Empowering vocational tutors to develop a phonics-based approach to functional English


Working with Governors, HMPPS colleagues and partner agencies, NOVUS embeds English and maths into a wide range of chosen vocational pathways within our provision. This enables learners to gain functional skills qualifications alongside prison work.

This project aimed to enhance the collaboration between Novus colleagues and vocational instructors to ensure that embedded English provision complemented the vocational activities undertaken.

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We introduced vocational staff to light touch phonics-based strategies for spelling which they could easily embed in their sessions.

It also aimed to develop spelling resources for teaching the reading and spelling of standard and vocational words in line with the reforms to functional skills qualifications standards which can be used in the context of a vocational training environment.

Three Prisons took part: two Category C prisons from Cumbria and Lancashire and one Reception Prison from Tees and Wear. As the main education provider within the Prison Education Framework at the participating establishments, NOVUS led on the initiative and HMPPS /NOVUS vocational trainers were invited to take part in relevant, joint training events organised in two of the three participating establishments. The spelling with phonics training was delivered by the OTLA project mentor and built on previous Post-16 Phonics training delivered by the ETF.


The spelling focus of this project stemmed from site-level teaching and learning observation reports in which tutors identified frequently misspelt vocational words that were problematic for learners. We were keen to make use of the ETF’s Post-16 Phonics approaches but recognised a lack of resources created specifically for prison workshops.

Prison workshops share some characteristics with college vocational courses:
• Learners often prefer to focus on practical skills rather than “school-type” activities like spelling.
• Learners may lack confidence in their ability to read and write and don’t want that weakness to be exposed to other learners.
• Tutors, experts in their own vocational fields, have often not had training in teaching spelling but are nonetheless responsible for correct spelling on their courses.

Prison workshops are also different from traditional vocational settings:
• There is no access to the internet so we are limited to paper-based resources.
• Behaviour needs to be monitored closely especially where tools are involved
• Workshop sessions are between two hours and forty-five minutes and three hours fifteen minutes long, which is longer than most college sessions
• Learners’ level of ability within prison workshops varies from Pre-Entry to Level 2. Within a college setting, there is usually a requirement for learners to have at least Entry Level 3 in maths and English to join a vocational programme
• There can be 10-18 learners within a prison workshop which could be fewer than in a college environment, but with a more intense security risk.

We wanted to increase knowledge and access to Post-16 phonics strategies for non-English specialists by supporting vocational teachers to develop the skills and knowledge needed to support learners to read and write subject specific vocational words and to use an associated phonics metalanguage.

Our intended outcome was that learners would have access to teaching and resources that best meet their specific learning needs relevant to their vocational aspirations.


• Key project personnel met to discuss spelling needs at different establishments. HMP Lancaster Farms focused on Catering, HMP Durham, Construction and HMP Wymott, Joinery. A set of commonly misspelt words were agreed in collaboration with vocational tutors. From this a resource was created that supported vocational trainers in breaking down technical words into syllables, so that they were confident in supporting learners with this technique.

• After initial development of these vocational glossaries, vocational and functional skills staff across a range of establishments received intensive bespoke training delivered by the project mentor. This training gave staff a grounding and deeper understanding of the post-16 phonics approach. Staff who did not attend training were briefed by those who did.

• Following the training, staff were encouraged to use the glossary resource and use Post-16 phonics approaches with relevant, identified learners and reflect on their progress through a reflective diary/comments and case studies. The capture of other supportive evidence from learner ILPs, work produced, and verbal/written feedback was encouraged.

• Methodologies included one-to-one, starter activities and mini tutorials.

• It is still the aim of this project to take the phonics strategies used to develop the original approach and mirror them in other areas of vocational provision across both Cumbria and Lancashire and the Tees and Wear regions, thus developing high-quality evidence-based learning resources for different curriculum areas.

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

Historically, vocational instructors have sometimes lacked the confidence and underpinning knowledge in terms of the pedagogy of embedding Functional Skills English within their vocational area. However, following the phonics training they worked hard to develop their teaching, learning and assessment practices and their approaches were well received by learners. They were given autonomy to run with the project and trial new ideas.

They created bespoke strength-based starter activities using words from their own vocational lexicon. This motivated learners to engage with activities that had been specifically designed to address a spelling gap yet were not viewed by learners as punitive. As a result, learners fully engaged from the outset making little objection to the introduction of a non-vocational activity within a vocational setting.

Staff who attended the training and engaged in the trial said:

“I was really interested in the way you can split a word into elements and mark each bit separately, this gives a more positive outlook rather than a big X!”

“I like the fact we are not just throwing more worksheets at the men…”

“Loved the idea of the desktop wipe boards to ‘try out’ different strategies… it was simple and great for use in a secure environment!”

