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'Phonics isn't just for kids: it works with adults too'

While some are concerned phonics serves to 'infantilise' adults, one tutor believes that it can change learners' lives

adult learning phonics functional skills FE colleges

While some are concerned phonics serves to 'infantilise' adults, one tutor believes that it can change learners' lives

Diane Gardner is very clear on the purpose of her City Phonics adult literacy courses: to teach a group of adults who cannot read or write something that most people of their age take for granted. 

This is also why, after eight years of teaching adults to read and write with phonics, she could not be more adamant that her approach does not involve treating her students like children - even though the system is most commonly associated with primary school pupils. Based on her extensive experience, Gardner's conclusion is clear: phonics isn't just for kids: it works with adults too.

This has become a hot topic in FE, not least since phonics was added to the reformed functional skills qualifications in England, which are due to be introduced this summer.

In today's Tes magazine (article free for subscribers), a functional skills tutor explores concerns about whether using phonics with adult serves to "infantilise" them, potentially deterring them from learning. For Gardner, however, phonics can help empower adult learners to take control of their own education.


Read more: Phonics included in reformed functional skills

More news: £120k in functional skills grants up for grabs

Background: 'Phonics is crucial - even for those who won’t ‘get’ it'


'They make their own learning'

And while the general approach of phonics is the same, whatever the age of the learners concerned, the materials Gardner uses are tailored to her older students. Every group, for example, comes up with their own personalised “image bank” to help with sounds and words. Last year’s cohort, all sported tattoos on their arms, so in their alphabet, “T” became “T for tattoo”.

“They really take ownership and, very often, they make their own learning," she says. The social practice model is essential to the work, she says, and each course can be tailored to suit different groups.

Phonics has also only been used in primary schools in Scotland for about a decade, she explains, and therefore her current students do not associate it with their own school experience.

Personalised learning

Gardner is curriculum head of widening access and community at City of Glasgow College, having been an Esol (English for speakers of other languages), adult literacy and numeracy tutor for 20 years, as well as an senior lecturer in additional learning needs for 10 years. “It all started with a student I had who couldn’t read or write and I didn’t know what to do with her. There was nothing to teach me what to teach her,” she explains.

Gardner says as part of work she was doing to enable parents to help their children with homework, she came across Jolly Phonics. “I knew immediately that it would work for my students,” she says. She worked hard to adapt the method to an adult student cohort, she stresses. She says the programme is aimed at the 3.6 per cent of the Scottish population who, according to Scottish Survey of Adult Literacy from 2009, face “serious challenges”. “To me, that means they cannot read or write.”

The method starts off raising the students phonological awareness – getting them to focus on sounds – they then move on to blending sounds and creating words, before quickly moving on to short sentences and questions. “Within a few weeks, they can read short sentences. A lot of students come to adult literacy courses and learn a few words, but that is it, really. I want to make it real for them. It needs to be something they can use.”

Essential literacy

Her current class of eight is five months into their City and Guilds accredited course, and by now Gardner knows her students well. Every example sentence written on the whiteboard links to one of them. It is obvious this adds to the students’ confidence as they revise last week’s class content.

There is a level of collegiality and humour in the class that is making time pass quickly, but the class are working hard to tackle their challenges. “I know I am pushing you,” teacher Diane Gardner tells Jordan, one of the youngest in the room, when she asks him to read two short sentences from the board. “Och, that’s alright,” he smiles. He knows completing the course and gaining the certificate is essential as he hunts for work.

Over half the class work alongside the course, and they range in ages from 18 to 61. But for all of them, the course is an essential lifeline in developing a level of literacy that will help them in their day to day life. Gardner says that occasionally, they will bring in official letters or other correspondence, looking for help reading it.

'Tricky words'

Having started with simple sounds and a focus on listening, the students are now reading and writing basic sentences they in many cases come up with themselves. They are also getting to grips with what in phonics is called “difficult” or “tricky words” – words which don’t follow the usual patterns in phonics – including “could” and “should” and “always”.

“I could go to bed right now,” says Jordan, 19, known among his peers for always being tired, when asked for a sentence with “could”.  “I should come to class every week,” is Mark’s contribution to the exercise – followed by Lorraine’s “I could come to class one time”.

Her programme is hugely successful. Ms Gardner advises a range of organisations on the use of phonics with adults, teaches staff from charities and other organisation on how to teach the method, and soon, an app that was developed with support of micro-phonics will be available for free. Most importantly, however, her students are noticing a difference, too. “It is getting a bit better. The woman at the employability scheme I am with is always getting me to read out emails and notes,” says Jordan.

As Gardner puts it simply:  “When they arrive, they can’t read or write. When they leave, they can.”

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