Day 4 - Let's Talk Phonics!

Welcome to Day 4 of Let’s Talk Phonics. Please feel free to continue the dialogue developed in earlier discussions as you prepare to discuss our fourth video in in our Let’s Talk Phonics series.

Today, we will be discussing strategies in the video Decoding - Part 4: Tutoring Using Phonics through Spelling.

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

  1. Why do you think there are so many approaches to tutoring phonics? Should all of them be tried with the same students?
  2. What does tutoring using the phonics-through-spelling approach contribute to a reader’s development? Do you have students who would benefit more from one approach or another that we have discussed so far?
  3. What advantages or disadvantages do you see to this approach compared with the others we’ve discussed.

To our Guest Expert:  Kathy St. John

Based on the dialogue taking place in the last three days, what strikes you as contributing most to helping tutors accelerate the rate of reading development among adult learners?

Let's continue to talk phonics! Stay tuned to some exciting news and  details on an opportunity that we will be posting in this even very soon! 

Your Event Team


Based on the dialogue taking place in the last three days, what strikes you as contributing most to helping tutors accelerate the rate of reading development among adult learners?

Thanks for this question, Leecy. There have been so many important themes that we've discussed over the past three days that it's a bit challenging to choose. But I'd have to say that direct, explicit, systematic instruction that includes lots of repetition and opportunities for guided and independent practice contributes the most. We know this from the research and it looks like we, as teachers and tutors, are saying that this is true from our experience with our learners as well.

In direct, explicit, systematic phonics instruction, a body of phonics content-- letter-sound correspondences and common word patterns-- is identified, logically sequenced and directly taught. That's how we say it in "research-speak".

Many teachers and tutors teach phonics using an incidental or opportunistic approach in which they insert a brief phonics lesson into other lessons as unfamiliar words arise. For example, if they're reading a story with their learner and discover some words in the story that have word patterns like /ad/ or /ig/ or /ut/, they stop reading for meaning for a few minutes, pull out those words and ask their learners to do some rhyming activities by adding different consonant onsets to the beginning of the rimes (or word families they've identified in the story). Then after this brief, disconnected rhyming activity they go back to reading the story for meaning. "Phew! That's our pesky phonics lesson for the day over and done with!"

Research indicates that this is not the most effective way for learners to increase their phonics skills. In order for most learners to make significant learning gains in reading, they need to be taught using explicit, direct, systematic instructional techniques. That means that the teacher or tutor sets aside a dedicated block of time for phonics work (typically no more than 20 minutes) and then explains to the learner why they're going to be working on phonics, how it relates to his/her real life goals, and what the objective of this particular type of phonics activity is. Then the tutor or teacher explains the process, models it, gives the learner the opportunity to perform the task with lots of guidance and support and then provides additional time for the learner to practice the same tasks more independently, during the lesson and in home practice, if possible.The tutor or teacher checks in with the learner to see what s/he liked and wants to do more of and why and how s/he can use what they just did in real, every day life.

Research tells us that repetition is a key factor to successful phonics instruction. Practice and more practice is critical for learners to master phonics skills. This is especially true if the learner has never been exposed to phonics or has some learning disabilities. Research also tells us that most teachers and tutors underestimate the amount of time and opportunities for practice that learners need to internalize phonics tasks so that they can decode words using phonics with ease and automaticity. 

We've heard from many people during these discussions what is reflected in the research. I think it's really helpful when teachers and tutors share how they decide on which phonics activities to do with their learners and how they structure their phonics lessons and integrate them with the other activities for that day's lesson. It can be challenging, especially for new teachers and tutors and for those of us who came into this field with no formal training or background in teaching reading, to hear from those who are doing this kind of teaching routinely and doing it well. Once you've got it, it becomes easy and enjoyable. But while you're mastering this kind of teaching or tutoring it can be a bit intimidating and frustrating.

I'm sure we'd all love to hear more tips and magic tricks and stories of student success in this area. Please jump in and tell us about your own experiences! 





