There are many commercial and pre-packaged phonics programs available for teachers to use in the classroom. The quality of these programs varies. They can often assume that all children are ready to learn the same thing at the same time, which is not the reality of the classroom (Mantei et al., 2021). As such, careful consideration should be given to using these programs for whole class instruction. Nevertheless, commercial phonics programs may help teachers to differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of individual children or groups of children who have been identified through assessment as needing additional support with phoneme-grapheme knowledge.
Synthetic and analytic phonics instruction
Schools should consider the approach to phonics instruction used in any commercial program to ensure it aligns with the school's desired approach to the teaching of phonics.
There are 2 ways that commercial literacy programs usually support the teaching of phonics: a synthetic approach or an analytic approach. According to Torgerson et al. (2019) there is little evidence to show that one approach is better than the other. Both synthetic and analytic approaches have merit, with planning for phonics and the systematic explicit teaching of phonics being important factors. Systematic phonics instruction commonly includes:
- explicit phonics teaching
- a planned scope and sequence of phonics elements
- a focus on both the meaning of words and the knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences
- both synthetic and analytic phonics.
Buckingham et al (2019, p. 56) states ‘synthetic phonics instruction is highly explicit and systematic and is characterised by a number of steps involving grapheme-phoneme correspondence (being able to match a phoneme to a grapheme and vice versa)’. When teaching systematic synthetic phonics teachers:
- identify the sequence of phoneme - grapheme correspondences they are going to use
- introduce each new phoneme - grapheme correspondence following the sequence
- the sequence starts with single letters that represent one sound, then the common digraphs (such as sh, oo) and larger grapheme clusters (such as eigh, air, igh)
- teach how to blend phonemes for reading each time the grapheme–phoneme correspondence is introduced
- teach the segmenting of phonemes for spelling at the same time as the grapheme - phoneme correspondences
- start with the most common spellings of sounds then introduce the more complex and alternative spellings
- teach the high-frequency words with unusual grapheme-phoneme correspondences and strategies for rapid reading and spelling of these words
- use decodable texts that follow the phonics sequence being used so students can apply the phonics knowledge and use these for reading.
Bowers and Bowers (2017, p. 125) describe analytic phonics as when the phonemes of a given word are not read in isolation. Rather, children identify (analyse) words looking for a common phoneme across a set of words. Amadi (2019) further describes analytic phonics as a teaching approach where the graphemes representing phonemes are taught by looking at the words first and then the phoneme- grapheme correspondence. When being taught through an analytic phonics approach, students:
- identify and analyse words looking for a common sound, or phoneme, in a group of words
- use ‘larger sub-word units such as onset rime for word analysis. For example, rather than learning to read the word ‘rat’ as a composition of three letters and sounds, r-a-t, children would learn that the word rat is in a ‘word family’ with the rime ‘at,’ such as r-at, s-at, c-at, and so on’(Buckingham 2020, p. 106).
Analytic phonics can both be taught either systematically or responsively, based on teacher observation of students’ needs (Woore, 2021).
Guidance on the use of commercial programs
Beard, Brooks and Ampaw‐Farr’s (2019) and Campbell, Torr and Cologon (2014) found that commercial phonics programs are not always informed by best practice, with some including ‘busy’ work such as colouring in worksheets or errors in how they describe phonemes and graphemes.
If schools are thinking about buying a commercial phonics program, there are some important things to consider:
- the research base including whether the research was carried out by the commercial company or carried out by independent researchers and the extent of the research
- what teacher knowledge and preparation is necessary to successfully implement the program and how the program address the diverse learning needs of students
- the linguistic accuracy of the program, being mindful that if the program was not produced in Australia the package may represent phonemes differently due to differences in accents. For example, think of how yoghurt is pronounced in England with the short ‘o’ compared to how yoghurt is pronounced in Australia with the long ‘o’
- ensuring there is a clearly justified sequence for the teaching of phoneme-grapheme correspondence, moving incrementally from simple to more complex phonic knowledge. When introducing a sequence of phonemes and graphemes, check to see whether they allow students to create vowel-consonant (VC) and consonant-vowel-consonant words (CVC) (e.g. it, at, sit, sat, tin). Refer to the scope and sequences for further guidance.
- ensuring there are planned daily opportunities for students to engage in speaking, listening, reading and writing to enable them to put their growing knowledge of how the English language works into practice.
Beard, R., Brooks, G., & Ampaw‐Farr, J. (2019). How linguistically‐informed are phonics programmes? Literacy, 53(2), 86-94.
Bowers, J. S., & Bowers, P. N. (2017). Beyond phonics: The case for teaching children the logic of the English spelling system. Educational Psychologist, 52(2), 124-141.
Buckingham, J. (2020). Systematic phonics instruction belongs in evidence-based reading programs: A response to Bowers. Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 37(2), 105-113.
Buckingham, J., Wheldall, R. & Wheldall, K. (2019). Systematic and explicit phonics instruction: A scientific, evidence-based approach to teaching the alphabetic principle. In R. Cox, S. Feez, & L. Beveridge (Eds.), The alphabetic principle and beyond: Surveying the landscape (pp. 49-67). Primary English Teaching Association Australia.
Campbell, S., Torr, J., & Cologon, K. (2014). Pre-packaging preschool literacy: What drives early childhood teachers to use commercially produced phonics programs in prior to school settings. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 15(1), 40–53.
Mantei, J., Kervin, L., & Jones, P. (2021). Examining pedagogies for teaching phonics: lessons from early childhood classrooms. The Australian Educational Researcher, 49(4), 743-760.
Torgerson, C., Brooks, G., Gascoine, L., & Higgins, S. (2019). Phonics: Reading policy and the evidence of effectiveness from a systematic 'tertiary' review. Research Papers in Education, 34(2), 208-238
Woore, R. (2021). Teaching phonics in a second language. In E. Macaro & R. Woore (Eds.), Debates in second language education (pp. 222-246). Routledge.