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Phonics & Adult Literacy in the Guardian

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This morning in the Guardian, Peter Kingston writes about the possibilities of using phonics in adult literacy.

The NRDC report he refers to, Improving Reading: Phonics and Fluency, can be found here.
And here’s my response:


It’s great to see that the idea of using sounds to help older struggling readers is finally being recognised.

I got into the world of literacy by accident and, not knowing that there was a reading war on, simply picked the most obvious and logical method for helping people discover how the English language works for reading and spelling. The result is that I’ve been using sound-based strategies with older struggling readers for many years now, happily ignoring the usual advice that you “can’t use phonics to teach adults”.

Phonics is a viable option for adults as long as instructors understand a few things:

• Don’t teach phonics. Instead, help adult learners to figure out for themselves how the English code works.

• Don’t teach phonics. Instead, in the context of whole words and text, help adult learners to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for reading and spelling.

• Don’t teach phonics. Ever. It’s boring. Just use phonics as a tool to open up the world of reading. Adult learners don’t need to know phonics. They need to be able to read and spell.

• And finally, get beyond the idea that it’s all about “c-a-t says cat”. Adults have much bigger spoken vocabularies than children do but they haven’t met those words in print. Here’s an example I use to explain what it feels like for an adult to use phonics to work out a word that they don’t “just know”:


If the word doesn’t pop into your mind, say the sounds clearly and listen for a familiar word.

Phonics isn’t an easy answer but it’s a powerful tool when used well.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this all pans out in the world of adult education.


Tricia Millar

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