There are many who would suggest that adult learners do not require phonics intervention to help reading and spelling. The opportunities for over learning may also be few.
Phonics intervention does not have to be immature and can work exceptionally well with adults. I work with adult learners who have left school with poor reading and spelling skills, many of who have not received formal education after leaving school but have excellent skills for the workplace. However, they’ve not furthered their education, due to lack of literacy skills and therefore rarely progressed in employment. That’s not to say they haven’t received on the job training and been successful in work, they perhaps have not just had the same opportunities as others who have formal qualifications.
Today, many schools stop teaching children to read and spell using phonics, after the first couple of years in primary school. Yet it’s a skill which can remain extremely useful, especially as students are met with words they cannot read and spell later in life or as words become more subject based. Science and Mathematics related words can be quite tricky to break down to read or build up when spelling. Unfortunately, reliance on whole words recognition and what a word looks like can often not be a successful strategy. Yet many struggling readers default to this method, despite it being successful.
When I meet adult learners, they quite often have developed coping strategies for literacy and often have stronger reading skills than spelling. When reading, they can often be shown what a word says in the context of reading a sentence. This learning is very opportunistic and unplanned and is based on the learner’s ability to retain the knowledge of what the word looks like. If it’s a frequently used word at work, they can often retain it. Out of context, it may not be recognised. They’re certainly unlikely to be able to use the sounds in the words to transfer to another, less familiar word. I often see a leaner able to read the word but not able to spell it. Basically, they’re trying to recall what the word looks like. Overall, it’s a tiring tasks for any leaner to be able to recall what the word looks like for reading or spelling. It requires the brain to store numerous words.
In my experience, adult learners often tend to try to sound out words but struggle to sound out and break the words down and don’t know which written response to make when they hear a sound. Quite often they say a sound but their working memory struggles to support them and they don’t actually write it. They get ‘lost’ in the sequence of letters and spelling then becomes very muddled. Commonly, I see adults over emphasise sounds too, resulting in extra letters being represented in the spelling. There are also the scenarios where individuals have spent a lifetime either mis-hearing or mispronouncing words, often incorrectly representing sounds such as ‘m/n’ or ‘nd/ng’. As a result, they find it difficult to sound out a word correctly in the first instance.
Sometimes, learners can have undiagnosed visual or auditory difficulties which have been present all their life, although nobody has ever known about these problems to signpost them correctly for help. This is often the first thing which should be supported. Helping individuals pronounce words correctly, I consider is a key aspect to help them recognise vocabulary when reading or spelling.
A systematic synthetic phonics programme can help adult learners at entry level and those who have gained qualifications. I have evaluated adult learners who struggle to read and spell words which are included within year 1 & 2 of the National Curriculum. I know the struggle to read and spell words at this level has an impact on self esteem and confidence. I have first hand experience of this with my own family. The adults I have worked with, have also told me how struggling to read and spell impacts not only on literacy skills but self-esteem, in turn this impacts wider.
It takes a huge step for any adult to return to education and disclose they have difficulties with reading and spelling. This often requires a significant amount of emotional support form their own family and from the person they receive tuition from. Even when adults have taken the step to develop their reading and spelling skills, they still have a difficulty telling their employer or colleagues and sometimes continue to hide it from friends and family.
Recently, I worked with an adult learner who progressed well through CodeBreakers programme, they quickly understood the rules they were taught, learned to sound out words and applied the rules to read and spell words easily. The learner was over joyed at the experience of learning. Likewise, I felt felt the key to their learning had been unlocked. As with any learning, it’s easy to feel you or your learner has understood and assimilated learning. It’s great to move on to the next topic or sound. But there is a danger that the learner will quickly become over loaded. It’s quite clear that although learning can take place and learners can show an understanding, one of the important aspects is to not move too quickly. Adding more information, until the learner becomes over loaded with new information. Recap and revision is the key. Adult earners usually have their session with a tutor and due to life and daily commitments, have little time to practice during the week. I’ve experienced the same at a vocational level learning, I love dance, it’s my passion, it makes me feel so good when I do it, I even complete dance exams. Yet, before I knew it, the next weekly session had come round and I just hadn’t had time to practice. Consolidation of learning is so very important. A leaner needs time to digest and absorb the information which has been delivered. This can only take place through repetition. That repetition is usually in a session with the learner and tutor.
Today, I learned something new from my learner. I learned it is my job to ensure that ample opportunities are provided for over learning, if I am to give my learner the best opportunity to retain information, regardless of them demonstrating they have understood. Yes, I have those worksheets and tasks available but don’t skip them, just because a learner is doing well and understands. The danger is, learning is not digested or consolidated and they begin to confuse rules and sounds. More importantly, provide a learner with the opportunity to develop their own self-esteem and confidence. Today, I knew my leaner understood the rules I had taught and could apply them correctly. However, they’d started our session with a crisis of confidence, not sure if they could do it. The learner needed to show them self that they could do it. So instead of me giving the leaner 10 spellings which I knew they could do. I gave them 25 spellings. Not because they needed to to show me they could do it. But to show themselves they could. As a tutor you can give praise, however, there’s nothing better than than intrinsic motivation and a learner leaving their session with a huge grin feeling good about themselves.
Learn more about CodeBreakers for adults at;