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Phonics & Adult Literacy

13 September 2017
I wrote the following on the 14th of April, 2009. Eight years and five months later, a decision has been made to include structured phonics in literacy for adults who are working at the lowest levels. I’ll blog further on the specific proposals but this is a good starting point.


This morning (13/04/09) in the Guardian, Peter Kingston writes about the possibilities of using phonics in adult literacy.

The NRDC report he refers to is Improving Reading: Phonics and Fluency, can be found here.

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, use the sounds and symbols of English in the context of whole words and text to help adult learners gain the skills and knowledge necessary for reading and spelling.

• Don’t teach phonics. As a subject it requires far too much memory. Instead, 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” by sight:


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.

Added 2017:

Two blog posts about the results of using structured phonics with a variety of adult learners:

Phonics for Adults part 1
Phonics for Adults part 2


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