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Which approach works best: Systematic synthetic phonics or embedded phonics?

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Which approach works best: Systematic synthetic phonics or embedded phonics?

Sound Waves Spelling 1/8/17

When it comes to spelling, a large body of evidence identifies phonics as a vital component of instruction in the primary years. Most educators are aware of this consensus, but debate continues to linger regarding the effectiveness of two specific phonic approaches – systematic synthetic phonics and embedded phonics.

What is systematic synthetic phonics?

Systematic synthetic phonics is the explicit teaching of how speech sounds (phonemes) are represented by letters and letter combinations (graphemes). Instruction is intentionally pre-planned so that students progress from learning simple, broadly applicable phoneme–grapheme relationships to those that are more complex and unusual. The approach is closely tied to instruction in phonological awareness that includes syllables, rhyme and phonemic awareness.

What is embedded phonics?

Embedded phonics, also referred to as ‘phonics in context’ or ‘literature-based phonics’, takes a more incidental approach to instruction. Students are encouraged to make discoveries about phoneme–grapheme relationships as opportunities arise in reading and writing tasks. Advocates for this approach consider the discrete teaching of phonics skills as detached from ‘meaningful’ and ‘authentic’ contexts.

Which approach should you use?

Of the two approaches, the one that is most consistently backed by evidence-based research is systematic synthetic phonics.1 Studies directly comparing different approaches have found that students taught using systematic synthetic phonics outperform those taught using other phonic approaches on measures of both reading and spelling.2 As a result, systematic synthetic phonics has been consistently recommended in significant literacy reports released in Australia and the UK over the last two decades.3

This approach also aligns more broadly with research on effective instruction and human cognition. In a (very small) nutshell, findings suggest that novice and intermediate students learning new information (e.g. phoneme–grapheme relationships) require direct, unambiguous teaching to avoid ‘cognitive overload’.4 Learning to read and write using the alphabet is not innate – it requires explicit instruction.

Conversely, there is limited recent, reliable and valid evidence supporting the use of embedded phonics. The approach is sometimes listed as one of a range of possible suitable options under the banner of ‘balanced literacy’; however, this term is problematic as it lacks a clear, agreed-upon definition. (Psychologists and speech pathologists have provided insights regarding the implementation of ‘balanced literacy’.) One criticism of embedded phonics is that while it may work for some students, potentially those from print-rich home environments, it fails to meet the needs of the majority of children who do not intuit phoneme–grapheme relationships.5 In general, it is specifically not recommended for students from non-English speaking backgrounds, students with learning difficulties or students with specific learning disorders (e.g. dyslexia). 6

What should you do in your classroom?

Establish systematic synthetic phonics as your main approach to teaching phonics. Utilising the support of a well-designed program, such as Sound Waves Spelling, ensures that you:

  • Have time to teach

    If you’ve ever spent precious hours searching for just the right texts, activities and games to use in your spelling lessons, you’ll understand the benefit of having a comprehensive program in place. With targeted resources on hand, you can focus on highly effective lesson delivery instead.

  • Present accurate content

    English is a diverse and complex language. It’s not surprising then that several recent Australian studies found that pre-service and in-service teachers felt underprepared to teach the language constructs crucial for effective spelling instruction.7 Implementing a reliable program developed by experienced educators and language experts provides you with a dependable base to work from, meaning your students receive accurate content in every lesson.

  • Cover all key concepts

    Spelling is just one component of the English Curriculum; however, it covers an enormous scope of knowledge and skills. Whole-school commitment to a quality spelling program ensures that students will not miss essential concepts across their schooling.

You can also complement your systematic synthetic phonics teaching with discussions and activities outside of dedicated phonics lessons using some of the principles of embedded phonics. Opportunities may present themselves through reading, writing and discussing.