“The phonics trial has given me the opportunity to explore the use of language with the learners and support them in areas in which they struggle. We have achieved this through speaking and writing, by having one-to-one conversations with learners around pronunciation and developing resources to support spelling and identify how words are broken down into syllables. This has also allowed me to identify when a learner misspells a word, which syllable they are making mistakes with and then work towards individual goals with the learners. This has also enabled me to develop my own understanding of how people struggle with the English language in different ways and embed English more effectively in my lessons.”

“It was good for me as a dyslexic person, as how you say things and spell them can be very different. It highlighted what I struggle with and how to help others. I have never used this approach before, it was different.“

This was a huge leap within the tutors’ practical teaching practice and inspired one learner to create a holding activity which is now used in class. The resource supports learners by splitting into syllables commonly misspelt terms on tool requisition sheets (see Figure 10d-1).

A horticulture tutor used the approach for commonly misspelt horticultural words creating plant identification cards which he showed learners who spelt out the words together and broke them into syllables. This engaged learners who were excited and wanted more plant identification cards to be created to be used at the beginning of their session (see Figure 10d-2). This has had an impact on planning for learning with this approach now embedded into schemes of work and lesson plans.

The staff member commented:

“Yes, the trial had the effect I had hoped for. The learners were excited and wanted me to produce plant identification cards to improve their knowledge.”

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Working around a Prison regime can be challenging when it comes to delivering training, although good partnership working in this instance ensured that staff participation in instructional and training events was high. It was complex within the North East Region to arrange for vocational tutors to attend training. However, a Vocational Hub Manager from HMP Durham was able to attend. Other staff were mainly Functional Skills staff and were tasked with briefing others back at their own establishment, with three prisons in the region committing to do so.

At HMP Durham, five vocational tutors were briefed, four from construction and one from horticulture. At Lancaster Farms 12 members of staff attended the initial 3 hour training session and represented a range of vocational and academic subject areas including catering, groundworks, joinery, art and IT. Evaluative comments following these organised events/briefings were wholly positive and demonstrated a clear willingness and enthusiasm to embrace new and innovative approaches to improving both reading and spelling in a vocational setting.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

One learner worked on his spellings daily and reflected upon this on his PLP, where you can see an improvement in some spellings, including, for example, the word “finish, speaking and paint”. This focus on improvement wasn’t consistent, but progress was still demonstrated through his PLP and workbook. Early indications suggest that those involved with the phonics activities made good progress and were successful in terms of absorbing new reading and spelling strategies.

Another prisoner who benefitted from the resources was a young offender from a different construction workshop, who had not attended school, struggled with spelling and had dyslexia and ADHD (see Figure 10d-3).

The learner reflected:

“No-one has ever taught me how to break down words into syllables. I used to try and rush spelling to get it over with. Now that I take my time, it is coming along great.”

Case Study 1
A learner from the main construction department at HMP Durham, who is a challenging learner, made the following progress:
• completed a construction course at HMP Durham with some behavioural issues along the way
• engaged daily with vocational tutor to work on his spellings
• kept a record of work/progress within his workbook /PLP
• went on to a more academic course, Think Family, where he praised the previous vocational tutor’s support.
• He is now on a Changing Lives Programme working alongside the Shannon Trust daily to improve his spelling and reading.

Case Study 2
A learner within our catering workshop engaged in a series of 1:1 sessions with the instructor who used a phonics-based approach to spelling.
The learner identified spelling as a weakness and wanted to be able to correctly spell culinary terms, specifically some French words. He was very particular about his work and didn’t like spelling errors being corrected.

The learner:
• agreed to implement a spelling log at the front of his portfolio
• enjoyed using a strength-based approach, marking either letters or graphemes within the word individually to encourage and motivate.
• responded well to the adaptation as it fitted with his individual needs and he was able to demonstrate improvement in the spelling of vocationally specific words.

As a result, the learner was much happier and he even began asking for correct spellings rather than guessing. The tutor would then employ the phonics-based approach to encourage him to identify the graphemes involved rather than simply ’telling him’, evidencing a change in practice.

The training also had a positive impact on the tutor, empowering her to ‘think outside the box’ as she felt more confident in approaching English within her vocational setting. She also gained the confidence to repeat the process with other learners, adapting for individual need and linking into ILP and class profiles to further document the support and progress of the learners.

Learning from this project

Encouraging staff to try a different approach within their delivery, coupled with the introduction of a new concept, has led to their improved confidence and autonomy in terms of adapting their new-found knowledge to a variety of approaches using phonics. The teaching and training staff involved in the project have gone on to embed this approach within the pedagogy and culture of their workshops and it has become an accepted part of the session expectations. Some have grown in confidence and report feeling more equipped to adapt their strategies to best support the specific and individual needs of the learners.

Moving forward we are committed to share what we have learned as part of this project via future training events with NOVUS, HMPPS and partner colleagues, to positively affect learner outcomes in both the short and long term. By equipping learners with a sound methodology they can use to enhance their word attack and spellings skills, one which they can apply at every opportunity within their work and daily lives. We are also developing a lifelong skill, which we hope will serve them well in their future studies, employment and on release.