Research into phonics use to teach adults needed

It was revealed in September that the new functional skills qualifications in English will include phonics

phonics reading functional skills adult learning ETF

More research is needed into how phonics can be used with adults, according to new research published by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF).

The new report, entitled Current practice in using a system of phonics with post-16 learners, highlights differences in learning to read as an adult and learning to read as a young child, including “marked differences in learning contexts, such as contact time and attendance patterns, as well as learner characteristics, including world knowledge and experience”.

“Decoding and encoding skills will be strengthened if they are taught in such a way that they engage adult learners,” it added. The report stresses that “taking an existing phonics scheme designed for use in primary schools and importing it into the adult context is unlikely to be effective”.

Commissioned the ETF, the research was undertaken by University College London (UCL) researchers and funded by the Department for Education (DfE). It assesses the extent to which phonics approaches are currently used with entry-level learners across the sector and looks at how adult literacy tutors might be supported to use phonics approaches effectively. It was revealed in September that following reform, the new functional skills qualifications in English will include phonics.

Guidance and support

The report makes recommendations for a systematic approach to using phonics with adults and sets out why guidance and support is needed to successfully embed systematic approaches to teaching phonics in different post-16 settings. “Adult learners do not study under the same conditions as children,” it stressed. “They also have clear preferences for materials which are aimed at them and make reference to adult life.”

The researchers said: “There is a range of materials devised specifically for teaching adults, including reading schemes based on decodable text and systematic approaches to introducing phoneme-graphemes in sequence. Our survey suggests they attract relatively little use as yet. We recommend that networks of practitioners explore through action research which materials work best for their learners and compare findings.”

According to the report, “too little high-quality research is being carried out into systematic approaches to teaching phonics that might benefit adult learners”. “There is not currently sufficient evidence upon which to base guidance to the field on the most effective approaches to teaching adult learners phonics,” it said. 

'More time and attention'

According to the report, tutors “sometimes find it challenging to identify learners’ specific barriers and needs in relation to emergent reading and writing”. “This can lead to some learners not receiving the most appropriate forms of support,” it says. “We recommend more time and attention is paid to assessment processes by providers and networks, both at the start of, and during, provision.”

Gary Phillips, director of professional development at the ETF, said: “As ever with the implementation of new teaching approaches, it’s important to make sure teachers and trainers have the expertise and support necessary to ensure their successful implementation.

“Moreover, the findings of this study show that workforce development is particularly crucial to the use of phonics in the teaching of reading and writing to adults in order that tutors can skilfully assess individual learners needs, select appropriate materials that gain learner confidence and use phonics effectively.”

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