Day 3 - Let's Talk Phonics

Welcome to Day 3 of Let’s Talk Phonics. We've discussed two videos and two practices for teaching phonics to adult learners. Thank you all for your wonderful contributions relating to your experience teaching literacy to adult learners as well as your reflections in the process! Please feel  encouraged to continue the dialogue developed in previous days as you prepare to discuss our third video in our Let’s Talk Phonics series. 

Today, we will be discussing strategies in the video Decoding - Part 3: Tutoring Using Phonics by Analogy

After watching the video, please reflect and comment on the following:

  1. How is the Phonics by Analogy approach different from the approaches we have discussed?
  2. Do you have a preference for which one you will use with different types of students?
  3. Do you think it is a good practice to explain different approaches to beginning readers?

To our Guest Expert:  Kathy St. John

Kathy, as we reflect on different ways to teaching critical phonics skills among adult learners, what do you recommend in terms of implementing writing skills among very beginning readers? Would you have students write words as they learn them or wait until later?

Let's Talk More Phonics! Your Event Team


What do you recommend in terms of implementing writing skills among very beginning readers? Would you have students write words as they learn them or wait until later?

Thanks for these really important questions, Leecy. They're ones my colleagues and I get asked a lot and I'm thrilled every time I have the opportunity to answer. It's funny that you ask this question today of all days as this is exactly what I'm working on today as we develop Tutor Ready:Writing which is going to complement Tutor Ready:Reading which folks might want to check out at

Tutor Ready: Reading is a free online resource that provides answers to some common questions volunteer tutors ask about how best to help their learners improve their skills in the four components of reading. It's a nice complement to these discussions.

Back to your question about writing though! It's never too soon for learners to begin writing. The latest reading and writing research underscores the interconnectedness of both skills and emphasizes how practice in one helps the other improve. If you'd like to know more about this, you might want to look at an excellent, brief and user-friendly publication from the National Research Council called  Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Supporting Learning and Motivation: Developing Reading and Writing that you can download as a pdf for free at:

Even learners at the lowest levels of reading and writing can benefit from engaging in short and simple writing tasks. Just tracing or copying the letters of the alphabet is always a good way for emerging writers to start. Tracing, copying or writing down the words learners have created during phonics play is a great way to reinforce learning and can also be done during home practice to encourage independent learning.

I like to ask learners to write words on index cards rather than on paper in the form of lists because they can shuffle the cards and use them to play games or create simple stories when you're practicing with them using a tactile and kinesthetic approach. As the learner masters reading and writing skills, these index cards can become more complex with definitions and sentences that help define them and illustrations that act as visual cues to help a learner memorize their meaning. In this way, the basic cards that originated out of phonics play can become spelling and/or vocabulary cards that help build a learner's word bank. But in the beginning it's enough to ask your learner to write or copy the one syllable words you're creating or reading during your phonics play. 

Many of you might have experience using the Language Experience Approach to encourage emerging readers and writers to practice basic reading and writing skills using words that are relevant to their own lives because the words being spoken, read and written are the learner's own words as s/he dictates a story to a tutor or teacher. I'd love to hear if anyone has successfully used this strategy to encourage beginning writers as well as readers.

I always like to focus on simple writing tasks that emerging writers can apply in their everyday lives immediately. That's especially important for English language learners. Writing their names and their family members names is a great writing activity. Writing their address is another and that also includes numbers which is another good subject for them to learn to write. Writing simple to do lists and shopping lists is another practical and useful way to incorporate writing into lessons for low level writers. What other real life writing activities do you ask your beginning level learners to do to help improve their writing skills?


Hi Kathy,

You asked for stories of people who had used LEA successfully with beginning readers. One of our AmeriCorps members last year was working with a man from Jamaica who had very limited education. She started by trying to work on letter sounds and phonics skills with him, but he had a lot of trouble with the skills involved. After a few somewhat painful meetings, she tried the LEA method, and he loved it! They started by working on words that he needed in his job at a hotel. He dictated the sentences to her, and then she typed them up. Later, he reread the story several times and she incorporated other activities like scrambling and unscrambling the sentences, creating new sentences with the same words, and practicing copying and spelling words. Over time, they adjusted this process--for example, sometimes she would write the story and then he would type it up.

The student really appreciated learning words that he could use right away, and it turned out that he is something of a poet! He wrote stories and poems about the job he would like to have (being a house painter), life in Pittsburgh, and foods he misses from Jamaica. Later, once he had a larger sight word vocabulary, he and his tutor returned to phonics work and to stories designed for beginning adult students, and he began to learn how to use phonics to sound out new words and to enjoy reading things that other people had written. For this student, the connection to his oral language was key.