I am encouraged to see many different ways to engage students to use phonics as an approach to reading and writing versus only memorization.  With each different approach the students encounter different ways in which to process the English language.  More tools in their tool box.

The spelling approach does contribute by helping students to utilize the analytic approach first, "what sounds do you hear" and then builds bridges and brain pathway connections to the visual letter image. Every time you build a new pathway to match the sound and the image you increase their ability to recall sounds and begin decoding the words they see.  I have a group of students from Bhutan / Nepal.  They have been taught to spell the word before saying the name of the word.  It is a struggle for the students to only say the sound but with this approach they can say the sounds before saying the letter names. As they find the letters and write the letters they continue to build a stronger pathway with in their long term memory.  It helps connect their already learned reading tool to the sounds increasing their ability to decode.

If the student doesn't have a mastery of which sounds are connected to which letter this could pose a struggle for the students during the first phase of "what sounds do you hear" (the analytic portion).  When you scaffold this approach by helping the students build the sound connections as you move toward the visual and kinetic piece by finding and writing the letter, you allow the approach to be differentiated for the higher students.

I have used this approach somewhat differently with a few adjustments.  I will say the word, ask the students to find the sounds on their alphabet sheet with a red chip.  The students will usually be able to find the last sound they hear.  I will then give all three sounds and the students find the sounds.  As a class we decide which sound we hear first, next and last.  The students then write the sounds to create the word and then we read the word. 

Should I change this in anyway to increase learning?

You're on a roll this morning, Diana! WowI I haven't had any caffeine yet so I'm struggling to keep up with you. So so many great ideas that you're sharing here. Thank you!

I think you're right on target with everything you've said here. It sounds like you're doing a great job with your learners and that your approaches are working well for them. I find your example of your learners from Nepal and Bhutan so interesting, especially since I visited Nepal for the first time in June. What an amazing and gorgeous place! And how fortunate for you to work with learners from Nepal. Everyone we met was so friendly, helpful, kind and resourceful. I'm sure that comes out in your classroom.

Enough fond travel memories! Back to phonics! Thanks for making the case for pushing through the struggle your learners have to distinguish between the letter names, sounds and word itself to build the neurological pathways that will eventually improve their reading skills. It sounds like you've come up with some successful strategies for easing those struggles. Good for you!

Thanks especially for sharing the creative approach you describe here:

I will say the word, ask the students to find the sounds on their alphabet sheet with a red chip.  The students will usually be able to find the last sound they hear.  I will then give all three sounds and the students find the sounds.  As a class we decide which sound we hear first, next and last.  The students then write the sounds to create the word and then we read the word. 

Here's what I love about this cool approach you've come up with.

1.When you say the word, you take the reading burden off your learners so they can concentrate solely on the sound. Having them match the sound you say to a letter they identify on their sheet is a great activity that helps cement their letter/sound correspondence knowledge. The red chip adds color (which is always good when learning!) and makes the activity a bit kinesthetic.

2.It's great that you're asking your learners to work with only three sounds at a time. That's manageable for most learners. And since they've already identified the last sound, they really only have to identify two new sounds in that next step of your process.

3. Asking the class to identify the first, second and third sounds as a group takes the pressure off individual learners, especially those who are struggling. They can observe the stronger learners and learn from them and that helps to reinforce their own learning. I'm sure you have a way of keeping track and making note of the learners who aren't quite keeping up and could benefit from more individualized instruction and/or extra practice.

4. You're incorporating both writing and reading into the phonics activity and that's always a good thing. When you all read the word, are you reading it orally? Including speaking and providing the opportunity to pronounce the word is an important piece of this activity. If speaking is in the mix, I can't think of anything I'd change. I like it!

Is there a way you can make a game out of this as an extension activity? If you have a friendly classroom environment (and I'm sure you do), could you add in a little fun competition into the mix like phonics bingo or some other game?

