Synthetic Phonics

Synthetic Phonics – The Scientific Research Evidence

Jolly Phonics and the research

Synthetic Phonics* The Scientific Research Evidence
* Jolly Phonics uses the synthetic phonics method

Dr Bonnie Macmillan B.Ed., M.A., Ph.D. (University of British Columbia)
Department of Psychology at the University of Hull, UK

Since writing my book Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read (Macmillan, 1997), the results of three important scientific investigations using synthetic phonics have become available – one conducted in Canada, one in England, and one in Scotland. The first two used the Jolly Phonics reading programme. A ‘synthetic phonic method’ is defined here as one that emphasises both the teaching of letter-sounds in isolation (not in whole words) and synthesis skills (how to blend letter-sounds together to read a word).

As experimental studies, all three meet very high standards methodologically. It is difficult to conduct reliable research in a classroom environment, but these particular studies do stand out for a number of reasons. All were large-scale classroom studies with non-reading children, a feature which makes the findings highly applicable to the normal classroom setting, as well as to beginning reading instruction. All three studies involved large sample sizes, a factor that enhances the validity and reliability of any conclusions drawn. Further, in all three studies, procedures ensured that instructional time and conditions were equivalent between comparison groups, and that assessment of treatment effects was made through the use of reliable standardised test measures.

Most importantly, in each of these studies, care was taken to ensure that comparison groups were equivalent from the start in terms of influential factors such as age, IQ, social status, and various pre-reading abilities, especially knowledge of letter-sounds. This strategy helps to ensure that any subsequent performance differences can more confidently be attributed to the method of instruction, rather than to pre-existing group differences. Anyone evaluating reading research studies should keep in mind that findings may carry little meaning if steps were not taken to ensure that groups being compared were equivalent at the start of an experiment. The National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) researchers were careful to note which studies among those that they analysed met this criterion.


The study in Canada (Sumbler and Willows, 1996) compared the effects of Jolly Phonics , a synthetic method, with the effects of a whole language/eclectic method among 265 children attending kindergarten classes in working class neighbourhoods. This study was the first of its kind to adopt an innovative time sampling technique. Over a period of six months, observers closely monitored the amount of time individual pupils in both kinds of classroom spent on ten different activities. Thus, this study not only assessed achievement differences produced by different methods of instruction at the end of this time, but also, exactly what aspects of training led to those differences.

It was found that only two activities, both of which comprised explicit letter-sound instruction, were significantly related to subsequent reading and spelling success. The two activities were: ‘phonics’ (which included all phonics activities involving print), and ‘letter formation’ (which involved pronouncing letter-sounds while writing the letter shapes). Surprisingly, these two activities were the only ones that mattered in terms of reading and spelling achievement, and intriguingly, by far the most important activity within the phonics category was the Jolly Phonics sound actions.

Beyond the correlational data, it was found that the different emphases the synthetic and whole language classes gave to each of these various activities over 6 months added up to produce some startling differences in achievement. The most important difference between the two methods of instruction was the amount of time devoted to ‘phonics’ activities. Over the six-month period, the synthetic classes received five times as much ‘phonics’ instruction as the eclectic classes (30 hours versus 6 hours). The instructional differences led to the synthetic phonics classes significantly outperforming the eclectic classes on 16 out of 19 reading and spelling measures. On standardised tests of word reading, spelling and nonword reading, the synthetic classes were performing at levels either substantially ahead of, or the same as their chronological age (above by 8 months, above by 5 months, and at age level, for these tests, respectively). In contrast, the eclectic classes, were the same as, 16 months behind, and 2 months behind their chronological age on these tests. Considering the results from these three standardised tests alone, effect sizes were large (ranging from .43 to .64). (An effect size is simply the difference between two group’s mean performances, taking the average spread of scores (the standard deviations) into account. The bigger the number, the greater is the difference between the groups).

In discussing the studies here, the focus is on standardised test results, as these kinds of scores not only furnish more detailed information about age-related performance, but they can also be used to calculate a more stringent, and reliable effect size.

To return to the Canadian study, the results are valuable for two reasons in particular. They show that rather than a type of reading instruction per se, it is the differences in time allocation to various activities that really count. Furthermore, the findings from the time sampling part of the study are powerful in confirming that a child’s level of letter-sound knowledge plays a key role in learning to read. They underline the necessity in reading experiments to make sure that two pre-reading or beginner reading groups are equal at the start of an experiment in terms of their letter-sound knowledge.


The second study was conducted in England. This study also compared the effects of two methods of beginning reading instruction: a synthetic phonics method ( Jolly Phonics ) and a whole language method (Big Books) (Stuart, 1999). Before instruction began, children were measured on a wide range of abilities, including letter-sound knowledge, so that any pre-existing differences between groups receiving the different forms of instruction could later be taken into account. Children were tested after 12 weeks of instruction, and then tested again, one year later.

