The first year of school is a big deal for students, full of excitement, change and a new beast called written language. While we have a natural capacity to learn speech, we must be taught explicitly how to read and write. This makes the first year of school a big deal for teachers too, as it’s the opportunity to lay the best possible foundation for students’ reading and spelling success in the future.
But what is the best foundation? Evidence points to the synthetic phonics approach, which involves two key steps: teaching the sounds of the language, and systematically introducing spelling.
Starting with sounds
In synthetic phonics, reading and spelling instruction starts with sounds. Numerous studies in recent years have come to the same conclusion: strong phonological awareness in the early years of schooling, particularly phonemic awareness, positively predicts later reading and spelling success1.
Why? Because in English, speech is made up of individual sounds, and writing is a representation of those sounds. So for students to read and spell successfully, they must first understand English speech sounds. For example, they need to be able to hear the first or last sound in a word and break a word into separate sounds. These metalinguistic skills do not develop innately through exposure to language; rather, they must be taught explicitly and practised repeatedly.
Once students have a basic ability to work with speech sounds, they can start learning about written language. This can be a tricky task because English spelling is a labyrinth of sound–letter relationships. Students soon discover that each letter does not simply link to each sound. They learn that /k/ (as in kite) can not only be written with k, but also with c or ck. Older students learn even more ways to represent it. Consequently, English spelling takes much longer to learn than languages with more transparent sound–letter relationships such as Finnish and Turkish2.
This step of the synthetic phonics approach requires teachers to introduce spelling in a systematic, logical way. Students who aren’t taught in this way are likely to be frustrated and may develop nagging literacy difficulties in later years.
So how can teachers incorporate the synthetic phonics approach into their daily teaching practice? A great way to ensure a logical method is to use a high-quality phonics program such as Sound Waves Foundation.
Sound Waves Foundation and beyond
Sound Waves Foundation directly aligns with research on the best practices in early reading and spelling instruction. Following the synthetic phonics approach, the program first introduces students to the sounds of Australian English and then moves on to the letters that represent those sounds. Sound Waves Foundation supports teachers with the tools and guidance they need to leave the right mark on their first-year students.
Sound Waves Foundation is part of a broader whole-school approach to spelling. While the foundation year is critically important, so is consistent teaching across all the primary years. Students who begin with Sound Waves greatly benefit from continuing with Sound Waves, which systematically maps spelling and English language concepts across the seven years of primary schooling. Schools adopting this holistic approach equip students with a common phonics language and ensure there is never a gap in their learning, all the way from Foundation to Year 6.
1. M Caravolas, A Lervåg, S Defior, G Seidlová-Málková, C Hulme, ‘Different Patterns, but Equivalent Predictors, of Growth in Reading in Consistent and Inconsistent Orthographies’, Psychological Science, 24(8), 1398-1407, 2013.↩
2. M Seidenberg, Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it, Basic Books, New York, 2017.↩
3. I Kovelman, ‘Brain basis of phonological awareness for spoken language in children and its disruption in dyslexia’, Cerebral Cortex, 22(4), 754-764. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhr094, 2011.
4. K Moll, F Ramus, J Bartling, J Bruder, S Kunze, N Neuhoff, S Streiftau, H Lyytinen, P Leppänen, K Lohvansuu, D Tóth, F Honbolygó, V Csépe, C Bogliotti, S Lannuzzi, J Démonet, E Longeras, S Valdois, K Landerl, ‘Cognitive mechanisms underlying reading and spelling development in five European orthographies’, Learning and Instruction, 29, 65–77, 2014.
5. V Muter, C Hulme, MJvSnowling, J Stevenson, ‘Phonemes, rimes, vocabulary, and grammatical skills as foundations of early reading development: evidence from a longitudinal study’, Developmental Psychology, 40(5), 665–681, 2004.
6. M Caravolas, A Lervåg, P Mousikou, C Efrim, M Litavský, E Onochie-Quintanilla, N Salas, M Schöffelová, S Defior, M Mikulajová, G Seidlová-Málková, C Hulme, ‘Common Patterns of Prediction of Literacy Development in Different Alphabetic Orthographies’, Psychological Science, 23, 678– 686. doi:10.1177/0956797611434536, 2012.