Synthetic Phonics and Toe By Toe

Toe By Toe uses synthetic phonics and Keda Cowling has used this approach since the 1970’s.  However, amusingly enough, she had never even heard of the term ‘synthetic phonics’ until a couple of years ago when all the current fanfare began to appear in the media.  Synthetic phonics is actually a very simple idea with a fancy name and it means building words from individual sounds.

(plan) ‘p’ + ‘l’ form the initial blend ‘pl’, then ‘pl’ + ‘a’ + ‘n’ = plan

To put it another way, synthetic phonics simply means teaching children the grapheme – phoneme relationships.


Suitable practice is then provided in synthesising (building up) words using this basic knowledge. This should be done before a child learns 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 since we ‘drip feed’ 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 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:

“Who put the pet dog in the shed?”

Note that ‘Who’ is NOT phonic but the rest of the words are (Toe By Toe page 41). Since students can read coherent sentences like this so early in the 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.

There is one other point we would like to make. In the interest of brevity and simplicity Toe By Toe does not give an exhaustive description of all the words in the English language. Toe By Toe is highly simplified (the secret of its success, perhaps…?) and we make no claims to cover all the subtleties of sound. For example, FOR OUR PURPOSES, we recognise and use only 10 vowel sounds:

The ‘short’ and the ‘long’ sounds of: a e i o u ( ă / ā, ě / ē, …etc)

Simplicity has to be paramount and a simple dichotomy between short and long vowel sounds is easy to teach.

Anyone who has seen the Ruth Miskin approach (as presented on BBC Newsnight, for example) will appreciate that the scheme demands phonetically precise sounds from the children (a sibilant hiss for “s”… etc). Again, we 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.