I have two children, both of whom are working their way through the first few years of primary school. This means, of course, that phonics is a hot topic, from my daughter practically sneering at the phonics test (“why do we have to read these silly words?”) and my son most recently sounding out the names of Star Wars Lego characters with varying degrees of success (most amusingly one character with a major cult following has been renamed “Baby Fat” as a result.)IMG_0028

This exposure to phonics has been illuminating. I’ve been able to see phonics at work in a way that I have never really been able to apply with adults, and get involved a little with the debate about the draconian insistence on synthetic phonics as the primary measure of a child’s reading ability that reduces the joy and complexity of reading to a series of facile “tests”.

So, phonics. Basically this is developing reading skills through identifying words through shape-sound combinations. It comes in two flavours: synthetic and analytic. Synthetic phonics appears to be sounding out the letters with their appropriate phonemes, and then “synthesising” them. This is a fine way to work if you are dealing with simple regular patterns. Thus my son has no major issues with both Batman and Robin, but struggled a little with The Joker. Analytic phonics, on the other hand, appears to recognise that English is a bit weird with spelling (blame the French, the priests and the first printers, basically.) Children look at whole words, analysing patterns and making inferences from there.

As with all such things there are arguments in favour of both sides, usually voiced loudly by a minority who believe that one or the other is best. The rest of the world, meanwhile, acknowledges that the benefits of the one generally offset the shortcomings of the other, and that a bit of both is probably the best approach.

But what about adults, in particular adults whose first language is not English and who have little or no literacy in any language? Synthetic phonics, sounding out the letters, is initially quite tempting. The simplicity of the approach is appealing, and the quick win nature of being able to sound out and read words is very motivating for learners. First language learners of literacy can do especially well, focussing on the various familiar CVC words like pop, did and had. For adult ESOL learners this is, very quickly, where synthetic phonics runs out of steam a little.

Adults come to class with a different set of expectations to children: often the motivation is integrative or at least extrinsic in some form: learning practical English as a tool to achieve some wider, adult, real world goal. They need, or at least definitely want, to be able to use something. Even the most manic adherent to the cult of the ILP will want their learners to come away from a diagnostic / target setting / planning learning type session with something practical. Thus the language they encounter in class needs to be applicable beyond that context, not to the extent of the tediously functional at all times. The language needs to represent a skill transferable out of the classroom.

Put simply, there are not enough adult words that fit into the neat sounds-spelling universe of synthetic phonics. To be fair, there are barely enough words full stop.

Things are further complicated here, of course, by the language of the learners beyond the written form. Writing is an extension of speaking, and both historically and personally, speaking develops first. Children arrive at phonics lessons with their key grammatical structures more or less formed, their vocabulary possibly already in the thousands, and phonological systems more or less established. That is a whole chunk of pre-literate language learning, some three years, possibly more, with little or no direct instruction in literacy. Adults get nothing like that, and the learning processes are very different. Children get to focus purely on learning, for ESOL learners learning is just one, admittedly useful, aspect of the messy business of living. Adult ESOL learners who are beginning to write do not necessarily have access to the vocabulary and the grammar that a native speaker does, adult or child. They are learning to make sense of the whole word: the denotations, the connotations, the collocations, the grammatical functions and parsing, the pronunciation, and, of course, the written form. Suddenly simple CVC words like jug, lip and dog become fairly hefty bits of learning, and a whole bunch of “friendly” onomatopoeia which appear in children’s stories and phonics learning are, well, simply childish. (Incidentally, many children’s picture books actually rely on some fairly tricky grammatical and lexical structures. A mouse took a stroll through the deep, dark wood… for example, involves a past simple verb, a specific verb-noun collocation, a slightly unusual synonym of “walk”, with a tricky prepositional phrase as an adverbial, including a relatively low frequency preposition, and two adjectives in a particular order – never “dark, deep wood” – with the meaning of “deep” being a fairly low frequency use of the word.)