The results of this study confirmed the findings of the former study, but there were two further important findings. The majority of the children in this study (86%) were foreign language speakers, learning English as their second language. This study showed that the Jolly Phonics instruction was very effective with such children. Additionally, the results from the delayed tests demonstrated that Jolly Phonics instruction produced effects that were long-lasting. One year later, the greater allocation of time to phonics type activities, during the 12 weeks of Jolly Phonics instruction, resulted in these classes continuing to be significantly ahead of the other classes in phoneme awareness and phonics knowledge, as well as on standardised tests of reading. Even though the teachers using the Big Book method did include some letter-sound instruction along with shared reading activities, the amount of phonics emphasis required to accelerate initial reading progress was simply not sufficient. The Big Books taught children, for example, took a year longer to make the same gains in phoneme segmentation and phoneme identity ability that the synthetic phonics children had made during the first 12 weeks of instruction, one year earlier.

A year after training, these Big Book children were reading words at a level that was about 2 months above their chronological age, in contrast to the Jolly Phonics children whose reading skills were 11 months above the level expected for their age (based on raw score data; a printing error occurred in reporting reading ages). And they were 11 months behind their age in their ability to spell, in contrast to the Jolly Phonics children whose spelling ability was on average one month in advance of their chronological age. (The effect sizes between groups were very large: for word reading, .65 and for spelling, .87.)

Another valuable contribution made by this study was in showing that the superior word reading and spelling skills of the children taught by Jolly Phonics did have an effect on reading comprehension ability as well. When both the reading comprehension and reading accuracy scores were combined (producing a more reliable overall comprehension score), the phonics-taught children’s comprehension was significantly better than that of the whole language/ Big Books-taught children (with an effect size of .47.)


Finally, a third study conducted in Scotland (Johnston & Watson, 1998; also Watson, 1999), involved examining the effects of three different methods of phonics-type instruction. The results from this study were invaluable in answering more detailed questions: What kinds of phonics instruction work best? How useful are different kinds of phonological instruction? How rapid should be the rate of letter-sound teaching? What is the optimal age for phonics instruction to begin? And, what kind of phonics instruction works best for children who are at-risk of reading problems?

The study involved 304 five-year-old children, who were taught in whole classes for 16 weeks, 20 minutes per day, by one of three different methods of phonic-oriented instruction. The three methods were: 1) ‘Analytic phonics’ (letter-sounds taught by analysing the initial sounds heard and seen in whole words), 2) ‘Phonological awareness plus analytic phonics’ (oral training in phoneme and rhyme skills for first 10 minutes, followed by letter-sound teaching identical to ‘Analytic phonics’ for final 10 minutes), and 3) ‘Synthetic phonics’ (introduced to letters and their sounds in isolation, taught how to sound and blend all the letters in a printed word, and taught how to segment oral words into sounds in order to spell using letters; the pace of letter-sound instruction for the synthetic method was far more rapid with six letter-sounds taught every eight days, versus one, every week as in the other two groups.

The results of this study demonstrated that, after 16 weeks, the first two methods led to similar progress in reading (both groups reading at age level) and spelling (two months and one month below age level). The children taught with the third method, however, were significantly ahead of the other two groups. Their average reading, and spelling ages were far in advance of the average chronological age (7, and 9 months above). Effect sizes between this third group and the other two groups were dramatic: 1.1 and 1.0 in reading, and 1.8 and 1.5 in spelling.

The results showed that even though training in phoneme and rhyme skills, in the absence of print (method 2), did improve phoneme skills (at least compared to those taught by method 1), it did not translate to improved reading or spelling. However, the third group (taught how to segment spoken words into phonemes in combination with the use of letters ) not only outperformed the other two groups in reading and spelling, but also in the phoneme measure.

But, was it the faster pace of letter-sound teaching of method three that contributed to producing these differences? The authors investigated this question in a separate study with a sample of 92 children. It was found that faster paced analytic teaching of letters-sounds (attending to initial letters in words only) led to less success on all measures than a similarly paced synthetic approach (attending to all the letters in words). Indeed, there was a surprising finding. It was found that the analytic-taught children’s letter-sound knowledge had not advanced from the start of the experiment. The authors therefore concluded that it was not the pace , but the method of letter-sound teaching that was the crucial factor.

Does it make any difference when synthetic phonics is taught? The fact that the three groups were tested again 15 months after the initial instruction helps to answer this question. By this time, for ethical reasons, the first two groups had additionally received the same instruction as the synthetic classes; and, no differences were found between groups in their word reading (overall, all children were now 9 to 11 months ahead of their age) or reading comprehension ability (all children, 4 to 7 months ahead of their age). But, interestingly, the earlier timing of the synthetic phonics teaching experienced by the third group, did make one difference. Although the spelling achievement of all three groups was well above age level, the children who were taught synthetic phonics right from the start were spelling at a level 12 months above their chronological age, a level that was significantly superior to the other two, relatively well-performing groups.