Here's a funny but effective game that my beginning ESL learners (the older the better it seems!) really love. I write the words we've been working on on the board. I ask two learners to come to the board and I give them each a fly swatter. Then I call out a word and they compete to see which one can slap the word on the board with the fly swatter first. They do this for several words and then the victor takes on a new learner. After I've modeled how to call out the words, I ask the other learners to call out the words. I can't tell you how excited my learners get and how enthusiastically they participate! It usually ends up being an exercise class! The learners who aren't at the board are just as involved as the swatters as they cheer them on and call out encouragement. We do this with vocabulary words and question/answer pairs such as asking "How are you?" and the learners find and swat "I'm terrific!" I can't remember who I stole this activity from but if you'e out there, Thank you!

I do have a phonics bingo that I use as an extension to our classroom work.  I have tried the flyswatter game but my students from Burma are very reserved and they do not participate in this game. 

We now have the words written on the board.  As a class we read all the words together and then I call the first word.  A student chooses to come and erase the word.  I usually call the hardest word as the top students are first to raise their hand to come to the board.  The student ten chooses the next word.  We do this until all the words are erased.  My rule is you can only come up once.  This gives the more reserved students a chance to review the words and find the one they know.  When their word is called they are then willing to come up and erase the word giving them an opportunity to have success and build confidence.

Thanks for sharing this fabulous activity that involves erasing words from the board, Diana. I love it and I'm going to steal this idea too!

Thanks also for pointing out that not all activities work equally well for all learners. Cultural differences play a huge role in what will work well and what won't. It's so important for us as teachers and tutors to respect those cultural differences and to come up with other activities that our learners are more comfortable with. Good for you for doing such a great job with that!

I love that practice, Diana, because it involves the body and movement to anchor concepts. I found, to my delight, as you have, it appears, that most ESL students really enjoy coming to the board, which has not been the case with my college composition classes! As an aside, my ESL students also absolutely adored Charades. Of course, we used very simple sentences, which they had to spell absolutely correctly. When I had 10 minutes to spare at the end of a long session, the call for Charades often erupted. The game works with native speakers, too, even in those composition classes. The trick is to set good limits/guidelines for the difficulty of the sentences. Of course, we are not talking tutor-learner settings here! Leecy

Great, Kadidia. The trick is to set parameters for the kinds of sentence each team has to produce: not too hard and not too easy. Also, if punctuation, in addition to sentence correctness, is expected, the use of those symbols needs to be agreed upon. In comp classes, punctuation helps.

At lower levels,  I never used sentences that required punctuation; the end period was always just assumed. I.E. Marta [a student in the class] loves chocolate. ( Get the "s" pronounced!) OR The teacher should give good grades. ( How do you act out "should?" Lots of laughter). 

Please drop back in and let us know how it goes. It takes a few time for everyone to get the idea, but, oh, so much fun after that! Leecy

Hi Kathy,

I know that you said that you don't use phonics through spelling as much because it can confuse learners, but I really like using it with students who can already read at a low intermediate level but who are shaky on phonics rules. Sometimes, these are students who can get a lot out of context and sight words. I also see a lot of students who just use the first word that comes to mind that has the same first letter as the one on the page. These students often struggle to improve their reading because the texts get less predictable and it's a lot of work to build up that many sight words! They also tend to ignore the ends of words, which becomes more of a problem when you start reading words like "successfully."

Some of these students insist that they can already read, but they can't spell. So that's how I get them. :) Part of my job is to assign textbooks to students working with our volunteer tutors, and we have a nice series of spelling books that focuses on word families. The fact that it uses phonics is great, and the word family approach draws attention to those pesky word endings! Once students start with the spelling work, the tutors can help them use the same skills in reading, and eventually (with help from the tutor...) the students see how they are useful for reading as well as spelling.

How clever you are to entice your learners into working with phonics using spelling as the lure! I like that idea a lot! And I can see that it would be very effective. Thanks so much for sharing that with us. I am going to steal that idea and share it with everyone in my trainings!