So there are some challenges with a teaching methodology used for small children being applied to the practices of adults. Like any good teacher, of course, we pick and mix from the various things around us. My own approach to beginner reading is very much a blend: I want learners to be able to recognise key words, decode the word from the overall shape, be able to understand the shape of the text, recognise text types and so on. So sometimes I focus on relatively straightforward phonic combinations, for example, working with CVC words, and more complex spelling/pronunciation rules, including invoking the magic ‘e’ idea of my own childhood. The magic e rule, incidentally, also provides us with one of the more challenging elements of these kinds of rules. Typical beginner sentences in an ESOL class is “I come from ….” and “I have…”which immediately run counter to the magic e rule, or at least demands a modification of the rule. At other times a more analytic approach is more useful, building up whole word recognition skills from context, spotting patterns and so on. Indeed, this, for many adults, is likely to be a more useful skill in general, with support from the synthetic approach to sounding out words. Adults are exposed to the written word all the time, and may need to have the skills to hand to make quick sense of fairly tricky words like “post code”, “date of birth” and “arrival in the UK”.

Indeed, guessing from context and spotting patterns is something which is useful for adult ESOL learners as a general cognitive skill as well: it’s how they can best make use of their day to day exposure to English to develop grammar skills in all contexts, for example. (I don’t need to tell you that grammar isn’t purely a writing skill, do I?)

Ultimately, that whole synthetic/analytic phonics debate is something which really doesn’t affect adult ESOL learners, and indeed probably wouldn’t affect children if there hadn’t been a clear policy driven suggestion that the practice of synthetic phonics was best practice, a concept which would appear to exclude the use of analytic phonics. This is, of course, the problem with labelling anything officially as “best practice”. In real life ESOL learners, first language literacy learning adults and children all benefit from developing a range of skills with which to tackle a text, and this should, and does, inform what happens in the classroom.

Just don’t ask my daughter to read stupid non-words.



  1. You seem to be mistaken about the debate over synthetic phonics. The argument is less over phonics but over guessing. If children don’t know how to decode then they can only guess from context, pictures, first letters, similar words etc. Because the evidence overwhelmingly shows that encouraging guessing is (not surprisingly) not very effective as a way of teaching reading in the long term, and teaching decoding is, then advocates of guessing have often tried to suggest that if they teach some phonetic information as well, then they are using some kind of mix of methods. If they are particularly dishonest they will pretend that this is a compromise (presumably between those who teach children to decode and those who refuse to let children know any phonetic information at all). But, of course, guessing is still guessing and it is not a polarised extreme to say “decode instead of guessing!”. There is no middle position between guessing and not guessing and all these “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy” type proposals, actually amount to “still guessing”. It misrepresents the debate to suggest that the two sides are evenly matched in terms of arguments or that there is a compromise in-between. It is deeply unfair to say that it is “draconian” to teach reading in a way that doesn’t involve guessing. Excluding a bad strategy is not draconian. You might as well say that it is draconian that doctors are told not to use homeopathy.

    Analytic phonics is also a bit of a red herring. If there was a working method of analytic phonics that was an alternative way of learning decoding, and not actually just a way of rebranding guessing, then there would be no problem. Children who learnt to decode this way would still be able to pass the phonics test and develop decoding instead of guessing. The controversies over the phonics test have made it clear that there is no such method, and those who appeal to “analytic phonics” actually just want to teach guessing.

    Because the evidence is so clear cut, those who wish to promote guessing tend to just spread myths about the alternative. Many of these are about the idea that words that are difficult to read or spell are somehow not phonetic. Unfortunately you have repeated some of those myths here. There is no “neat sounds-spelling universe of synthetic phonics” that allows access to only a limited part of the English language. Every word in English is best learnt by decoding the letters rather than guessing. That’s how the English alphabet works.

  2. I’m going to preface my reply with an admission, that this was written on the fly and with little or no research – it’s my blog and I’ll make random, wild and unsubstantiated claims if I want to, as it were. Then again, perhaps this amounts to a comment on the way that the teaching of phonics in schools was handled by the press, something which, for a time, was presented as an argument between teachers and the DfE, and the Minister at the time Michael Gove.

    My experience of children learning to read is based on the very small private case study of two children, which is hardly a representative sample, and reports filtered through, basically, the Guardian and so I do think that I left myself somewhat wide.

