Susan Brady: 'Expanded Version of Alphabetics' via The Reading League [summary: teach 'synthetic' phonics]

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Susan Brady: 'Expanded Version of Alphabetics' via The Reading League [summary: teach 'synthetic' phonics]

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Tue Nov 10, 2020 3:41 pm

A 2020 Perspective on Research Findings on Alphabetics (Phoneme Awareness and Phonics): Implications for Instruction (Expanded Version)

by Susan Brady

Emeritus Professor, University of Rhode Island

Posted on The Reading League website:

Note: A short version was published in The Reading League Journal in the September/October 2020 issue (pgs. 20-28). ... s-TRLJ.pdf

Summary Remarks: Phonics

1. Phonics instruction is most effective with a synthetic method. The implications of research on phonics are ever more compelling. The studies that have been done with careful comparisons of analytic versus synthetic methods have shown strong advantages of synthetic approaches. Teaching code skills in this way leads to development both of basic and more advanced phonics concepts, also facilitating reading by analogy (e.g., Christiansen & Bowey, 2005) and sight word recognition (Aaron et al., 1999). A factor in the earlier finding of the NRP study of comparable results for the two methods may have been based on assessment of low level reading skills, as well as from analysis with some studies at a time point before synthetic phonics instruction had begun. Likewise, systematic, explicit instruction of GPCs with thorough instruction on each position in one-syllable words, following a developmental progression of code skills (i.e., internal consonants in consonant clusters after other positions are mastered), benefits decoding skills, as well as phoneme awareness and reading comprehension (e.g., McCandless et al., 2003). In addition, beginning synthetic code instruction in kindergarten is effective (Johnston & Watson, 2004), providing a more productive coordination of phoneme awareness and code skills at this grade level than would onset-rime instruction.

2. Phonics instruction should continue beyond kindergarten and first grade. The striking results of Connor et al (2007) documented the importance of teacher-managed, code-focused instruction in the second grade (both for students who entered first grade with negligible reading skills and those who began with stronger skills), helping all succeed at reading and better reach their potential. These results indicate that teaching code related concepts needs to continue beyond GPC instruction in first grade.

3. When struggling readers have weaknesses in phonics, explicit phonics remediation should be provided, tailored to students’ levels of skill development. The evidence of successful interventions for older struggling readers with programs that teach graphosyllabic patterns (Bhattacharya & Ehri, 2004), complex GPC patterns (Savage et al., 2019), and other code and morphological concepts (e.g., Lovett et al., 2000) likewise indicate the need to extend the scope of remedial instruction for students with phonics weaknesses. The teaching concepts that have been found to be beneficial with poor readers suggest content that in all likelihood would enrich code instruction in the regular classroom as well.


The research reviewed here underscores the importance of the kindergarten year for teaching phoneme awareness and letter knowledge, and for segueing into beginning reading with phonics instruction that is systematic, explicit and synthetic. Subsequent word-level instruction needs to extend beyond first grade, covering more advanced content about the structure of the writing system. For students needing further support in word reading skills, phonics interventions should be provided at the level required.

In closing, I want to add that evidence clearly indicates the benefits for students of being consistently engaged with reading and writing activities in addition to being provided with explicit and systematic instruction in phoneme awareness and phonics instruction. For example, Xue and Meisels (2004) published results from a large sample of kindergarten children (n=13,609), reporting that “integrated language arts works better in classrooms where phonics is also taught more frequently (p. 219)” and vice versa. This observation concurs with conclusions reached long ago by Chall (1967) and by Adams (1990), and again stated in the NRP report, that teaching phonics is not in opposition to providing ongoing reading and writing activities with a focus on comprehension and communication. In short, it is well past time for the reading wars to be over and for widespread recognition that both components are essential for literacy success (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018). In turn, it is of the utmost importance to give current and future teachers the knowledge and skills required to provide this breadth of instruction.

Please note that Susan Brady's paper is published and based in America.

As this is an 'international' site and organisation, and we are learning from research findings in a range of different countries and contexts, I think it is important to appreciate that developments in the various English-teaching countries/contexts - that is, where these are 'the same' more or less, or where there are nuanced differences between, for example, sequences of explicit phonics programmes and practices.

In England:

The type of 'synthetic phonics' in the systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes 'validated' by the Department for Education (DfE) in England include 'all-through-the-printed-word' blending for reading (decoding) and oral segmenting 'all-through-the-spoken-word' then allotting letter or letter groups for spelling (encoding) from the outset and as reverse sides of the coin.

In contrast, I note that there is some emphasis on 'first, last, medial' sounds at first in the version of phonics (in the Brady paper anyway) in America.

From 2001 for a few years, I was the newsletter editor (and for a few issues, co-editor) of the UK Reading Reform Foundation newsletter. At that time, I chose titles for each newsletter to emphasise a feature of the kind of 'systematic synthetic phonics' some of us were promoting - whilst challenging the, then, multi-cueing word-guessing that was described as the 'searchlights reading strategies' of the official 'National Literacy Strategy' rolled out in England in 1998, see here:

All-through-the-word phonics

You can find some of the RRF newsletters (the editions which were also published in hard copy in the past) here:

However, please note the titles for the earlier RRF newsletters and the associated dates:

2001 no. 45: Synthetic Phonics

no. 46: Synthetic Phonics Reduces Special Needs

no. 47: Synthesise (blend) for reading - No guessing!