I have thought quite a bit about why the LEA approach worked so well with this student, when I have seen other students who enjoy it but don't make nearly as much progress. I think that the difference is partly based in educational background. The vast majority of people in the US attend elementary school or are intentionally taught to read by their families. Unlike the 1960's and 70's when the adult literacy movement started, now most adults who grew up in the US have attempted to learn to read at least once before. The LEA method is sort of an exposure therapy--it helps students see how oral and written language correspond, and it is good for learning important sight words. This is a very important part of learning to read, but many of our US-born students come to us already familiar with those concepts (at least in my experience, it is very rare to find a US-born adult student who truly cannot read at all unless there are significant learning issues like dyslexia, auditory processing problems, memory problems, etc.). If exposure alone was going to do it, most of these students would have learned by now. That is why more systematic methods of teaching phonics are so important.

I think that LEA is still important with US-born beginning readers because it helps the tutor keep the lesson focused on the student's needs and interests. It can also be a great bridge to writing for students who struggle to make that leap, but I would not usually expect the explosive progress in reading ability that I saw with the student I described above. On the other hand, part of the reason that LEA worked in this case was that the student enjoyed it. My theory could be wrong--it might be that some students, after struggling for years with phonics, would finally learn to enjoy reading if they tried LEA. Maybe that attitude shift is the most important thing?

Wow Rachel! Not only have you shared a heartwarming and inspiring example of the power of LEA, you've given us so much good food for thought. Your insights are very helpful and right on target. Beautifully stated. Thanks for sharing your story and perspective with us. You end with an equally powerful question. I think attitude or motivation can't be underestimated when it comes to learning, especially for adults who have always struggled with reading and writing or who are learning a new language. Going back to that excellent recent research on reading and writing from the National Research Council, here's another free, brief and user-friendly publication that speaks to this. Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Supporting Learning and Motivation. Free to download as a pdf at

Thanks for getting today's discussions off to a superlative start, Rachel!

In reply to by Rachel Baron

Hello Rachel and all, Thanks for sharing this inspiring story, Rachel. I have used LEA a lot in my teaching with low level language learners, particularly for those with no or limited formal schooling. Starting with oral language is crucial for these learners since building print literacy skills on an oral language foundation is essential, just as it is for children learning to read for the first time.

Some members may be interested in checking out one of my favorite New American Horizons videos, Building Literacy with Adult Emergent Readers. This NAH video series of actual adult ESL classrooms is featured in the LINCS collection. In this video, you'll see how teacher Andrea Echelberger uses an LEA story to teach elements of phonics with English learners who have limited formal schooling, aka "emergent readers." Another wonderful resource for learning more about working with emergent readers is the self-paced LINCS ELLU course Teaching Adult ELLs Who are Emergent Readers.

Thanks to everyone for their valuable contributions to this discussion!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Thanks for letting everyone know about the New American Horizons videos, Susan. They are just terrific! I use them a lot in my trainings. I especially like that they use approaches to learning that are relevant to learners' own lives. They even make grammar fun and grounded in personal experience!

Hi All,

I was just on a video conference with my Tutor Ready colleagues and Kathy Harris, from Portland State University's Learner Web, asked if I'd supplied you with the easiest, simplest link to this online resource developed especially for tutors. I had not! So here it is now.

Just a reminder: 

Tutor Ready: Reading is a free online resource that provides answers to some common questions volunteer tutors ask about how best to help their learners improve their skills in the four components of reading. It's a nice complement to these discussions and all of the videos we're discussing this week are embedded in the learning plans on Alphabetics.

  1. How is the Phonics by Analogy approach different from the approaches we have discussed
  2. Do you have a preference for which one you will use with different types of students?
  3. Do you think it is a good practice to explain different approaches to beginning readers?

 1. When a student is using the analogy approach they are creating new words using word patterns. 

2. At my level with the very lowest level of emergent reader I have been using a mix of the synthetic and analytic approaches.  I have tried to expose the students to the analogy approach but as they are not as confident in their own memory of the sounds, (a self belief they do not have a good memory) as a whole they will attack the word with the other two approaches and not strike out on their own to identify the unknown word.

3. Even with the struggles mentioned above, when I teach this approach I can assess who should be moving on to the next level.   Those students who are able to grasp this approach do not stay in my class long as this is a skill which helps them excel into the next level.  

To answer the question about LEA, I have tried LEA as a group activity and have had limited success.  When used I do find my students who have a higher vocabulary base and are more outspoken in class will provide the language.  I wonder if this hinders others in the class as then the words read and used for writing practice are not their own.   My class is a mix of those students who have just recently arrived to the United States and those who have been out in the workforce and are now returning to work on their reading and writing skills.  With this diversity the use of LEA is not as affective as the words are not as easy to decode. 

