Home » Post-16 & Adult Literacy » Who’s in Control?

Who’s in Control?

This question is for anyone who delivers literacy to older struggling readers. “Older” here can mean 12, 20 or 68 – that is, anyone who’s old enough to be embarrassed by their poor reading.

How much control does your student have in your lessons?

I ask that because a new TRT tutor emailed with the following:

So, I have been working with _______ who is ______ years old.

(fill in your own student name and age)

I think he has been through several literacy programs, each with their own instructional methods.

So that sets the scene – a young man who’s been through literacy lessons again and again with no success. She goes on to ask several questions, but four receive similar answers.

Question: In general, do you erase the board after each word, or do you let the student write the next word without erasing?

Answer: I let them decide what they want to do. I give the student the brush, pen and board and let them do what feels natural. If it gets too cluttered, I might then suggest erasing. Let him know that the materials are completely within his control.

Question: So far, we have covered one level per hour that we’ve worked together. I know that seems much slower than your model suggests. Maybe I am giving too many words. Is there a number of words we are supposed to be building, reading and spelling, or are we supposed to decide that depending on the student?

Answer: Again – let him know that he’s in control. Does he want to do a few more or a few less? Does he want to move faster or slower? I keep asking throughout the lessons. Let him know they’re his lessons, not yours, so he needs to be really involved in deciding how much he wants to do  – not to race through them but to do enough that he’s practicing but not getting bored because it’s too easy.

Question: Also, are we supposed to have them spell ONLY words we have built together, or are we supposed to be asking the student to try to spell some of the ones we haven’t built, yet that could be spelled correctly using the learned skills?

Answer: That depends on each student. As he’s a a real struggler, focus on spelling the words you’ve built together. However, I always give the option of trying one we didn’t build, with the promise of support due to the Deal. They often want to try new ones after a few lessons when their confidence has picked up.


Older students have long histories of education that hasn’t worked for them in classrooms where someone else is always in control. Most of them take instantly to the idea of explicitly controlling the pace and the materials and are surprised by how much they enjoy it.

The keys to allowing this much student control are:

  • the Deal which promises they don’t have to know anything you haven’t learned together,
  • a “no teaching allowed” method which allows them to discover for themselves how the language works,
  • flexible materials which give them access to adult vocabulary from the first lesson,
  • and a structure which ensures they move ahead quickly without feeling overwhelmed.

In other words, it needs to be very much unlike what they’ve experienced in school.

Here’s what happens in a That Reading Thing lesson.


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