Synthetic versus Analytical Phonics: Which is best for my EAL students?

Supporting Vulnerable Children
Supporting Vulnerable Children
29th April 2016
Free focus on languages…
27th May 2016
Supporting Vulnerable Children
Supporting Vulnerable Children
29th April 2016
Free focus on languages…
27th May 2016

Synthetic versus Analytical Phonics: Which is best for my EAL students?

In previous articles, we considered the importance of avoiding the use of a ‘Whole Language’ approach, in isolation, as a primary method of literacy instruction. We argued that a systematic, skills-based approach would ensure better reading and writing progression for second language learners. 

This leads to the question: which systematic approach should be used? The two methods adopted by most practitioners for first language learners are the Synthetic Phonics approach and the Analytical Phonics approach.

Synthetic Phonics teaches children the sounds of the English language and then helps them develop the skills needed to decode, encode, read and write words. In Analytical Phonics, children learn to recognise words by sight, in a method similar to rote-learning.

Synthetic Phonics is a more skills-based approach, while Analytical Phonics is more contextual. Each has its own merit. However, there is a distinct lack of theory on and research into which is the most effective approach for the second language learner. It is this that we will continue to investigate in this and subsequent articles.

Analytical Phonics

The Analytical Phonics approach is often referred to as a ‘whole word’ approach. It relies upon children learning to recognise words instantaneously, without requiring them to ‘sound them out’ or decode them (Gunning, 2000). This approach is often referred to as ‘sight reading’ and involves rote-learning words from flashcards.

Holmes (2009) argues that through Analytical Phonics, learners effectively read words by sight via an analytical conversion process, achieved through continued practice in reading at both the text and word level. He hypothesises that this method is in accordance with the ‘verbal-efficiency’ theory, where efficient instantaneous word recognition is imperative in a competent reader, as less energy is then ‘wasted’ on decoding, allowing more energy to be spent on higher-order thinking skills and linguistic processes such as comprehension. 

Other researchers disagree, particularly when the approach is considered for use by second language learners. They point out, for instance, the extraordinary number of words in the English language that must be memorised by learners before energy-saving could be considered feasible.

Albert (1995) further argues that children may forget words over time, given the method’s heavy dependence on memorisation. This is particularly problematic for second language learnings, who may converse more often in their native language, rather than English; the likelihood of them forgetting words ay thus be higher than for a first language learner.

Possibly the most critical argument against Analytical Phonics as a primary means of literacy instruction is propounded by Oakhill and Garnham (1988). They state that if readers cannot decode, they will have no phonemic awareness, and without this, will not be able to read an unknown word that they come across independently. It is, of course, highly likely that a second language learner will come across many unknown words.

A number of studies suggest that Analytical Phonics is not, overall, a successful method of literacy instruction (see Torgesen et al, 1999, and Johnston and Watson, 2005) and should not be the primary method of literacy instruction for second language learners. However, there is a great deal of support for the use of Analytical Phonics in the case of irregular words, such as ‘was’ or ‘are’, which cannot be decoded (Cameron, 2001), and this advantage should not be discounted.

Synthetic Phonics

Synthetic Phonics is a method of teaching reading and spelling through decoding and encoding, following a systematic approach. It relies upon teaching the individual sounds of the 44 phonemes in the English language sequentially, along with the letters that correspond to them (Ehri et al, 2001). Once learners know some sounds, they can use their knowledge to read words via decoding, or write words via encoding, as they build up and break down words.

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that this is a superior phonics approach and outperforms Analytical Phonics.

Firstly, Synthetic Phonics creates phonemic awareness, which is an essential component of learning to read and write. Crucially, it provides learners with the ability to independently read unfamiliar words, without which they will not be able to decipher enough words to make meaning from a text, in order to comprehend it (Juel, 1996). The approach can be seen as an ‘antidote’ to the rote-learning of Analytical Phonics, giving children the tools to solve reading problems autonomously.

Evidence also suggests that comprehension is greater amongst children who have learned through Synthetic approaches than amongst those who have learned through Analytical approaches (Watson and Johnston, 2005).


It is suggested that Synthetic Phonics should be the primary method of reading instruction for all learners, being supplemented by Analytical techniques when faced with non-decodable words. Given the noticeable absence of literature, research and studies addressing the merits of teaching Synthetic Phonics to children who are second language learners (Birch, 2002; Nuttall, 1996), in the next edition we will focus on a study that aims to determine just how effective this approach is for second language learners, with some suggestions as to how best to implement it.

This research was undertaken as part of a Masters in Education and Professional Practice at Glasgow University. Colette is currently working at an international school in Qatar.


Albert, E (1995). ‘Why does phonics work? Process vs. declaration’. Viewpoints, 1-6.

Birch, B.M. (2002). English L2 reading: getting to the bottom. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cameron, L. (2001) Teaching languages to young learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., Willows, D.M. (2001). ‘Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: evidence from the national reading panel’s meta-analysis’. Review of Educational research, 71(3), p.393-447.

Gunning, T.G. (2000). Teaching phonics, sight words, and syllabic awareness: creating literacy instruction for all children. 3rd Ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, p.81-147.

Holmes, W. (2009). ‘Catch up literacy for children in care’, Literacy today. Vol 60, p.9-10.

Johnston, R.S., Watson, J.E. (2005). A seven year study of the effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment.

Juel, C. (1996). Beginning Reading, in Barr, R., Kamil, M., Mosenthal, P., Pearson, P.D. (Eds.) handbook of reading research. Volume 2. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p. 759-788.

Nuttal, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language: second edition. London: Heinemann.

Oakhill, K., Garnham, A. (1988). Becoming a skilled reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Torgesen, J.K, Wagner, R.K., Rashotte, C.A., Lindamood, P., Rose, E., Conway, T., Garvan, C. (1999). ‘Preventing reading failure in young children with phonological processing disabilities: group and individual responses to instruction’. Journal of educational psychology, 91(4), p.579-593.

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