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Rocket Phuel: launching systematic synthetic phonic instruction  … Juanita Lee, 2018

What kind of teaching provides all children with an equal opportunity for literacy learning lift-off in their school years and beyond? Literacy teaching that works successfully has been thoroughly researched … An exploration into the universe of synthetic phonics reveals that not only is it a highly efficient approach to teaching base literacy skills and assisting students with reading and spelling difficulties but also that it is dynamic, scientifically credible and unexpectedly inspiring. It incorporates explicit and multisensory approaches, sustains the attention and interest of children and instills self-belief when they achieve reading and spelling success. Evidence-based teaching practice is the rocket fuel for launching literacy and literacy intervention standards into the future. 


Learning to read, spell and write requires ‘engineering’. It does not happen by chance. To build reading, spelling and writing rockets we must carefully plan and systematically apply proven methodologies and endorsed programs in a variety of settings. We are aiming to reach the ‘Red Planet’ of elevated literacy results. Mandy Nayton, in her letter to State and Territory Ministers, supporting the Year 1 Phonics Check (6 / 12 / 2017) reported that phonics, the alphabetic principle and teaching the 'code' are now included in the Australian Curriculum - English (ACE). Training teachers in ‘evidence-based’ teaching practices such as synthetic phonics will grow in importance into the future.


What is ‘synthetic phonics’? Phonics is letter-sound knowledge, also known as the ‘code’; synthetic phonics teaches the sounds in the English Language and the letters and letter clusters that represent them. Children are taught to identify the individual phonemes in words and to blend (synthesize) the sounds together all through words to enable reading them. Why is the ‘sound way’ so powerful? Explicitly teaching children to associate specific letters and letter clusters with sounds and to segment and blend the sounds to read words provides them with an effective approach to reading unfamiliar words and prevents haphazard guessing that results in reading errors. All children require systematic teaching of the code following a well-researched phonic scope and sequence that keeps their age and developmental stage into account. Explicitly taught phonic knowledge and practice in using it provides students with the essential tools to decode effectively and at the same time enabling reading fluency that is so important in facilitating an understanding of what one is reading. Synthetic phonics also advantages encoding, i.e. improves the ability to spell. It is the ‘oxygen supply’ for children on their individual journeys to reading and writing success.

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From the above it is clear that speech sounds are at the centre of the reading and spelling universe. We develop awareness for speech sounds from an early age. The words we speak are made up of sounds. At pre-school and in the first years at school, teachers play listening and sound games; they sing songs and read poems that accentuate rhyme and rhythm. Children’s’ books celebrate the sound structures of our language with their abundant use of alliteration, rhythm and rhyme. When teachers teach ‘the sound way’ and the authors of children’s’ books write with an awareness for sounds, they are enhancing the phonological awareness of children that enter their world. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the sound structures in language.


Lower Primary teachers teach the specific individual sounds letters and letter clusters make. This process relies on healthy phonemic awareness ability; the ability to identify and manipulate the individual sounds in words. Phonemic awareness is a feature of phonological awareness and is a strong predictor of reading and spelling success. Visit the Five from Five website at and find their page and video that explains systematic synthetic phonics, phonological awareness and phonemic awareness and their role in teaching reading.


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Space travel means we can’t ignore the ‘Phun Factor’! And there is reason for it outside of it being a motivational tool for learning. Multi-sensory learning, an approach devised by Orton Gillingham, involves listening, looking, saying, moving and feeling, as manifest in synthetic phonic programs. Word sounding (individual phonemes and / or syllables) is combined with tracing, tapping, highlighting or the placing of objects / letters into elkonin boxes for example. The multi-sensory approach is effective in teaching decoding and spelling skills when applied in the context of systematic, synthetic phonic programs; especially for those children who learn best by doing and using all senses. Phonological and morphological spelling and reading games are a good way to reinforce learning; imprinting knowledge and processes.


For the older child a comprehensive knowledge of word morphology is key to developing sound word building, decoding and spelling skills and builds phonological awareness and vocabulary and comprehension skills. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning. Teaching root words and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and their meanings advantages the older child.


Reading is not only deciphering the printed word. It is about understanding and responding to the information in texts and about enjoying literature. ‘The Simple View of Reading’ is reading each word in a text accurately and fluently and comprehending the meaning of the text read.


Read more about S.V.R. here:


Efficient reading requires several other skills outside of letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness, such as: a good working vocabulary, the ability to make inferences and the capacity to hold onto information as you read. Nevertheless, if you are unable to decipher words accurately and fluently, your understanding of what you are reading will be severely compromised.


Read about the ‘Five Keys to Reading’ here:


To reach the outer galaxies of literacy success, teachers, tutors and parents must travel as ‘space adventurers’ do through tummy-turning wormholes. We must read, read and read some more to remain informed about the research and evidence that proves what works best. Years of research is assisting us to move forward with exciting and proven teaching methods that advantage children by giving them the very precious gift of being better readers, spellers and writers.

Juanita Lee, Private Specialist Consultant Tutor for Learning Difficulties Australia and Director of Learner Assist

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