This might be a good activity to have a volunteer work on with the high student one on one. 

Do you have any suggestions on how to incorporate this into a diverse group when volunteers are not always weekly so the activity can be fruitful?


You bring up so many good points, Diana! It certainly can be easier for learners to go from the whole word to sounding out its individual letter sounds than going from the less familiar process of identifying the whole word by sounding out each letter. I think that's probably how lots of learners feel about phonics activities. Thanks for pointing that out!

Thanks also for pointing out that for many learners who just never had the opportunity to learn how to read with phonics, it can be a matter of pretty quick remediation and then they're zooming off to higher level skills because the missing foundational reading skills are now, at long last, in place and they're ready to read to learn rather than learn to read.

I'm happy that you also discuss the importance of assessing your learners so you know what kind of instruction each individual needs and who's got it and who needs more explanation, demonstration, time, repetition and opportunities for practice.

I can see that using LEA as a group activity in a classroom setting, especially which such diverse learners as the folks you're teaching, could be quite challenging. While I love group writing activities and class involvement in creating a story that reflects everyone's ideas and experiences, I do think that LEA works best when one learner can tell and then work in different ways with his/her own story.

Not many classroom teachers do have the luxury of an assistant in every class. I have one in one of my classes but not in the other and boy does it make a difference! So I'd suggest you try a couple of ways to make time for your learners to do LEA on an individual basis. 

First, I'd plan some activities that other learners could work on independently or in pairs or small groups while you pull out one leaner to do an LEA with you. This may need to be a more abbreviated activity or you may need to segment the activities over several class periods because you can't dedicate as much time to this, but I think you can come up with some creative ways for how to structure this into a lesson.

Second, I'd try asking your learners to work in pairs to do an LEA. They can take turns dictating the story and writing down the story. This will require some thought about how to pair your learners based on their writing, reading, speaking and listening abilities. Do you think it would work best to pair learners who are working at the same skill level or would it work better pairing a stronger learner with a weaker learner? What about pairing one learner who is more skilled at writing with one who is more skilled in speaking? There are lots of different ways to do this. It just depends on your learners and how you think they'll work best with each other on this activity.

How do you think this might work for you?

If anyone else has any ideas to share for how to use LEA in a classroom setting, please share!

I have been thinking about LEA some more.  This approach is thought provoking as I ponder  how to incorporate this into my classroom. 

Over 90% of my students have been in the country for less than 1 year.  This brings limited vocabulary but most importantly nonexistent writing skills for some.  I am not sure I could find a good pairing with the class I have at the moment to do LEA work in class.  Although, the students could do some type of phonics sorting of word families, first letter or ending letter sets while I would with the higher oral students. 

When I pair it depends on what I am asking the students to do.  If this is the first time we have worked on a center, I will pair a strong and weak student together.  If the center work is review I will put two weaker students together so they can process slower and build confidence in their ability to complete the task rather than taking the backseat and letting the stronger student complete the task with out any discourse about how the answer was achieved.

Diana, I'm glad that you are reconsidering using LEA with your students. As we touched on earlier in Kathy's excellent response, LEA is not an ideal method to be used in a classroom setting. The text produced comes from personal experience, to which others might well not relate.  In addition, it is not an ideal method to be used with ESL students, especially in the environment you described. LEA was developed for tutoring native speakers for the very reason you described.    On this topic, I just can't help but bow publicly in the direction of Ruth Colvin, who started Literacy Volunteers of America and LEA, as described in Day 1. In writing a literacy grant for Uganda a few years ago, I contacted ProLiteracy to suggest collaboration. The young lady with whom I spoke said, "You need to talk to Ruth. She is thinking of retiring, but she might be interested." "How old is she?" I asked. "98 was the response!"   As far as I know, Ruth is still going strong. This year, she'll be 102! CLICK HERE for an image and article, and enjoy! Leecy    

Thanks for giving credit where credit is due, Lacy. Ruth Colvin rocks and has been rocking for generations! I just emailed her yesterday to ask for her permission to use her unparalleled description of LEA from her outstanding tutor resource publication Tutor (8th edition, pages 41-45). I was writing a learning plan for the upcoming Tutor Reading: Writing project and I was scouring the internet and my tutor resource materials for the best possible description of LEA, especially as it pertains to writing extension activities. Ruth's detailed description of this approach is second to none. And Ruth is second to none when it comes to the field of volunteer tutoring in adult basic literacy. Kudos to Ruth!