Moreover, when an examination was made of the proportion of poor readers in each group after the initial 16 weeks of instruction, a further difference resulting from the early teaching of synthetic phonics was discovered. No children in this group were more than a year below their chronological age in reading. Whereas a number of children in the other two groups did require extra reading tuition in addition to the subsequent synthetic phonics teaching, none of the children in the early synthetic group required special help subsequently. Thus, this study showed that when this synthetic phonics programme was given early , it not only led to better spelling ability, but, importantly, it also avoided the need for expensive remediation.

In conclusion, these three, well-conducted studies constitute a very solid and impressive research base in support of synthetic phonics.


Johnston, R. and Watson, J. (1998). Accelerating Reading Attainment: The Effectiveness
of Synthetic Phonics. Interchange 57.
For further information, see

Macmillan, B. (1997). Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs.

NRP (National Reading Panel) (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based
assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: NICHD.

Stuart, M. (1999). Getting ready for reading: early phoneme awareness and phonics
teaching improves reading and spelling in inner-city second language learners. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 587-605.

Sumbler, K. and Willows, D. (1996). Phonological awareness and alphabetic coding
instruction within balanced senior kindergartens. Paper presented as part of the
symposium Systematic Phonics within a Balanced Literacy Program. National Reading Conference, Charleston, SC, December.

Watson, J. (1999). An investigation of the effects of phonics teaching on children’s progress in reading and spelling. Ph.D. thesis, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

The Difficulty of English - Chris Jolly


The Difficulty Of English

Chris Jolly – October 2014

Why is it that one in five children fails to learn to be functionally literate in English? This has long been so, in both the UK and US, for this proportion of children as they go to secondary school, and as adults.

By contrast, children do not have this difficulty in learning to read in other European languages. In Spanish and Italian, for instance, there is no word for dyslexia.
It is an important issue as English increasingly becomes the global language with every more children learning it. So what causes this problem, and can it be solved?

If we look way back, we see that English lost its genders for objects that it had before the Norman Conquest. At that time, in Old English, the moon was masculine, for instance. It also lost the inflections for nominative, accusative, etc, at the end of words. These went in the period after 1066, but when English came to be written again, three hundred years later, they had gone.

There seem to be two ways in which English can be difficult for learners, as shown in a study by Philip Seymour of Dundee University. The first is the ‘syllabic structure’ where English is complex because it has so many consonant blends (such as str- in strong, and –mp in lamp), unlike languages such as Italian and Japanese, which mostly have just CV (consonant-vowel) syllables. This syllabic complexity can be taught, of course, and teachers do not talk of it being a major problem.

The other difficulty for learners is referred to as ‘orthographic depth’. This refers to the irregularity of the spelling, with complex rules and no rules. Three languages stand out for irregular spelling: Danish, French and English, with English being the worst of all. It is largely a result of the mongrel heritage of the English language, with the language of the early Anglo-Saxons added to from Scandinavian, French, Greek and Latin, and others, along with their different spelling rules.

It does seem as if it is the irregular spelling of English that is the main cause of failure in learning to read. Not only is learning to read much easier in languages with simpler spellings but also learning to read is also easier when English is taught with reformed and simpler spelling. This was true with the initial teaching of the alphabet, a method taught in up to 10% of UK primary schools in the 60’s and 70’s.

It is not just the difficulty in learning to read that is the problem; it also takes longer. The simplest European language, for both of the factors mentioned earlier, was found to be Finnish. Children there make remarkably swift progress, which is often put down to their education system, but which may also be due to the simpler spelling of Finnish.

At the same time, there does seem to have been progress in mitigating for the irregularity of English spelling. This can be seen in the changes from 30 years ago. Looking at academic papers from that time, and a high proportion of English words were classified as irregular, based on the limited view of one letter describing one sound, and so accepting only short vowel spellings as regular. At that time children were taught the sounds of the language from chanting the alphabet. Mostly, letters were taught by their names, although some textbooks, and some teaching also taught the short vowels.

Nowadays the teaching of digraphs is seen as essential, as is the teaching of the sound of each letter, rather than just its name. This is key to synthetic phonics teaching. Such teaching does seem to be having a profound effect on illiteracy levels, although no definitive research has been seen as yet. However it is known that such teaching lifts all children, whatever their social background, and whether English is their first language, with boys doing as well as girls. It is common now for teachers to find they have no children at the end of their first year at school who have a reading age below their actual age.

The increasing teaching of grammar and spelling in the primary years is very likely to enable further improvements, through the teaching of more spelling rules and patterns. Such teaching is now part of the national curriculum in the UK, and the Common Core State Standards in the US. It will never overcome the illogical legacy of English spelling, but it does mean that we can expect far fewer children to fail.