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

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Supporting Vulnerable Children
29th April 2016
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27th May 2016
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Synthetic versus Analytical Phonics: Which is best for my EAL students?

In the last edition, we considered the importance of not using a Whole Language approach in isolation as a primary method of literacy instruction, but rather ensuring that a systematic, skills-based approach is used to guarantee reading and writing progression for second language learners.

This begs the question, which systematic approach should we use? The two systematic methods adopted by most practitioners for first language learners are the Analytical Phonics approach or the Synthetic Phonics approach.

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


The above diagram shows that the Whole Language approach is the most contextual but the least skills based, and therefore is not a systematic approach. Synthetic and Analytical approaches are both more skills orientated. This makes these two approaches systematic and thus, more appropriate as the primary vehicle for literacy instruction. We can see that each has it’s own merit. Whereas Synthetic Phonics is more skills based, Analytical Phonics is more contextual, and thus, the debate rages on.

However, there is a distinctive lack of research and theory into which of these opposing approaches would be more effective for the second language learner and this is what we will continue to investigate.

Synthetic versus Analytical Phonics

There is a distinctive lack of research and theory into whether the Analytical Phonics or the Synthetic Phonics approach would be more effective for the second language learner.

Analytical Phonics

The Analytical Phonics approach is often referred to as the Whole Word approach, which relies upon children learning to recognise words instantaneously, without requiring to ‘sound them out’ or decode them (Gunning, 2000). This is often referred to as “sight reading” or rote learning words from flash cards.

Although there is support for the use of this approach, it can mostly be disproved, especially when considering the use of this method with second language learners. Holmes (2009) argues that through Analytical Phonics, learners can effectively read words by sight via an analytical conversion process that can be achieved through continued practice in reading at both text and word level. He also 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 ‘wasted’ on decoding allowing more to be spent on higher order thinking skills and linguistic processes such as comprehension. However, the position of Holmes (2009) can be refuted by considering the exorbitant number of words in the English language that must be memorised by learners before the benefit of energy saving could be considered feasible, demonstrating that this approach would be unsuitable for second language learners.

In addition to these trepidations, one must consider the concerns of Albert (1995) who argues that children may forget words over time given the method’s heavy dependency on memorisation. This is problematic given the likelihood of a second language learner forgetting words may be higher than that of a first language learner, as they will often converse in their native language as opposed to English.

Possibly the most crucial argument against Analytical Phonics as the primary means of literacy instruction is discussed by Oakhill and Garnham (1988) who address the fact that if readers cannot decode, they will have no phonemic awareness, without which they could not read an unknown word that they came across independently. Given that it is even more likely that a second language learner will come across unknown words, it renders this approach invalid.

A number of studies have proven that Analytical Phonics is not a successful method of literacy instruction (Torgesen et al., 1999, Johnston and Watson, 2005). As a result of the reasons discussed, it 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 instance of irregular words, such as “was” or “are” which cannot be decoded (Cameron, 2001). This cannot be discounted given the obscure nature of words that cannot be decoded.

Synthetic Phonics

After having discounted Analytical Phonics as a possible primary approach to reading instruction for second language learners, we are left with Synthetic Phonics. This is a method of teaching reading and spelling through decoding and encoding with a systematic approach. It relies upon teaching the individual sounds of the 44 phonemes in the English language sequentially and the letters that correspond to them (Ehri et al., 2001). Once learners know some sounds, they can use this knowledge to read words via decoding, or write words via encoding, as they can build up and break words down.

There is a great deal of evidence which suggests that Synthetic Phonics is the superior phonics approach and outperforms Analytical Phonics. First of all, it creates phonemic awareness, which is an essential component for learning to read and write.

Crucially, Synthetic Phonics provide children with the ability to independently read unfamiliar words, without which they could not decipher enough words to make meaning from text in order to comprehend it (Juel, 1996). Thus, this approach can be seen as an antidote to the rote learning of Analytical Phonics, giving children the methods to solve reading problems autonomously. Also, despite the opinions of Analytical Phonics supporters, evidence also suggests that comprehension is greater with children who have learned through Synthetic approaches than Analytical (Watson and Johnston, 2005).


To conclude, from this research, 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. However, given the noticeable absence of literature, research and studies addressing the merit 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 will determine how effective Synthetic Phonics can be for second language learners and how best to approach it.

Tricky word learning activities for younger learners (easily adapted for older learners): Click here!

Example of a tricky word assessment sheet: Click here!

Example of tricky word flashcards (Letters & Sounds phases 2-5): Click here!

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., and 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 Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, P. 81- 146.

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

Johnston, R.S., and 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., and 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, J., and 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., and 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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