Thanks also for sharing how you have successfully used phonics through spelling with your learners. I'm so delighted to hear that it's working well for you! As I was reflecting on this approach to phonics this morning and thinking about how in the video Jonathon seemed to be totally comfortable going back and forth between sounding out and spelling the words it occurred to me that I may not being giving this approach as much of a chance as I should. Maybe I need to try it again with different learners to see if it just didn't work as well as other approaches with the learners I have worked with. I realized that I've taken on learners who hadn't made much progress because of some very severe learning disabilities. They were also very very low level native English-speaking middle aged adults. So perhaps the confusion they had with the name of the letters versus the sounds they make isn't as common as I was thinking. I now some of my ESL learners have also expressed some confusion when trying to differentiate between the sounds and names of letters but I'd like to think more about that too. I think I mentioned in another post that I'm ALWAYS learning more about teaching and learning reading. I think this is an "aha moment" for me. So thanks for helping me get there!

I have to admit that I should be more familiar with the etiquette of sharing the names of textbooks in LINCS CoPs. Is it okay if I ask you to share the name of the series you like that includes word families?

Who else has had positive experiences using phonics through spelling with their learners?

Thanks for this question. I too am always interested in learning about good books and website for teaching phonics. Since I'm no longer coordinating a program, I'm not able to keep as abreast of what's available as I'd like so I'm hoping others will chime in here.

I also find that after searching in the books I have and in online resources that I end up just creating my own phonics materials because I can then craft them exactly how I want them to be with my own particular learners in mind. But that takes a bunch of time!

When I do use phonics textbooks I think Focus on Phonics from New Readers Press can be helpful.

I'm a fan of well-constructed and easy to apply phonics resources that are Orton-Gillingham-based. I have my favorites but I've found that some of them can be a bit overwhelming in their breadth and intricacy for many volunteer tutors and teachers who are new to this approach. Here are my go to resources:

Wilson Reading System (I think this is a very effective system but I think it needs to be simplified for volunteer tutors who find it very cumbersome and overwhelming.)

Lindamood Bell's Resources from Gander Publishing (While these folks insist their resources and approaches are meant to help children, I've had good success with adults too.)

Barton Reading and Spelling System by Susan Barton (This system was developed especially for learners with dyslexia, but can be effective with all learners.)

A word of caution: There are many phonics texts and online resources available but they are not of equal quality and many are very childish in content and images. Nothing is more insulting to an adult learner than to be asked to use workbooks and activity sheets that were very obviously developed for children. Phonics resources developed for adults are hard to find, but they are out there and they're more appropriate for our learners.

Who else can recommend textbooks and websites that you think are great for adult learners not native English-speaking and English language learners?

Thanks for your response, Kathy. I'm familiar with these and use some of them in my class. If anyone has more recent sources, especially anything online, that would be helpful to hear about. There seem to be some sites for children, but they're not appropriate for adults.

In reply to by lclark

I should say that part of the reason I'm looking for materials or a website is because we sometimes have literacy learners who come to our open drop-in time for extra help/people who can't attend a regular class. Something more systematic that the learner could work on somewhat independently would help. I realize that might be difficult to achieve (at least at a price we can afford!). Thanks.

Hi, Lisa. You may know that I am an avid promoter of open educational resources (OER). Open resources offer two huge benefits to instructors and learners: (1) all are free, and (2) all allow others to modify and use content in different ways, depending on the license. Some, maybe most, allow anyone to use the content in any way whatsoever as long as attribution is stated for the original source.

More and more OER lessons for adults are being posted, which is like rain falling on thirsty land! 

I did a quick search on phonics/Adult Education. Following are a few lessons that you might want to explore. I haven’t examined them, but they looked promising. You might Google something like “phonics instruction adult learners.” I bet you’ll come up with some jewels although it always takes time to select those that fit your needs the best. As you discover new resources, please post those here for others to enjoy as well.  Thanks! Leecy

If you or others would like to know more about OER for Adult Ed, please open a new discussion in our Reading and Writing community to get that dialogue started! Thanks, Leecy