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Phonics for Adults

This post was written in response to the first viewing of the DfE’s subject content document for Functional Skills English reforms published in 2017. I wrote it with no idea that I’d be involved in the creation of the ETF’s Post-16 Phonics Approaches. It’s a joy to look back at my “ideal world of phonics for adults” and see that we managed to fit quite a lot of it into the toolkit.


My biggest fear about formalising phonics with adults is that people aren’t convinced it’s a good, helpful or even right thing to do so here’s a vision for age-appropriate phonics for adult literacy delivered with enthusiasm and understanding – a vision of lessons which are fresh, challenging, satisfying and safe for people who’ve had negative experiences of school.

I’ve been using linguistic phonics with older struggling readers for many years. Along the way I’ve made lots of mistakes and seen lots of mistakes made by others. Here are a few that can be avoided by approaching phonics for adults with an open mind, a love of the language and high expectation that discouraged learners can discover a new way to get over lifelong barriers to reading and writing.

Possible error 1: Approaching phonics as a subject to be taught.

There is lots to know about how the sounds of English are represented in writing. However, adult learners at the beginning levels don’t need more knowledge about English. They need a tool that will quickly help them to read and spell. My worst-case scenario would have students being shown a letter and told what sound it makes. This feels like infant school and is unnecessary for most learners.

Instead: Rather than learning about phonics, students need to be using phonics in the context of whole meaningful words from the first minute, and lessons should be about much more than remembering which letter represents which sound. 

At every step, learners should be gaining more understanding about how the language works and picking up the vocabulary to discuss reading and spelling. You want everyone in the room to be saying, “Oh! Is this how it works? I can do this.” Think of the early phases of phonics for adults as a framework. They’ll learn to read and spell a huge volume of straightforward words, but they’ll also develop the language and the confidence to ask the right questions so they can cope with the complexity of English and increasingly difficult text completely free of anxiety. The knowledge will come but not as a result of top-down lessons which might remind them of the trauma of school.

The bonus of using this approach is that classmates can support one another in a consistent manner. They might not have all the answers but they’ll have shared language for helping each other get to the right word or spelling.

Possible error 2: Starting with reading.

This quickly becomes an exercise in analysing the written word. “Here’s the word fan – what are the sounds you see in fan?”

Instead: Start with speaking and listening – things your students can already do – and approach phonics first through spelling which is a much more grown-up activity.

Of course, many adult learners panic at the thought of spelling, so initially we call it building and support students with visual clues like simple uncluttered charts or puzzle pieces so success is guaranteed and they can focus on seeing how the sounds match the symbols. You can easily differentiate as some students will lean heavily on the visual clues and others will go directly to spelling without realising that’s what they’re doing.

Possible error 3: Poorly structured delivery. This leads to spending far too much time on basic word constructions like cat, sit, top, etc and boring your learners.

Instead: Think out your delivery very carefully with incremental steps that support the learners but lead to rapid improvement.

The more supported the delivery is in the early phases, the more confident learners become and the quicker you can remove the supports.

In the first lesson they should realise that, if they can read sap, tip, bet etc, then there are hundreds of words that are now within their reading vocabularies. You don’t have to go through every one of them to prove it. The next lesson will continue to practice those types of words but with the addition of words like runt, lamp, tent etc. By adding in sh/ch/the and split vowels (like, cake, mute, etc) each learner should have a huge volume of words they can read and spell in a very few lessons.

Possible error 4: Assuming that “babyish” is inevitable and compensating by adding in complex code too soon.

Instead: Don’t jump ahead to the complex code too quickly on the assumption that the basic code is too babyish.

In That Reading Thing, we keep things age-appropriate by using mature vocabulary, working with multisyllabic words in the first lesson and then by adding common endings to basic code words. By scaffolding the lessons we get learners reading and spelling words like description, recognition and condition within a few lessons because they feel safe and supported and the only difficult thing about those words is the tion ending. Because of previous lessons, they can extend condition to conditioned, conditioning, conditioner etc. This is extraordinarily satisfying for adult learners.

Getting them to that stage quickly requires working with multisyllabic words from the first lesson. Many learners have decided they can read little words but not big ones and it’s essential to build confidence in this area before attacking the more complex code. When a discouraged adult spells fantastic in the first lesson it’s a milestone event!

Possible error 5:  Alan Wells, the former head of the old Basic Skills Agency was quoted in a Guardian article:

“For adults, who have far more problems than young children, I doubt whether phonics are going to work. They have a wide range of problems, from spelling to poor comprehension.”

I’ve heard this frequently in discussions with adult literacy practitioners, the idea that phonics is disconnected from all the other components that make up meaningful adult literacy experiences. This assumption is simply wrong.

Instead: use phonics as a trustworthy scaffold for those who struggle with spelling or comprehension.

Spelling: At the early levels, spelling and reading happen together. At the advanced levels, spelling is more complex but a phonics framework allows for best use of limited memory – far better than remembering strings of letter names or visualising whole words.

