Published on 27/11/2023
Phonics practice wipeboard
  • The use of synthetic phonics to teach reading to children in reception classes has improved attainment
  • Children who struggle with learning to read are often given extra help with learning letter sounds
  • Study shows that extra help in blending the sounds in words is most effective in improving the skills essential for reading.

New research at Aston University has shown that extra practice in blending printed letter sounds can help struggling beginner readers in reception classes to learn to read.

Children in England learn to read through a system known as synthetic phonics, where they are taught the sounds of letters, ‘phonemes’, and how these sounds are written, ‘graphemes’. For example, ‘my’ and ‘lie’ have the same phoneme at the end, but different graphemes. Pupils learn to identify graphemes, match them with phonemes, and blend the phonemes together to form the sound of the complete words (for example c-a-t = “k – æ – t” = “cat”). This is known as blending. To learn successfully in this way, children need ‘letter sound knowledge’ (LSK) – awareness of the sounds represented by letters/graphemes and ‘phonological awareness’ (PA) – the awareness of individual sounds in words.

While the use of phonics has been shown to increase reading attainment in children, many teachers are not sure what additional support is most beneficial for those who are still struggling. They will often give extra LSK training using flashcards showing each letter or letter combination. 

The new research, led by Dr Laura Shapiro in the School of Psychology, shows that extra training on how to blend printed letter sounds is most beneficial because this type of training had the biggest impact on PA, which is an essential skill for learning to read.

The researchers worked with teachers to identify children struggling with reading and recruited 222 children from 12 primary schools for the study, working with each child for half a term.

The researchers compared three key components of early reading – sounding out printed letters, blending the sounds out loud, and both sounding out and blending printed letter sounds. In each session, the researchers showed the children one word at a time, without a picture or sentence context, to allow the child to focus on the target word. After the child was helped to read the word, they were shown an illustration relating to the word and a related sentence was read out loud to them. This context made the task enjoyable and meaningful and often prompted chats and interaction.

Dr Shapiro said:

“Many teachers already give extra support to struggling readers in reception, and often give support on learning letter sounds. Although practice on letter sounds is helpful, our study suggests it is more beneficial to give children extra practice in sounding out the letters AND blending the sounds together to make a word.”
The researchers carefully controlled the conditions of the study to identify exactly which component of reading it was most crucial to support. The training used the same standardised instructions, pictures, and context sentences, with only the focus of the training changing. 

Dr Shapiro says that they will now work with teachers to develop a strategy suitable for the classroom. Together, they will identify the most practical and enjoyable ways to provide PA support to children and develop effective strategies that can be shared for other teachers to use and adapt. 

Dr Shapiro has this advice for teachers and parents:

“Help children to practice blending the sounds in words, such as ‘m-u-ch’ makes ‘much’, and do this whilst pointing at the letters in the printed word so that they can see the connection between the letters, their sounds and the blended word. Children enjoyed seeing the word put into context with a picture and a fun sentence. It helps to keep the reading part simple, for example, show them just one word and hide the rest of the page and the picture. Then once you’ve supported them to sound this word out, show the picture, read the remainder out loud and give them an opportunity to talk about the story.”

British Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjep.12641

Notes to editors

About Aston University

For over a century, Aston University’s enduring purpose has been to make our world a better place through education, research and innovation, by enabling our students to succeed in work and life, and by supporting our communities to thrive economically, socially and culturally.

Aston University’s history has been intertwined with the history of Birmingham, a remarkable city that once was the heartland of the Industrial Revolution and the manufacturing powerhouse of the world.

Born out of the First Industrial Revolution, Aston University has a proud and distinct heritage dating back to our formation as the School of Metallurgy in 1875, the first UK College of Technology in 1951, gaining university status by Royal Charter in 1966, and becoming the Guardian University of the Year in 2020.

Building on our outstanding past, we are now defining our place and role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (and beyond) within a rapidly changing world.

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