A new system known as synthetic phonics, looks set to give our children a real head start with their reading and spelling skills. Sue Lloyd reports.

From September this year (2006) a new system will be used to teach reading in all schools. Known as synthetic phonics, it teaches children to combine letters to read new words rather than recognising words on sight. Is means that children are taught to work out unknown words by blending the letter sounds. This is in fact what good readers do when they encounter a word they have not seen before.

As most parents know it is important to read books to your children. It does not however teach children to read. Some children who have good visual memory and a natural ability to hear the sounds in words, are able to teach themselves the ¿code¿ needed to combine these two elements. The child notices that a word like ¿tap¿ has a /t/ sound at the beginning and that there is a /t/ sound at the end of the word ¿hot¿, and that both are written with the letter <t>. They then use this knowledge to work out other <t> words. Most children need to be taught exactly how to do it, building up from simple words to more complex ones.

Children are taught a few letter sounds, such as s, a, t, I, p, n and are immediately encouraged to blend regular words that use these sounds such as a-s-t, t-a-p, pin, tip, pat etc. Note, at this stage the children should learn each letter by its sound and not its name. For instance the letter s should be s (as in sun) and not ess. It¿s important to only provide words that contain the letter sounds that your child knows. With knowledge of the alphabet sounds and blending, a child can read 300 words or more.

There are thousands of words in children¿s books, and learning the sounds of the alphabet letters is not nearly enough. For example there are 44 sounds in the English language, and only 26 letters. This means that some sounds have to be represented by two letters put together, such as ee (see), oa(soap), ou(out) er(letter), ng(ring) sh(wish). These letter sounds are known as digraphs and as soon as a new digraph is introduced, the child needs to practise reading words which use that particular digraph.

For example it the /ee/ sound has been taught, the child should be encouraged to blend words like seed, peep, meet, see, leeks, deep, need, feet, seen etc. The following groups of letter sounds are a basic start and help children to understand the main sounds of English:

1. s a t I p n

2. c k e h r m d

3. g o u l f b

4. ai j oa ie ee or

5. z w ng v oo (the oo as in book and the oo as in moon)

6. y x ch sh th (the th as in this and the in thin)

7. qu ou oi ue er ar

Some tricky words such as ¿the, he¿ was, I, to and you¿ need to be taught before asking children to read books for themselves. Encourage blending of these words and look at the part that is being awkward. For example the word ¿was¿ when blended should rhyme with the word ¿mass¿ but it is irregular and says /woz/. A child has to practise this type of word until the pronunciation is known and it is stored in their memory.

The alternative ways of writing vowels still need to be taught, and this forms the last part of the main code. First of all the children learn one way of writing the /ai/ sound and then they have to learn that <ay> as in ¿day and <a-e> as in ¿came¿ also represent the /ai/ sound. Once the children are fluent at blending words that use the first 42 letter sounds and the following alternatives, then they have sufficient knowledge to cope with reading books that are suitable for their age.

Alternative vowel spellings:

Ai ¿ ay a-e (rain, play, made)

Ee ¿ ea e-e (deep, meat, these)

Ie ¿ igh y I-e (tie, night, my, line)

Oa ¿ ow o-e (goat, snow, hope)

Ue ¿ ew u-e (due, few, tube)

Er ¿ ir ur (sister, girl, burn)

Or ¿ au aw al (torn, august, saw, talk)

Oi ¿ oy (boil, toy)

Ou ¿ ow (loud, cow)

(Jolly phonics Programme of synthetic phonics)

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