What are synthetic phonic readers?

Synthetic phonic readers, or decidable readers, have a reduced number of sight words and adhere to a restricted phonic code. They do this so that beginning readers have more opportunities to practise sounds they are learning step by step and are not confronted with sight words that have irregular sounds and cannot be decoded easily. 

Two of the criticisms levelled at synthetic phonic readers are that the language is stilted and the stories are contrived. Both of these are true because it is difficult to write engaging stories that utilise very few sounds and secondly many of the functional words that make our language flow well are sight words. If these are reduced, the language can sound stilted.

However the benefit of synthetic phonic readers for many children is becoming obvious through research into the long term reading success of children who use synthetic phonic readers. So how do books in the Reading Mates series work with the issue of sight words and what are they?

What are sight words?

Firstly English is a complex language that has evolved layer upon layer, from the Anglo Saxon language (and other languages before it). Many of our common words eg said, one, the, a, you and and are Anglo Saxon words and are the function words that make our language flow. However, their pronunciation is different to modern day English so they cannot be decoded as regular words. For example, said contains the same letter pattern as raid, but it is not pronounced the same. This is confusing for children who are learning phonetically regular patterns and trying to learn to read.

Other words treated as sight words, owe the spelling of their sounds to different languages that have influenced modern English. Two examples are the Greek language eg the ch in school says “k” and in the Italian word eg cello, the c says “ch”. In working with children, we sometimes treat some regular words as sight words because beginning readers have not yet learnt all the rules that control how the letters sound eg want contains wa which is consistently pronounced in English as in the Asian word, wok. At the age of six years old, very few children are aware of this and would decode w-a-n-t as in m-a-n-t-a ray. So, it is easier to treat it simply as a sight word.

Learning sight words!

Before children are expected to learn sight words, they must be able to associate sounds with letters accurately. Secondly, children must be able to associate sight words with meaning and the best way to do this is by presenting the words in context. For example, if you look at the words was and saw, they contain exactly the same letters but in the opposite order. In teaching sight words in isolation, we are asking a child who cannot read well, to remember which word applies in which context.  However, if we teach the sight words in context, children are able to make meaning of them more easily. 

Teaching sight words in context also enables beginning readers to take advantage of their knowledge of grammar. When a child reads this sentence, The cat sat on the mat, all of the words are decodable except for the. If a child can speak at an age appropriate level, his knowledge of English grammar will help him “work out” the words he doesn’t know. This is the ideal opportunity to focus on the word, the, and point out to him what it says, what it looks like and give him support in remembering it by presenting it in context within the sentence. 

Many sight words are difficult to illustrate. For example, illustrating the word was in the sentence He was ill is not easy. It needs explanation, and it needs to be in context to have the correct meaning. This process benefits all children. 

Illustrated Sight Word Support Cards are provided in the back of each Reading Mates book to help the child in this process. The instructions for using these are in the back of each book. Many children will only need to see the word a couple of times to remember it but others may need to see it many times! 

Dealing with sight words is a necessary part of learning to read but using reading material with a limited number of sight words, reduces the load on the child’s decoding and brings more success and that leads to confidence.

Sight words in Reading Mates

In Reading Mates, we have to tried to juggle several factors – a restricted number of sounds, rhyme, an interesting storyline, humour and a reduced number of sight words. These have been restricted in most books to six or fewer new words. These are recorded in an amber colour in the Words in Text section within the front cover of each book. You will find some of these words recurring throughout the readers eg no and these are indicated in the Words in Text section with an asterisk. 

Some new sight words eg fat in I am Took are treated as sight words because the code is restricted and the letters f, and r, have not yet been introduced at that level. However, we could expect the children to decode at, bat, cat, hat and mat because of their letter knowledge. By using the Rhyming Word Families lists at the front of this book, we can help the children see that fat and rat belong to the “at” family too. That has already been introduced as a sight word in an earlier book and is yellow (which means it is still being treated as a sight word) and has an asterisk (indicating it has been introduced before). By looking at the Rhyming Word Families before the book is read, together with the Sight Word Support Cards, children can be supported in reading the sight words in each CVC book.

Sometimes a sight word has been introduced early in the series and has a card for it eg and in Clapping Game in Level 1. Later on in Level 4, it features in In the Box and Out and In but is no longer regarded as a sight word because young readers, will have all the letter/sound associations they need to decode the word and by themselves. You will notice this in the Words in Text list because and has changed from yellow to black.

In writing and using these books with children, I have found that the rhyme helps the children identify some words including sight words. So, in learning sight words in Reading Mates, the children are supported initially by reducing the introduction of too many sight words, by learning the words in context with the Sight Word Support Cards and in some situations, being prompted by the word rhyming with another known word.

Despite this support for recognising sight words, it can be a very difficult task for some children. A difficulty in learning sight words can be a warning sign that something is amiss in the child’s repertoire of skills for reading. It is important to have the child assessed and the reason for this difficulty identified by someone qualified in this area. Early intervention can do much to help.