2002 no. 48: All-through-the-word phonics

no. 49: Early reading research do's and don'ts

no. 50: Old and New Research on Reading

2004 no. 51: In denial - the NLS whitewash continues

no. 52: Teach phonemic awareness with letters

At the heart of the approach of leading phonics proponents in England some decades ago was 'getting on with systematic synthetic phonics' and the teaching principles underpinning this SSP approach included print-to-sound 'all through the printed word' for reading AND sound-to-print 'all through the spoken word' for spelling.

This is still the basis for the leading SSP programmes in England now - and as I read Susan Brady's (very helpful and well-referenced) article, nevertheless I couldn't help but wonder how different the nature of phonics programmes and provision in our different countries may actually be in practice to this day.

The 'development' of phonemic awareness, for example, is taught very explicitly from the outset of formally-planned systematic synthetic phonics programmes (or arguably should be). Children are explicitly 'trained' in the processes of sounding out and blending printed words to 'discern' the target spoken word and become tuned to the sounds; and they are explicitly 'trained' in orally segmenting all through the spoken words (phoneme analysis) followed by allotting letters and letter groups from the outset.

When an official publication was brought out entitled 'Letters and Sounds' (DfES, 2007), the leading-edge phonics proponents were dismayed by the emphasis of 'Phase One' (of six phases) which included activities based on different units of sound - as if ability to manipulate these larger units of sound was a pre-requisite before starting a formally-planned systematic synthetic phonics programme.

I was very interested, therefore, in what Susan Brady has noted in her article about the provision or emphasis of phonological activities based on larger units of sound than the phoneme-level:

Is it Necessary to Teach Lower Levels of Phonological Sensitivity before Teaching Phoneme Awareness?

A commonly adopted view about phonological awareness development has been that young children progress from awareness of syllables, to awareness of the onsets and rimes within syllables, and that children subsequently achieve awareness of the individual phonemes (e.g., Goswami & Bryant, 1990; Treiman & Zukowski, 1991). This has been taken as the course of phonological awareness development, leading to the practice of teaching phonological awareness in that sequence. However, a number of findings point to problems with this framework. For example, phoneme awareness does not appear to be the final phase in a natural development of phonological awareness abilities. In cultures not having the benefits of literacy, phonological sensitivity skills have been documented, but not full awareness of phonemes, even by adulthood (Morais, Cary, Alegria, & Bertelson, 1979). Rather, gaining phoneme awareness appears to require instruction for most.

There is much more detail than this in the article, do read it fully.
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Re: Susan Brady: 'Expanded Version of Alphabetics' via The Reading League [summary: teach 'synthetic' phonics]

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Tue Nov 10, 2020 4:47 pm

For practical purposes, I break down phonics provision into 'alphabetic code knowledge' and 'three core phonics skills and their sub-skills'.

Teachers may be interested in this diagram which outlines the main phonics skills and their contributory 'sub-skills': ... skills.pdf

Here I provide examples of the complex English alphabetic code (a range of letter/s-sound correspondences mainly at the level of the phoneme) as tangible 'charts' including versions for a general North American accent:

Note: No alphabetic code can be entirely definitive because of accent and spelling variations in the English language.
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Re: Susan Brady: 'Expanded Version of Alphabetics' via The Reading League [summary: teach 'synthetic' phonics]

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Thu Dec 03, 2020 12:17 pm

Jenny Chew has given me permission to share her message to the DDOLL network on this topic of 'PA with or without letters at first'. Jenny wrote:

One problem seems to be that people can mean different things when they talk about teaching p.a. with and without letters. It's worth listening to what David Kilpatrick says about this in the last 3-4 minutes of ‘Assessment and Highly Effective Intervention in Light of Advances in Understanding Word-Level Reading Part 1’, where he’s talking about the National Reading Panel – thanks to Brant for the link: ... ockies2017

I probably sound like a broken record when I say that the synthetic phonics group in the Johnston and Watson Clackmannanshire study were given no prior letter-free p.a. training. Children were taught, from the start, to say sounds in response to the visual stimulus of letters. These could only have been all-purpose stylised sounds, not phonemes as they occur in normally-spoken words. Then, when they knew the first few correspondences they were taught to look at letters in simple words from left to right, say sounds for them, and blend the sounds into the whole word. I suspect that the emphasis on sounds was so great that if the teachers had done the activity which David K. describes involving the word ‘me’, the Clackmannanshire children would not have started by saying the letter-name ‘em’ – their first response would have been to say the sound /m/.

In response to Jenny's suggestion, I watched the snippet of Dave Kilpatrick's presentation and agree entirely with Jenny's comment that children in the Clackmannanshire study would have been highly likely to give the response of the sound /m/ and not the letter name 'em'.

I would also suggest that this is the case for children across the whole of England where 'Systematic Synthetic Phonics' provision has been officially promoted for many years and is even described in the statutory 'National Curriculum for English for Key Stages 1 and 2'. Children will readily orally segment any whole spoken word and readily be able to say what the first 'sound' of a word is rather than give the letter 'name'.

Sir Jim Rose highlighted the reversibility of the English alphabetic code in the report of his independent national review in 2006. Oral segmenting all through a spoken word for spelling purposes (identifying the constituent phonemes from beginning to end of the word) is routine and regular practice in England's early years settings of four to six year olds.

Although Jenny actually describes a print-to-sound blending routine in her comment above, all-through-the-spoken-word oral segmenting for spelling (followed by allotting letters and letter groups for each sound identified) is also part and parcel of systematic synthetic phonics provision in England and routed in official guidance and practices that England's Ofsted schools' inspectors are looking for.

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