    That said, I was also reflecting on how phonics of any sort is applied in my day job, teaching English to adults whose first language is not English, and my response is based very much on what I do know and what I do know exists in terms of evidence for learners in that context. I’m not saying that this has much, if any bearing, on the learning of children, but rather trying to think through ways I can expand and apply these ideas in my own practice.

    First up, my references to ideas being enforced in a draconian manner – hyperbole, perhaps, on my part, but I think that this is perhaps something of a kneejerk reference to a wider mistrust that I have developed when anyone says “practice X is best practice so go do it” because of how much of it has proven to be wrong later on, ineffective, or simply have no evidence base but fashion. The obvious one would be learning styles, but there are others, including practices in FE such as the use of setting SMART targets for ESOL learners as a tool for learning (there is no evidence, has never been evidence, and the evidence about second language development in adults suggests that aside from a minor motivational benefit, the setting of personalised goals is unlikely to have much impact. Fail to do it, however, and OFSTED will hang you out to dry. Don’t get me started! I digress, but this is not a defence, because I think you are right in the sense that decoding is essential to reading (and I don’t think I said it wasn’t), and almost certainly likely to be better informed about children learn to read.

    I think that my flaw, as well as the cheap and ill-informed pot shots, was essentially associating synthetic and analytic phonics with the idea prevalent in second language teaching of top down and bottom up processing (good if slightly mature summary here: ) where in order to tackle a text an individual applies orthographic knowledge (i.e. phonic knowledge), lexical knowledge, and grammatical knowledge (bottom up) as well as top down processing skills, applying schemata, identifying gist from context, and, yes, guessing from context. Guessing has a value for a reader of English as a second language. In this setting, we encourage guessing, and teach it as a strategy from a fairly early stage. For an adult second language learner, as I think I said, accessing a word in a text is more than simply decoding the symbols in order to match it to their current lexical knowledge, (although they do need to be able to do that) but also working out the meaning and the grammatical function of the word – decoding alone doesn’t achieve this.

    It’s a useful skill to be able to guess meaning from context for any reader in order that when reading the flow of the reading is not broken by having to go and check the word, but to be able to have a rough guess at the meaning in order to make sense of the text as a whole.

    However, decoding *is* necessary in order for this to happen – learners need to decode the word and make guesses as to its pronunciation before they can decide whether this is a known item of vocabulary. Guessing may not always be a possible skill at the beginner end of literacy development for the same reason.

    I think we also need to be clear about how the English alphabet works – orthographic systems exist on a kind of continuum of phoneticism – from languages that, like Spanish, have highly regular and predictable sound-symbol relationships and those like Chinese (in its traditional form) which have a writing system entirely divorced from individual phonemic values. English is not by any measure a non-phonetic orthography but the letters have a range of phonemic values (bat, bated, and a southern bath) and these are inconsistently applied. The alphabet was essentially shoe-horned onto English in the middle ages, after all, hence the 44* sounds, 26 letters challenge, and since then the graphemic and the phonemic elements of language have been caught in. This isn’t an argument against decoding, mind you, because everything is decodable, with support, but decoding isn’t enough on its own to enable effective reading skills.

    This whole thing started with a bit of a reflection on my own children, but really this is a reflection on the challenges of teaching adults in an ESOL beginner literacy context. There’s more to it than simply teaching phonics, because adults come with a different set of needs and demands. They need to know how to read that electricity bill or benefits letter (written in plain English, but even plain polite English is often linguistically complex). This change of need changes necessarily the teaching approach – there is a sense of urgency to the need to learn, and a resistance to what they may perceive to be childish words. I have, perhaps, grasped the wrong end of the stick, or at least the wrong part of the stick. But I would be bold enough to say that there is a role for guessing in an ESOL context, that it is a useful skill to teach. For children beginning to read? I couldn’t, in all honesty, say for sure one way or the other.


    *this, incidentally, is debateable – few northerners regularly make use the /ᴧ/ of a southern *cup* and surely nobody pronounces pure as /pʊər/ apart from HM the Queen. So here in urban Yorkshire I’d say there were 42, maybe 43 if you include a glottal stop. Sorry, phonetics is my thing.

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