Comprehension: When working with adults, never stop talking about meaning. At word level, you make sure every word has meaning and is understood in the context of whole sentences. Speaking and listening are essential in good phonics delivery.

When an error is made in decoding, so that the sentence changes meaning or has no meaning at all, you ask, “Does that make sense?” What about when the decoding is wrong but the sentence might still make sense? Older learners have often given up on reading for meaning so it’s important to knock “approximate reading” on the head – even when the words may be similar. If an adult reads house when the word is home, it might very well still make sense, but it lacks nuance and it’s disrespectful to our learners to exclude them from that age-appropriate element of reading.

Possible error 6: Following on from the above is the idea that correcting adults is bad for their self-esteem.

Instead: Saying something’s right when it’s wrong leaves learners open to making the same mistake around people who aren’t going to be so kind.

Nothing improves the self-esteem of an adult with low literacy like learning to read and spell. Nothing. Use sting-free, shame-free error correction. Be positive and encouraging. But don’t let adult learners think they’re right when any other literate person would know they’re wrong. Patronising adults is bad for their self-esteem.

There’s a book-load of things that can be said about using phonics in adult literacy, but that’s enough to be thinking about for now.

Here’s the original proposed content document: Functional Skills Subject Content English.

10 Responses

  1. K

    Wow very interesting as adult who had problems with reading and writing skills, teaching my self to read use phonice was very helpful in many ways because I was never taught phoniceat school.

  2. Tricia

    I’m glad you found phonics helpful. You’re an inspiration.

  3. Diane Moseley

    Interesting stuff. As a former Literacy tutor(retired) with a specialist Dyslexia qualification, I was using many of these techniques and other 20 years ago. I do think its a bit tempting to assume that useful phonic skills can be taught quickly and easily and that its always the answer to adult reading/spelling issues. I do, however, agree that active listening to the sounds in words is vital to the understanding of word structure and construction. This, together with active looking for patterns within words can help learners decode unfamiliar words and lead to progress. All this requires considerable knowledge on the part of tutors and one of the issues may well be that those required to deliver this appropriatelyare likely to be thin on the ground. A quick training course on basic phonics for key skills tutors is likely to result in the same phonic delivery as I have seen in schools. Sorry but thats not the answer to developing more advanced literacy skills!

  4. Tricia

    Thanks for this. You’re right, it simply can’t look like what’s done in primary schools or secondary schools that use phonics for younger children. However, after many years in this field, I’ve never met a learner with a mature understanding of the complex English code and how to use it for reading and spelling. Barring serious learning difficulties, it doesn’t take long to change that as long as you stick with “facilitated discovery” rather than over-teaching.

    I know a lot of people agree that this takes considerable skill on the part of the tutor. I’d say it takes some skill but mostly it’s a process of seeing what they already know from a different perspective and being willing to make discoveries alongside their students. That Reading Thing’s ethos starts with the understanding that we’re all somewhere on the literacy continuum and we are all in the process of learning about the language. That’s a powerful pedagogy when working with teens and adults who perceive themselves as having failed in education.

  5. Ian currey

    I’ve been illiterate for 50 years had a work brake down volunteered for people like me but they never worked , learnt the alphabet and some phonics three years 7 hours a day Donny college 7 hours a day and three years no help learnt to gees read in the computer room .on the shutdown Went on spellquize made me go back to the beginning So with this software iv got need the phonics so they are at the side of me in a line so when im stock all i have to do is press on the letters like if its a oa ai and the sound comes out this will help me with my profound dyslexia THANKS

  6. Tricia

    Hi Ian, Thanks for you comment. I have emailed you. Tricia

  7. Maha

    Hi, I was looking for adults phonics class and I found your website. Do you think you can help me with that.

  8. Tricia

    Hi Maha, There are very few adult literacy classes using phonics, especially for someone who writes as well as you do. Use the contact form to tell me where you are and I’ll see if I can help.

  9. Carmen Carrion

    At this stage in my life(I’m 72) I find myself having to retrain for a different career as I can’t continue with my previous career in nursing. I’m bilingual and very interested in languages and linguistics, I’ve decided to try my hand at teaching both English as a 2nd language and also my 1st language which is Spanish. I learned English as a young child in school so don’t remember much about the mechanics of learning it. It seemed that at 1 moment I didn’t understand English and the next I understood it perfectly so my personal experience learning English isn’t helpful. As a nurse I did a great deal of teaching both patients, and staff and found I had a knack for it and enjoyed it. My mother, grandfather and most of my mother’s sisters and brothers were teachers so it runs in the family. I found your post very informative, insightful and will assist me in this new venture. As I strive to master my new field I will endeavor to update you on how this post has helped me and any progress I have made.

  10. Tricia

    Hi Carmen, I’m so pleased you found the post helpful. I hope you were able to download the Post-16 phonics toolkit. I’ve also created a page just for ESOL teachers. https://thatreadingthing.com/phonics-resources-for-esol/ It explains how to change some favourite ESOL activities to make them reflect the login of English rather than teaching one letter at a time. Good luck with your new career!

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