Using Post-16 Phonics Approaches with English, Maths & Vocational Learners

Education and Training Collective

The college’s 2017 Ofsted Report (Ofsted, 2017b) stated “too many learners fail to gain qualifications …the achievement of apprentices remains too low”. A more recent Ofsted monitoring visit of June 2018 reported improvements in Maths and English, but that there was “still significant room for further improvement to ensure that learners do make sufficient progress” (Ofsted, 2018).

This project enabled the college to continue to build on the progress already made and additionally meet the requirements of the revised Functional Skills English Curriculum (DfE, 2018) which specifies using phonics to teach learners at Entry level.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


The project had dual aims of meeting the requirements of the revised Functional Skills English Curriculum (DfE, 2018) in supporting project members as they implemented curriculum changes and of enhancing learners’ literacy skills. These were to be achieved through:
1. Introducing phonics-based activities into teaching sessions;
2. Monitoring and reviewing the impact of the phonics-based activities on learning;
3. Promoting the strategies through creating a virtual learning platform.

Professional development sessions enabled us to gain knowledge and understanding of phonics-based approaches. Following these we worked with learners, using the activities from the Post -16 Phonics Approaches: A Toolkit (ETF, 2019), introducing and monitoring their effectiveness. As a team we reflected on the activities undertaken, gathered learner feedback and met regularly to review progress and plan future actions.

As a result of the project we have grown in confidence and feel better able to support learners through a phonics-based approach. A significant number of learners have improved their spelling skills and enhanced their reading and writing practices.


The organisation was involved in the Phonics Pilot (2018-19) and it, therefore, seemed appropriate to continue work in this area to further develop staff skills, knowledge and understanding and enhance the opportunities for our learners. The project enabled us to work with a wider range of staff, including Learning Support Assistants, as a recent merger meant working with teaching staff and learners in different venues. The benefit of this was that resources and expertise could be further shared and disseminated.


The project followed an Action Research model (McNiff, 2017) as we reviewed the situation at the beginning of the project, deciding that further improvements needed to be made in both supporting learners’ spelling skills and our own practice in use of phonics-based approaches. Following this further training was put into place for the English teaching team and Learning Support Assistants (LSAs), as we saw LSA contribution as essential to the success of the project. This built on an earlier project which had encouraged collaborative working between teaching staff and LSAs (McPartland, 2019).

Phonics-based activities were gradually introduced into teaching sessions, with participants reflecting on their impact through completing reflective Action Research Diaries, discussing the impact of the changes in regularly held team meetings and gaining learner feedback though discussion and the use of ‘exit tickets’. Additionally, learners’ work was monitored for evidence of improvement.

The activities included working with learners to break words down into syllables through saying words aloud. Although staff were initially apprehensive learners would resist this, they generally engaged well and found it useful to break down difficult words into smaller chunks. The next task was to spell the word on mini whiteboards to enable learners to identify which parts of the words they could spell. This increased their confidence and motivation as they became aware that they did have skills and work only needed to be done on a limited area. Learners would previously have given up before this approach was adopted. Using mini white boards meant that they could quickly address errors without ‘spoiling’ their workbooks, which many hated.

Sequencing strategies using Basic Code and Basic Code Plus enabled learners to match graphemes and sounds in word building which proved very popular and beneficial, as did the use of sticky note grapheme tiles which further supported word building.

Lastly we evaluated the impact of the project through a whole team meeting and action planned for the next stages to ensure the good work continued.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

One teacher described being on a “learning journey, where I want to know more…”. This sums up the crux of the project in reinvigorating teaching staff, providing them with opportunities to explore and develop their practice and consider their work with learners, and each other, in introducing and developing creative approaches. The project also provided opportunities to reflect on practice which are often limited in everyday practice.

A final evaluation event brought the team together to consider the impact of their work on both learners’ progress and their own practice. Amongst the key findings was that staff confidence in use of phonics-based approaches had grown and the team, though initially a little sceptical of approaches were, in the main, enthusiastic about their use, believing they have been beneficial for their learners. Several reported changing their teaching approaches, using new methods to support learners to improve spelling and working more collaboratively with peers and learners.

Amongst these changes were less reliance on using dictionaries to support spelling, but rather encouraging and supporting learners to figure out a spelling by supporting them in deconstructing words into syllables and sounds. This, teaching staff felt, aided retention and encouraged learners to develop their thinking skills, increase their concentration and move towards becoming more independent and confident learners as the comments in the Padlet indicate (Figure 10a-1).

