What Are Toe By Toe Synthetic Phonics
Toe By Toe Synthetic Phonics? What on earth is that, you may well ask. Well, you’d be in good company! Why? Because although the creator of Toe By Toe Keda Cowling has used the synthetic phonics approach since the 1970s, amusingly, Keda had never heard of the term ‘synthetic phonics’ until a couple of years ago when all the current fanfare about ‘synthetic phonics’ started to appear in the media.
Let’s first briefly and simply explain what are synthetic phonics. Synthetic phonics is actually a very simple idea with a fancy name. It means ‘building words from individual sounds’. Here’s an example, using the word ‘plan’.
The first two letters of the word, ‘p’ + ‘l’ form the initial blend ‘pl’.
This initial blend is then followed by the other two letters ‘pl’ + ‘a’ + ‘n’ = plan
To put it another way, synthetic phonics simply means teaching children the relationship between the SPELLING of a word, or individual letters and blends (how it is written) and the SOUND of the word or individual letter (how it is spoken). In technical jargon, this is known as the ‘grapheme – phoneme relationship’. To recap:
PHONEME = INDIVIDUAL UNIT OF SOUND
GRAPHEME = THE WAY TO REPRESENT (i.e. SPELL) THOSE SOUNDS
The Importance of Synthetic Phonics When Learning To Read
Ideally, a child learning to read should have an understanding of this basic knowledge and the ‘grapheme – phoneme relationship’. They need suitable practice on how to synthesize words (‘building’ words) before they learn to recognise words ‘on sight’ (i.e. the ‘shape’ / picture of the whole word).
This is exactly what Toe By Toe does. However, the Toe By Toe system differs from this purist view of synthetic phonics practice in one key detail. Toe By Toe also ‘drip feeds’ non-phonic words (i.e. words that do NOT look like they sound) into the structure of the scheme. For example, was / so / come / why are introduced early in the book, on Page 35. Toe By Toe introduces these words in a very systematic way so the student can recognise and begin to read them at the most appropriate point in the steady accumulation of their reading skills. This allows children to read the following:
“Who put the pet dog in the shed?”
Now for competent readers, that looks a very easy sentence to read. However, for someone with reading difficulties unable to identify the ‘grapheme – phoneme relationship’ in some words, it is more challenging. Why? Because the word ‘Who’ is NOT phonic but the rest of the words are (see Toe By Toe page 41). If students can read coherent sentences like this so early in the Toe By Toe scheme, their confidence gets an important boost.
This is hardly ‘rocket science’ and it’s no surprise that non-specialists are wondering why such a common sense approach has not always been used.
The Effectiveness and Simplicity of Toe By Toe Synthetic Phonics
The Toe By Toe Synthetic Phonics is not trumpeted in the coaching manual. Nor is there unnecessary linguistic or grammatical explanation about the methods and why they used. There is no exhaustive description of all the words in the English language. We did not want anyone using Toe By Toe to be intimidated or overwhelmed by such jargon and distracted from the main task at hand: helping someone learn to read. Rather, in the interest of brevity and clarity for the end users, Toe By Toe is highly simplified to ensure effective delivery of the lessons and to get the best results. This is possibly one of the secrets of its success.
We make no claims to cover all the subtleties of sound. For example, FOR OUR PURPOSES, Toe By Toe recognises and uses only 10 vowel sounds:
The ‘short’ and the ‘long’ sounds of: a e i o u ( ă / ā, ě / ē, …etc)
Bearing in mind WHO we are trying to teach (children, adolescents and adults with mild to severe reading difficulties) and WHO will assume the role of tutor or coach to the target student (in many cases, a lay person with no training in how to teach), simplicity is at the heart of Toe By Toe. With this in mind, a simple dichotomy between short and long vowel sounds is easy to teach.
By way of comparison, the Ruth Miskin approach to phonics and teaching children to read demands phonetically precise sounds from the children. For example, a sibilant hiss for ‘s’ … etc). We at Toe By Toe are not concerned with such subtleties and expect the child to say the distinct sound of the letter / blend (‘a’ for apple, ‘b’ for bat… etc). Keda realised early in her research that struggling readers need to make a clear distinction between sounds and it is NOT a problem for them to transfer those sounds to words later on.
No One Left Behind Using Toe By Toe Synthetic Phonics
Age is no barrier to learning how to read. Children, teenagers, adults or senior citizens can all access and benefit from the Toe By Toe programme.