alternatives for each of the sounds. Sometimes they are still learning about the more complex spelling alternatives in upper primary or even secondary school. For example, we first learn that the /s/ sound is written down using the letter ‘s’ (as in sun). Later we learn that we can write the /s/ sound using the letter ‘c’ (as in city) or ‘sc’ (as in science), and later still we learn that we can write down the /s/ sound using the letters ‘ps’ (as in psychic) or ‘st’ (as in listen).