Synthetic phonics vs analytic phonics?

When tasked to produce a digital phonics resource for teachers to help them in the classroom where do you begin? (This was our brief back in 2008).

You don’t have the knowledge and training that a teacher has – you merely have your talents as a games designer, your wits, a desire to make the best phonics resource out there, and your ability to learn on the job.

So you start with some research and persuade a passionate teacher to come on board!

The vast majority of educationalists seem to trumpet the superiority of ‘synthetic phonics’ over ‘analytic phonics’ so there is the starting point – but what are those terms?

Well, synthetic phonics is “a method of teaching people to read by training them to pronounce sounds associated with particular letters in isolation and then blend them together” (, and analytic phonics – well let’s not go into that. A good comparison of the two systems can be found here.

Choosing a synthetic phonics programme

So we’re doing synthetic phonics, but which programme should we cover?

There are lots to choose from. Maybe we should make something that covers all of them! Some investigation quickly reveals that they are incompatible.

Sounds are taught in a particular order and, surprise, the order is always different. CompareJolly Phonics against Read Write Inc. and you’ll see what I mean.

The government at the time was recommending its non-statutory program Letters and Sounds: Practice and Principles of High Quality Phonics. Thinking that’s probably a good bet, we got the book, started swatting up and starting pestering our teacher friends for some friendly advice. (Fortunately that program is still going strong!).

The phonics learning process

We have been through the process the child goes through as they learn from pre-school to Key Stage 2: developing an ear for discerning between sounds they hear around them – not just speech but animal, environmental and percussive sounds too.

Initially they learn to listen for alliteration and rhyme and are eventually introduced to the concept of segmenting spoken words into their constituent phonemes.

Next they are introduced to a small set of letters (graphemes) andthe phonemes that go with them and learn to quickly recall them; then they start to blend letter sounds together to make words – reading!

Next comes segmenting words in order to spell. More and more letters are added until you start to introduce digraphs (pairs of letters that make a single sound) and even trigraphs (triplets of letters with a single sound).

By the time you complete Letters and Sounds Phase 3 you know how to spell all the sounds that the English language possesses (bar one) and can even write entire sentences.

After a couple of small diversions to cover the actual names of letters and reading and writing adjacent consonant grapheme-phoneme-correspondences you’re ready to have your world turned upside down as you discover that there are alternative ways to spell the phonemes you learnt and alternative ways to pronounce the graphemes you thought you knew.

Good old English! We discovered 9 different ways to spell the sound /ee/ and as many ways to pronounce the grapheme ‘ough’. Naturally these alternatives are introduced gradually over a number of years.

The busythings phonics programme is born!

The good thing about being games designers/programmers and understanding phonics, is that both disciplines involve breaking things down into smaller and smaller parts. Those parts get put together again in meaningful and diverse ways to yield the end result – an effective tool for the classroom or competent reading and writing.

In the course of developing Dog and Cat’s Letters and Sounds for busythings we have been through the phonetical wringer but come out in one piece.

We know our homophones from our homographs, our phonetic alphabet, how regional accents bend the rules, how to tackle that one extra sound /zh/ and the ultimate test – what a ‘schwa’ is and how to cope with it.

All this knowledge has been poured into what is, we believe, a really valuable, entertaining and powerful resource package that will delight parents, teachers and children alike.

The fruit of all the labour (in our case: 61 games and 6 customisable printable resource making tools) means that we now understand synthetic phonics as well as any teacher. Over 8 years we’ve been pouring over the handbook – so much that we have even found the mistakes!

Take a free trial of busythings to explore our phonics offering and other subjects besides.

By good fortune, one of the other popular phonics programs, Jolly Phonics, was sufficiently similar to allow us to incorporate some degree of compatibility. You will find a setting that allows you to pick between Letters and Sounds and Jolly Phonics – a good concession to schools which have not thrown their lot in with Letters and Sounds. You will also discover North/South regional preferences and cursive/pre-cursive letter preferences.

Busythings is available through RM Unify, to find out more please email or call us on 0808 172 9525.

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