Spelling with Post-16 Phonics

Tricia Millar

Strand Lead for projects 10, 11 and 12, That Reading Thing

I started on the OTLA English project as a newcomer to Further Education and immediately embarked on a crash course in a whole new language including acronyms I may not yet have mastered.

Early days in the project also meant learning the concerns of the sector: targets, GCSE resits, changing roles and expectations of staff and generally doing more with less for thousands of learners. Learners were variously described as disengaged, vulnerable and standing on the wrong side of an educational gap or barrier.

Many commented that learners perceived themselves as failures and in need of motivation. Sometimes the barriers discussed were those of vocational tutors and support staff, experts in their own areas but with no experience of teaching English.

Across the projects, the response was a desire to build bridges, tear down barriers, equip staff, listen to learners and offer them tools to change their perception of themselves in education. As a teacher who has spent more time in youth work than the classroom, I was heartened by these person-centred approaches. Whether they were looking at a commercial tech solution or a teacher-created resource, the question was not “Does it work?” but “For whom does it work and how can it be even better?”

Practitioner-led research was equally new to me and the CPD built into the project was as fulfilling as it was necessary. Jean McNiff helped me to see that my own literacy work had the appearance of a 20-year-long action research project that is still ongoing and, when reflecting on my work, to consider influence rather than impact.

Andy Convery taught me, amongst many other things, to “make the important measurable and not the measurable important” (Yankelovich, 1972). I’m still working on weaving this newfound learning into my own professional practice.

In addition to all the unfamiliarity, this OTLA project has also allowed me to work with organisations on the speciality I bring to the sector, which is linguistic phonics approaches for older struggling readers and spellers.
Having worked with the teams who created the Post-16 Phonics Approaches toolkit (ETF, 2019) and training, this has been a great opportunity to see how both the ethos and content stand up in a range of contexts.

Fidelity and autonomy

Many years ago, in an otherwise empty indoor play area, a woman with a clipboard was watching my children and writing notes. Curious and protective, I asked what she was doing. “I’m researching how children misuse playground equipment.” Misuse? In the absence of other children, they’d been running up the tiny slide and jumping from the top, not misusing but using the equipment in a way that was just right for the situation.

In phonics programmes for children who are just learning to read, “fidelity” is a key term which means that programmes should be delivered in every classroom in the order prescribed by the publisher. However, by necessity, phonics approaches for post-16 learners stress autonomy over fidelity. Every learner comes with their own voice, their own prior knowledge and their own response to certain styles of teaching, and teachers respond to this using their own preferred models of practice.

In response, the toolkit approach offers principles, information and activities for using phonics with post-16 learners but leaves the exact resources and lessons up to the teachers. With that in mind, I came to the OTLA phonics projects not looking for ‘misuse’ but curious to see how teachers would use and adapt the approaches for their own situations.

Walking up to the starting line

Most of the participants (English teachers, functional skills tutors, vocational tutors, volunteers and frontline staff) came to the project with little experience of using Post-16 Phonics approaches. All had access to the toolkit and some had had a day or two of training during the phonics pilot phase.

The vocational tutors and other non-specialists felt they needed extra support as they had never taught spelling before; so, they were offered a hands-on spelling workshop which uses the same principles as the toolkit but incorporates some extra elements as discussed below.

Surprises & adaptations

The principles and practices of this approach to literacy are inseparable. Starting with a learner’s voice is both a tool for improving literacy and a foundational principle that puts the learner at the centre of the method. We can see from the projects’ final reports how teachers adapted the principles and practices of the toolkit for their diverse learners in classrooms, vocational workshops and an extracurricular spelling club.

We also learned and discussed the importance of some key principles, including the following:

Start with learner voice

“For post-16 learners, it is often particularly useful to start from oral language (using their own regional accent). Ask them to:
• say whole meaningful words that are in the learner’s vocabulary
• identify the sounds
• and then attach written symbols to those sounds.”
(ETF, 2019, p41)

This activity connects speech to writing for learners who have often struggled to memorise words visually. When I suggest this to tutors in the sector, there is sometimes a “not likely” response. One vocational tutor felt it was setting learners up to fail because they didn’t speak clearly. However, the projects showed how most learners, even when it was challenging, were willing to try this approach.

One success was a learner in a prison workshop who created a syllable matching activity based on his own syllabification of vocational terms. They may not be not exactly what I would say but they reflect the learner’s own best way of remembering how to spell the words and that’s the beauty of giving learners the power to start with their own voices (see Novus report).

Words as Puzzles

If it’s a complex word, treat it like a puzzle. Write the graphemes on a board or on sticky notes and have learners assemble the sounds into syllables. Then have them write the whole word and decide which part they need to work on remembering.
(ETF, 2019, p68)

If learners need more support with syllables and graphemes, the puzzle approach is a safe way to learn complex words. Limiting the graphemes takes away the likelihood of making a mistake.