The team used more interactive ways of teaching spelling such as the sticky note tiles to work with learners to identify spelling patterns. They readily identified these activities can be built into sessions as either a starter, plenary or intervention activity if required and that this was of far more benefit than whole sessions being devoted to teaching spelling.

In some ways the project changed perceptions of learners and their abilities. “I have noticed with what I would previously called ‘lazy learners’, they are more willing to try and spell a word-improved motivation/confidence”. This seems to indicate changes in both the teacher concerned and the learner.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

As the organisation operates on a number of venues it was critical to bring staff together to develop ownership of the project and create a sense of identity leading to more collaborative working and improved practice. This was facilitated through joint training and meetings.

It was difficult to find time and space for shared meetings as frequently as we would have liked due to timetabling and distance issues, but teams on different sites communicated via email and a shared Padlet (Figure 10a-2) where resources, reflective diaries, project updates, meeting minutes etc were stored and shared.

Teams within centres began to work more collaboratively, sharing resources and teaching ideas with project progress being a regular item on meeting agendas. Two members of the team in particular, one teaching English and the other both maths and English, worked closely together to ensure learning was transferred between the subject areas.

As a result of the project the organisation invited the project mentor to lead a CPD session for vocational tutors whose learners were struggling with spelling complex terminology. This was extremely successful and vocational staff have begun to use the approaches with their learners. They have been supported in this by the project’s LSAs who work with both English and vocational staff.

Team members who work on teacher and LSA training courses have introduced their learners to the principles of phonics-based approaches, enriching their experience and introducing them to a new field of learning.

Further work, however, is needed to ensure effective collaboration; joint planning, meetings and resource sharing are frequently difficult to manage in the frenetic working environment team members are engaged in. Nevertheless, the team have made progress with channels of communication being more overt than previously.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Initially there was some staff apprehension about how learners would react to the activities, but they have generally responded well to the changed practices and engaged in the activities used. Staff have reported an increase in learners’ confidence and engagement in teaching sessions.

Although it is too early to measure impact accurately in terms of achievement, there have been some early successes with two staff members reporting improvements in pass rates for the ‘reading exam’ with one learner gaining 96%. Significant improvements have also been evidenced in Functional Skills maths learners’ spelling of mathematical terms.

Many activities used were new to learners and amongst the comments received were: “I never would have thought of it like that” as one learner stated when asked to break up a word into sounds. Other learners liked the activities because they felt they made them able to ‘spell better’ as they were thinking more about the word and gaining confidence from spelling most of the word correctly. They were able to apply their learning in English sessions to other subjects. An excellent example of this is Dale who had learned the basic principles in English sessions then used them in his maths classes.

Not all learners readily engaged, however, and there were sometimes mixed responses as indicated in feedback from a vocational group. Overall, though project members have reported improvements in their learners’ work with the main benefit being growth in confidence and willingness to ‘have a go’ at spelling words they would previously have avoided. Even parents have commented on their children’s growth in confidence which has been very pleasing.

Learning from this project

Teaching staff and LSAs have reported a number of significant changes to their practice which include:

  • Standing back and allowing learners time to try and work out spellings by sounding out the word and discussing the spelling. Previously learners would have been given the answer or instructed to look the word up in a dictionary.
  • Being adaptable by using naturally occurring opportunities to use phonics- based activities to meet learners’ needs as they arise.
  • Embedding phonics activities into sessions as starter or plenary activities. The team agreed it was vital to carry out the activities regularly in small chunks to reinforce learning, rather than have whole sessions devoted to phonics.
  • That phonics-based approaches can be used across the curriculum. An example of this is using phonics to enable learners to spell mathematical terms. Project members have also supported vocational staff encouraging the use of word breakdown for spelling complicated vocational terminology.
  • It takes time, but it is time worth spending, to support students to use the phonics-based approaches. For some it helped to demystify spelling and gave them vital tools to improve their work.

Project participants are keen to continue with the work begun and freely admit that the work needs to be on-going to firmly embed it into practice and rigorously evaluate its impact. Staff should be given further opportunities to develop their practice in the use of phonics-based approaches.

Many of the learners we work with have met with difficulties in their educational lives and lack confidence in their abilities. They, therefore, are often demotivated and have a fear of making ‘mistakes’ which makes them reluctant to commit to learning. Although the number of learners involved in the project is relatively small, it is possible to see significant changes in their work and approach to learning now.