Capitalise on the wonderful, playful language found in children’s books by linking your phonics lessons to modelled and shared reading of high-quality texts. After explicitly teaching a focus sound–letter relationship, you can read and discuss a text it prominently features in. Looking for appropriate texts? See the Sound Waves Spelling Recommended Stories list for young listeners and readers. It’s arranged according to the sound prominently featured in each book.

Throughout the week students will encounter new words inside and outside the classroom that provide opportunities for discussion. For example, the label ‘magenta’ on a paint bottle could inspire a quick discussion on the use of g to represent .


It’s no surprise that writing is the ideal time for students to apply their spelling knowledge. When students are composing texts, encourage them to use reference charts, like the Sound Waves Spelling Student Chart, to support their attempts at unknown words.

When time permits, use conferencing to discuss individual students’ spelling errors. For example, if jumped is spelt as jumpt, discuss the use of the suffix ed to represent /t/ and other words where this is the convention, or discuss word endings that can be used with jump.


Discussing words that contain a focus sound and identifying the different ways the sound is represented is an informal activity accessible to all students. Activities such as brainstorming provide all students with the opportunity to contribute words relevant to their context (e.g. local place names). Record, display and then add to the lists whenever an opportunity presents itself.

Systematic synthetic phonics is scientifically supported as the approach which most effectively caters to the needs of all students. Combining systematic synthetic phonics with explicit instruction in morphology and etymology ensures students gain the knowledge and skills required for spelling success.

Tell us how you use the systematic synthetic phonics approach in your classroom. Share your ideas on social media and tag us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


  1. Hempenstall, K & Buckingham, J (Ed.) 2016, Read about it: Scientific evidence for effective teaching of reading, The Centre for Independent Studies, 7 March, viewed 30 June 2017,
  2. (a) Roberts, TA & Meiring, A 2006, ‘Teaching phonics in the context of children’s literature or spelling: Influences on first-grade reading, spelling, and writing and fifth-grade comprehension’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(4), 690–713, doi:10.1037/0022-0663.98.4.690.
    (b) Johnston, RS & Watson, J 2005, The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: a seven year longitudinal study, Scottish Executive Education Department, 11 February, viewed 30 June 2017,
  3. (a) Rose, J 2006, Independent review of the teaching of early reading: Final report, Department for Education and Skills, viewed 30 June 2017,
    (b) Department of Education, Science and Training 2005, Teaching reading: National inquiry into the teaching of literacy, viewed 30 June 2017,
  4. Kirschner, PA, Sweller, J & Clark, RE 2006, ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86, doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1.
  5. Konza, D 2012, Research into practice: Phonics, Department of Education and Children’s Services, Government of South Australia, viewed 30 June 2017,
  6. (a) Mather, N & Wendling, BJ 2012, Essentials of dyslexia assessment and intervention, John Wiley and Sons Ltd, Hoboken, New Jersey.
    (b) Department of Education, Science and Training 2005, Teaching reading: National inquiry into the teaching of literacy, viewed 30 June 2017,
  7. (a) Hammond, L 2015, ‘Early childhood educators’ perceived and actual metalinguistic knowledge, beliefs and enacted practice about teaching early reading’, Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 20(2), 113–128.
    (b) Mahar, NE & Richdale, AL 2008, ‘Primary teachers’ linguistic knowledge and perceptions of early literacy instruction’, Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 13(1), 17–37.
    (c) Meehan, R & Hammond, L 2006, ‘Walking the talk: Western Australian teachers’ beliefs about early reading and spelling instruction and their knowledge of metalinguistics’, Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11(1), 17–24.
    (d) Stark, HL, Snow, PC, Eadie, PA & Goldfeld, SR 2016, ‘Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: The knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers’, Annals of Dyslexia, 66(1), 28–54, doi:10.1007/s11881-015-0112-0.
    (e) Washburn, EK, Joshi, RM & Binks Cantrell, E 2011, ‘Are preservice teachers prepared to teach struggling readers?’, Annals of Dyslexia, 61(1), 21–43, doi:10.1007/s11881-010-0040-y.
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