Synthetic Phonics and the Child
with Special Needs: A Study in
Brain Activity
John Bald
01223 891069
Presentation Copyright © John Bald 2007
Brain cells and connections
(from The Learning Brain, Blakemore and Frith, 2005)
As we learn, brain cells form connections with each other
that build into chunks and networks. These connections are
strengthened with practice. They are the foundation of
language, both written and spoken.
How the Brain Adapts:
Reading in English and Italian
• Left: reading system of both languages combined
• Centre: sound processing more active in Italian (regular)
• Right: word form area more active in English, to deal with
irregularity – eg should and shoulder.
(from The Learning Brain, Blakemore and Frith, 2005)
What are synthetic phonics?
• Synthetic phonics is word building.
• We build words from the sounds
indicated by letters when we read.
• We build words by using letters to
represent sounds when we write.
Synthetic and Analytic Phonics
• Analytic phonics was a new variety of
phonics developed in the 1990s.
• Analytic phonics is word breaking.
• Some advocates of analytic phonics
do not approve of word building,
because English is not always regular.
• Analytic phonics can help with
irregular patterns.
How synthetic phonics helps
• English is regular roughly three quarters
of the time.
• Where phonics don’t tell us all we need to
know, they usually tell us some of what we
need to know.
• Many long words are regular, and can be
built up using phonics.
In English, letters…
indicate sounds - cat
give us information that changes the sound of other
plate template contemplate
sometimes work in groups
station healthy
• reflect history, particularly 1066
table manger
Letters don’t
• tell us how to pronounce longer words
• help us to deal with irregularity
What else do we need to know?
• Children need to understand that phonics won’t always
work, and why.
• We need to understand, explain and practise patterns in
• We need to know and use additional teaching techniques
for slow learners
• We must understand the problems caused by sensitivity to
light, and by problems in discriminating between sounds.
Teaching synthetic phonics two maxims for children.
We use what the letters tell us, but
we don’t believe the letters tell us
The language is a thousand years old.
If we were a thousand years old,
we’d have some wrinkles too.
Key patterns and stumbling blocks.
Accurate reading of regular, short words
Understanding that letters work in groups, and using the most
common combinations, including
Final e – made, here, bite, note, cute
Vowel groups, especially when these can indicate more than one
Softening effect of e, i and y on c and g
Learning patterns that are not obvious from the normal sounds of
letters they contain.
One key technique for teachers
If a child misreads a word, it’s best not teach that word straightaway.
Instead, teach another that has the same pattern at the end, using plastic
letters – eg if a child can’t read run, you might begin with sun.
Once they understand the new word, change the first letter, (e.g gun).
Work on this as long as it takes for child to read gun and sun confidently,
then add more words, eg fun, bun. Mix up the letters and have them make
the new words until they can make and read them without hesitation.
Then put in the word that caused the problem –the child often reads it
without hesitation. If not, work on it, relating it to the pattern. Once the
child can read all of the words without hesitation, go back to the text at
the beginning of the sentence, so that the child meets the new word again.
Keep a note of the words you’ve worked on, and use this for practice, so
that the child learns to read the words quickly and accurately.
Some key stages in learning a word
Full teaching
Fluent reading, taken in stride, no
Detecting Literacy Problems
Child can’t read at all. Salford Sentence Reading Test, Read Write Inc Ditties.
Child can read simple words, but has problems with longer words and letter
combinations such as cycle, city, centre, or final e in words such as made. Salford
Sentence Reading Test, or informal assessment. Make own resources based on Alpha
to Omega, (Hornsby) and teach through the materials the child uses in class.
Child has problems with reading the more complex vocabulary used in .secondary
school – typical reading age around 9. Unpack and explain this vocabulary in advance,
using full range of resources they meet in class and Alpha to Omega
Child’s reading is affected by other factors, eg sensitivity to light, difficulty with
discriminating between sounds, limited language use outside school. Assess using
Institute of Optometry screening kit. Understand and explain shortcuts in spoken
Introducing Slimmed Down
Key principles:
Most letters represent sounds. Sometimes letters work in groups, some words
have an extra letter, and occasionally letters are awkward.
If we hear a sound when we say a word carefully, we need at least one letter for
Sometimes letters work in groups – we use a group when we’ve learned we need it,
eg, station
Some words have an extra letter, eg made, chaos. We use an extra letter when
we’ve learned we need it.
Sometimes, because of shortcuts in speech, or changes in the way people speak,
the letter we need is not the one we think we need. These letters are awkward,
and we only use them when we’ve learned we need them. Examples include the
final a in animal, and the a after with in was, water, warm etc.
Using Phonics to Teach Reading and Spelling, Sage, ISBN 978 1 4129 3111 3
Selecting words
Write words to be learned on cards or scraps of
paper. Minimum of four words. Ask the child to
pick out a word you call out. This gives two
sources of information about the word, its sound
and its spelling, and makes it easy for children to
make the link. Once selection is secure, ask the
child to pick any word they can read and hand it
to you. Then reteach the words they can’t read.
(Adapted from the Portsmouth Down’s Syndrome Project,
Professor Sue Buckley)
Sensitivity to Light
• Fluorescent light flashes 100 times per
second (alternating current)
• Some children are sensitive to some
wavelengths in light.
• Effects range from mild discomfort to
serious reading and behavioural
• Tinted lenses and overlays often help.
Wilkins, A, Reading through Colour, Wiley, ISBN 0 470 85116 3
Discriminating between sounds:
• limited language development in early
• shortcuts in everyday speech
• language disorder
Teaching discrimination
between sounds
• The idea of shortcuts is socially neutral we take some in speaking
• Children can learn not to take shortcuts –
this needs to be built up gradually
• Language Master ( can
help children to model sentences.
Reading and the Curriculum
• Using texts the children need to read in their
lessons ensures relevance and provides practice
• Preparing these texts in advance builds success,
and is better than than chasing failure
• Simplify the texts where necessary. Laminating
copies where possible, and store the.
• The SENCO needs an advance copy of all
materials to be used in class.

Every Child Matters – key aims