Embedded phonics is a type of phonics that teaches children to read during authentic reading experiences. It involves implicit rather than explicit instruction and emerges as needs arise.
It is juxtaposed to the explicit phonics approach of ‘synthetic phonics’ which is widely regarded as the superior approach to teaching reading. Nonetheless, embedded phonics continues to have merit for teaching reading and occurs regularly in schools around the world.
Its key features are:
- A focus on real-world reading experiences
- Taught when the need arises
- Relies on repetition and immersion over time
What is Phonics?
Definition: A reading instruction approach that teaches the relationships between sounds (phenomes) and their associated written letter combinations (graphemes).
Phonics is a type of reading instruction that involves teaching children how to read by breaking down the codes in the English language.
It is widely held as the best approach to reading instruction for children.
The intention is to show children how language is codified in writing and demystify that code so that children can encode and decode (read and write) language at will.
At the end of a phonics course, children should have knowledge of all 44 phonemes (word parts) in the English language, codify them in writing (in the form of ‘graphemes’ or letter combinations), and identify them when reading.
Children should then be able to decode and encode unfamiliar words by applying their knowledge of the structure of the English language.
What is Embedded Phonics?
There are three major types of phonics: systematic, analytic and embedded:
- Synthetic phonics is explicit and involves rote learning of phonemes and graphemes (words parts) so children can construct words from the ground up to encode language.
- Analytic phonics involves learning whole words then breaking them down into their word parts. Instead of constructing words, the focus here is on deconstructing them in order to crack the code of language.
- Embedded phonics involves learning how to read when the need arises. Children and their teacher read books and the teacher demonstrates decoding words when teachable moments arise.
Embedded phonics is the form of phonics that is:
- Least structured (it is taught incidentally during reading sessions)
- Most contextualized (it occurs during reading sessions)
- Most indirect (there is minimal rote learning or direct instruction)
Key Features of Embedded Phonics
1. A focus on real-world reading experiences
The embedded method of phonics involves learning during actual reading tasks. This makes it different to the synthetic and analytic methods.
In the synthetic and analytic methods, there are clear and direct lessons on phonics. Teachers and students focus on specific word forms in each lesson. Children are presented individual phenomes, graphemes (word parts) and whole words. The teacher and students then work together to deconstruct and construct words until mastery is achieved.
In the embedded method, lessons begin through the reading of books. As the teacher and students read the books, the teacher highlights difficult word forms and works with students to break them down. By starting with reading a book, students may understand more clearly the value in the lesson and how it relates to meaning-making in their lives.
2. Taught when the need arises
The teacher embraces a learning opportunity when it arises.
A learning opportunity will occur when a student stumbles over a word. Or, it may occur when a particular word form reappears frequently within the text.
Often, an educator will give the students a book to read and wait for the student to come across words they struggle with. This will allow the educator identify the student’s weaknesses and help them work on those specific areas that need more focus.
This is juxtaposed to other phonics methods (synthetic and analytic) which intentionally structure a lesson around a specific phoneme or grapheme.
3. Relies on immersion over time
The embedded method requires ongoing immersion in many, many books. The books need to be at a good level for a student’s reading level (hard, but not too hard – or within their ‘zone of proximal development‘).
As the child is immersed in more and more books, they become increasingly competent with the graphemes and phonemes that they are reading regularly.
Educators will often provide books that are at pre-set levels. Students complete one level of books before moving up to the more difficult level. An example is this learn to read kit for Pre-K to Grade 2 on Amazon which walks a child from beginning to read all the way up to fluency.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Embedded Phonics
Advantages of embedded phonics include: contextualized learning, a lot of practice, and a student-centered approach.
- Contextualized Learning: Students learn within contexts. Most 21st Century learning theories emphasize the value of contextualized learning for memory recall. This form of phonics is most contextualized and gives students maximum time practicing reading.
- Great for fluency practice: Many educators immediately dismiss an embedded approach. But, after children have received direct instruction (i.e through the synthetic method), students need a lot of immersion and time with texts to practice. This is where the embedded method works best.
- Student centered & focusing on their weaknesses: The embedded method helps Educators assess and identify each student’s weaknesses. While a student is developing their reading skills, they will have some natural strengths and weaknesses. Sitting down with a student and teaching based on areas of need is a great way to plug important gaps in a child’s knowledge.
Disadvantages of an embedded approach include: it is unstructured, causes students to slip through the gaps, and it cannot be used in isolation from other phonics methods.
- It’s unstructured: There is no clear structure like there is in the synthetic method. During synthetic instruction, children learn through a very direct-instruction method and learn each phenome and grapheme step-by-step. By contrast, in the embedded method, children do not get a structured step-by-step program of instruction.
- Students may slip through the gaps: Without a clear step-by-step instructional program, the teacher and students may miss important lessons. Further, students who are less attentive or struggle with reading may fall behind without the clear explicit guidance provided in other phonics approaches.
- Can’t be used in isolation: Most educators would agree that the embedded method can be useful, but a systematic approach such as through the synthetic method will be necessary before the embedded method is employed.
The idea of teaching children phonics during authentic learning sessions and through teachable moments makes sense. Educators can employ this approach during reading sessions to help support children’s learning. However, it is widely accepted that embedded phonics should be used as an add-on to other methods rather than in isolation.
Bald, J. (2007). Using Phonics to Teach Reading & Spelling. London: SAGE.
Patrick, C. J. (2018). Developmentally appropriate spelling and phonics instruction and its impact on student level of orthography, decoding ability, and reading accuracy (Doctoral dissertation, Wittenberg University). Retrieved from: https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=witt1534160012802077&disposition=inline
Savage, J. (2006). Sound It Out! Phonics in a Comprehensive Reading System. Columbus Ohio: Open University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]