The use of phonics with adults is not without controversy, with some feeling it infantilises older learners by using an approach more common in primary schools.
But now, following the inclusion of phonics in the new functional skills qualifications being introduced this autumn, the Education and Training Foundation has published a toolkit on how to use phonics with post-16 learners, covering anything from why it is suitable for adult students, how to introduce phonics in your post-16 setting to using it with learners with different language backgrounds.
Tips for using phonics with post-16 learners
- Don’t “teach” phonics as an end in itself. Use phonics to help learners access and create meaningful texts. Phonics should be used to teach reading and spelling, and the goal is accessing meaning in authentic text and writing fluently.
- Don’t “teach sounds”, draw on the sounds in learners’ oral language. The fact that learners already have all the sounds in their speech should be acknowledged. Connections between phonemes (speech sounds) and graphemes (written symbols) should be highlighted when necessary.
- Don’t apply the same sequence of phonics lessons to every learner. A systematic approach does not mean doing the same thing with every learner or group, the ETF toolkit stresses.
- Don’t use nonsense words. Don't use invented words out of context for the purpose of demonstrating phonics principles. These words can frustrate and confuse learners who may have limited spoken vocabularies, says the toolkit.
- Do capitalise on learners’ prior knowledge. Teachers should not ask learners to spend time on what they can already do, and should instead ask learners if they can already do what you’re asking of them when it comes to phonics. “If they can spell and read all the little words then don’t waste time on them”.
- Do choose reading materials that interest adult learners. Teachers should not assume that phonics requires only 100 per cent decodable text of the kind they might find in a phonics programme for young children.
- Do adopt an age-appropriate approach. Don’t cave into learners or other practitioners who insist phonics is “babyish”, says the toolkit.
- Do keep pace and interest high. Teachers should not expect perfection, considering that the English spelling system is complex and attempts to classify and understand phoneme-grapheme relationships will never be perfect. “But it is an interesting and useful process in understanding how written words relate to spoken words.”