A maths teacher used puzzles for teaching how to spell the names of shapes and found that students not only learnt to spell the terms but could also recall the names and identify the shapes more accurately than before the puzzle approach (see Education and Training Collective report).

Puzzle pieces (ETF, 2019, p73)

Others found that learners could make gains by focusing only on the syllables without worrying about the individual sounds. This was a surprise and I’d like to see further research into how this compares with grapheme puzzles for learning complex vocational vocabulary (see Novus report).


[Basic Code Plus provides] an idea of what a simple to complex and explicit to incidental sequence could look like. The order is important at the very beginning because it’s carefully scaffolded to build confidence in your least confident learners. As they progress, the need for structure is less.
(ETF, 2019, p46)

The toolkit suggests using this approach for learners working at Entry Level 1 or below and I was sure we had paced it just right so that people would be neither bored nor overwhelmed. However, the Haringey spelling club found they could accelerate that process when there was a low tutor-to-learner ratio. They could start with a cvc (consonant, vowel, consonant) word like ‘fun’ and get the learners to spelling ‘misunderstanding’ within the hour, a process I had envisioned would take several weeks.

They also devised their own lesson structure of starting with a text and moving towards the word level work, whereas I would have travelled in the other direction. This was a great example of how professionals can take the principles of the toolkit and create something that works both for them

Resources – built in and added on

I thought you might be interested in how I got on with my non-reader today, armed with my post-it notes and a whiteboard! It was extremely empowering for him.
(ETF, 2019, p.116)

During the rollout of phonics training across the sector, we have made the promise that teachers don’t need more than dry erase boards and sticky notes. They are representative of the Post-16 Phonics principle of allowing learners to try things out without fear of failure, as errors are easily rubbed out or switched around. Myerscough College noted that SEND/LDD learners who had previously refused to try to spell were willing to have a go on the dry erase boards. Haringey Adult Learning Service referred to whiteboards as a “safe place” and an Education and Training Collective teacher stopped using dictionaries in favour of working through words on a whiteboard. These are such simple ways to influence both learners and teachers positively.

Of course, OTLA teachers wanted to do more than work at word level. They wrote texts, created maths lessons, and revived plant identification cards amongst many other activities. The sound stories written by Haringey were especially time-consuming. I hope that, beyond the project, we will find a place to collect stories that tutors could adapt for their learners. These don’t replace authentic text but can be used as a jumping off point for exploring a phoneme or a grapheme.

I also added three additional resources which share the linguistic phonics principles of Post-16 Phonics but are not included in the toolkit.

Strength-based spelling
This involves showing learners what they already know by being a bit more explicit than in the word puzzle exercise from the toolkit as described above. It was a new way of looking at spelling and appealing to those teaching spelling for the first time.

When I asked vocational tutors for a specialist word that everyone finds difficult, an electrician offered “diaphragm”. If a learner could spell di/a/fram, then the tutor could show them that they had got 5 of the 7 graphemes correct and could then focus on remembering the spelling of /f/ as in ‘photo’ and the very unusual spelling of the /m/ sound. It was especially empowering for tutors to see that I had to search for the word in the dictionary myself, and pay close attention to the grapheme too.

However, a few learners didn’t like this approach so it would be interesting to find out if there are shared traits amongst those who find it helpful and those who don’t.

Coded vocabulary
The project was too short for most vocational tutors to gain this key skill so they were offered their words already split into syllables and graphemes (see Novus report).

Spelling Options Chart (see Haringey report)

This contains the same information as the grapheme chart in chapter 7 of the toolkit but in a format that is easier to copy. It’s also my favourite surprise adaptation because hundreds of teachers have accessed this resource but no one has mentioned using it the way the Haringey spelling club did.
Rather than using it to look up spelling possibilities, the learners used it to check off various phonemes and graphemes they had encountered in a session. It gave learners a sense of progress and proved their understanding of general concepts about how English works as a code.

Beyond the starting line

“Make the important measurable and not the measurable important.”

We haven’t yet seen Post-16 Phonics approaches tested in exam situations but we’ve seen reluctant learners having a go at spelling words they thought were beyond them, vocational tutors teaching spelling for the first time and experienced teachers trying out new and sometimes challenging ideas.

Confidence is hard to measure but it was mentioned 29 times in the four Project 10 reports, almost always in the sense of how using phonics as a tool for spelling can increase confidence in both teachers and learners.

The project participants have taken a methodology that is very new to the sector and made it their own without vast resources or experience. I hope they will carry on testing, reflecting, improving, creating and sharing as they lead the way for their learners and colleagues.