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How to make phonics suitable for teens and adults

When people hear "phonics" they think "childish", and not without reason. Most phonics programmes are childish, but not because they teach reading using the sounds and symbols of the language. They're childish because they're created for little children, emergent readers who have no history of trying and failing to learn to read. There are some wonderful programmes for little ones.

The problem with using any teaching method intended for young children is that you automatically infantilise the learner no matter what their age. A struggling reader, whether 11, 19 or 71, is fully aware that most 7-year-olds can out-read them. For this very reason, they need a solution which is intentionally structured to account for their maturity and experience and not just their reading age.

If you want to use phonics with anyone heading into adolescence or beyond, please ask the following questions. Even very good programmes which lack these features can create barriers rather than tear them down.

Key questions:

Does it account for the emotional state of a student who feels they've failed at school?

Do the contents, structure and pace all accommodate the maturity and prior knowledge of the learner?

In detail:

    • Is it safe to make mistakes? It's not enough just to be encouraging and friendly. Working with older discouraged learners requires strategic thinking about creating a safe environment. For us, it's The Deal: you never have to know anything we haven't learned together. Not just safe, but guaranteed safe. There's nothing like seeing a young person laugh at a mistake because they finally understand that sting-free error correction doesn't feel humiliating. Instead, it's just how learning happens.
    • Who is in control? Older learners need to do enough but not too much. They need to be able to control the speed of the lesson and learn to trust themselves with their own learning. Scaffolding is important, but only if it works for the learner. If lesson structure is inflexible, older students will get bored.
    • How much teaching is involved? Older students need to discover the language for themselves, and they need to do that without any explanation they haven't requested. There's plenty of time for explicit teaching in other lessons. Equally, if there's no guidance at all, the student will likely fail again. Find the balance between over-explaining and under-supporting.
    • Is there continuous assessment for the sake of the learner? Everything should be geared to making sure the learner can progress at exactly their pace and not that of the method. If, during a building lesson, your student isn't looking at the visual clues, then they're spelling, so move on! If they read advanced level words flawlessly and don't make many mistakes while copying them, turn the whole thing into a spelling lesson. You can always go back if it proves too difficult. Don't waste time doing things at which they are already competent, and don't assume that an initial assessment will tell you very much about what they'll be able to do in two or three hours.
    • Does it allow for a sight vocabulary? All older struggling readers come with words they "just know". That Reading Thing students read mostly real text from sources they approve. Even our limited decodable text includes plenty of words they're likely to know by sight. Thanks to the Deal, they don't have to know them, but it makes for much more natural and age-appropriate reading material.
    •  Are they spelling and reading multi-syllable words from the first lesson? Every older learner comes with their own thoughts and feelings about what constitutes "babyish", but one of the most consistent is CVC words. Luckily, that doesn't transfer to CVC syllables, so they are thrilled to be reading and spelling words like 'dentist' and 'fantastic' in the first half hour. We're really not exaggerating when we tell them they'll be reading and spelling words like 'inscription' and 'recognition' in a few lessons.
    • Does it get them unstuck? I understand why people might think text based instruction is more appropriate for older learners than phonics based instruction. However, I'm pretty sure they've never seen a grown-up method for figuring out the English code. By starting with what learners can already do - speaking - and moving to what they think they can't do - reading - you find that people who've not made progress in years simply become unstuck. They get a tool they've never had before. It's like being given a hammer when you've spent years trying to hang pictures by banging the nail with the end of a screw driver. It's still work, but the work becomes satisfying.

Is phonics childish?

No - there's nothing inherently childish about discovering how the sounds and symbols of English work to create written language.

Does phonics infantilize learners?

Not if it's used in the context of a methodology that respects the maturity and prior knowledge of students. 


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