Teaching phonics to pupils learning EAL: A Synthetic or embedded approach?

A drive to raise literacy standards in the UK during the past 20 years has led to a proliferation of synthetic phonics schemes. Although most teachers would agree that learning to sound out words is only one practice in a range of skills necessary for children to read and write effectively, phonics as a subject has grown in prominence. The earlier children can grasp the phonetic code, the quicker they will be able to read and write, or so the theory goes.

However, the trouble with any synthetic phonics scheme is that the approach does not help pupils learn EAL any quicker. In fact, learning letters and sounds in isolation is an abstraction, as noted by Pauline Gibbons in her excellent book, Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning*. The more abstract the concept or task being taught, the less meaningful it is for pupils already struggling to learn in an unfamiliar language. Therefore, teaching phonemes and graphemes in isolation might help children to decode and ‘read’ unfamiliar words, but without any additional context or understanding, the words are meaningless for pupils learning EAL and the language learning non-existent.

Despite there being little research into learning phonics for EAL pupils, what do we know?

A learner’s first language or languages will have an impact on how quickly and successfully s/he learns to pick up the English phonetic code.  Speakers of languages that are quite different from English, Chinese for example, will face greater challenges with pronunciation than German or Dutch users.

The stress and rhythm of a first language will also affect how well learners of English as an Additional Language are able to adapt to the cadence and intonations of English. Speakers of EAL are often judged by native English speakers to be more fluent when their first language is closely related to English. This is because their pronunciation – knowledge of phonetic sounds, intonation, stress and rhythm – match English more closely.  This suggests that when we teach phonics to young children, we perhaps need to adopt a suprasegmental approach, as defined by Lightbown and Spada in How Languages are Learned** and take these four areas of pronunciation into consideration, rather than teaching sounds in isolation.

Learners of EAL also need exposure to English to learn the language effectively, a point made by Lightbown and Spada. This means accessing language at social and academic levels to give learners a broad range of language experiences to draw on when they interact with different audiences for different reasons.

If synthetic phonics is problematic for EAL learners, what approach is best?

Pauline Gibbons cites a combination of 4 elements to understanding a text: breaking the code (phonics), participating, using and analysing the text.

For children learning EAL, the most effective way of learning phonics, or breaking the code, is through the practice being embedded in a meaningful task, using familiar materials that children can relate to.

This means using books and stories that children are familiar with as a vehicle for developing phonetic knowledge. Repetitive tales are great for this.

Gibbons gives The Gingerbread Man as an example of how the text can be used to highlight CVC words and middle vowel ‘a’.

  • Select words from the text that contain sounds you want to focus on, e.g. man.
  • Read the text and ask the children to point out the chosen word, then re-read it and find any others that have the same ‘an’ pattern – e.g. ran, can etc.
  • Make a wall chart with these words on and add to them as the children discover new words that contain the same patterns.
  • Then look for more complex words that have the same phoneme/grapheme links – e.g. hand, land, sand etc.

For a wide range of excellent ideas, please read Gibbons’ book: there is a reference below. It really is a fantastic source of knowledge for any teacher or pupils learning EAL.

So, when you’re asked to lead a synthetic phonics lessons, think about providing a meaningful context to the activities. Remember – reading a de-contextualised ditty or composing a sentence using newly acquired, random words will be hard for most native English speakers to grasp; for pupils learning EAL it might well be gobbledegook.

The argument for an embedded approach to phonics is simple:

“Children learn about sound-letter relationships inductively, within the context of something that is meaningful and whole, rather through abstract and unrelated phonics exercises” (Gibbons 2002, p.136).



*Gibbons, P. (2002) Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning.  Heinemann, Portsmouth NH

** Lightbown, P.M & Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned (Third Edition). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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