Using audio and embedded phonics in online Functional Skills and ESOL classes

Haringey Adult Learning Service

This project aimed to extend the work of our OTLA 6 project (HALS, 2020), using phonics to support our English classes. All lessons were delivered online. We found that ESOL learners and Functional Skills English learners benefitted from the use of audio and embedded phonics in the classroom.

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


Haringey Adult Learning Service (HALS) is a Local Authority service for learners aged 19+. The service runs programmes in the areas of Functional Skills, ESOL, Well-Being, Career Development and Family Learning. Since March 2020 all learning has taken place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All learning offered is mapped to the priorities of the Local Authority.

HALS took part in an OTLA 6 Post-16 Phonics project. The intent of the OTLA 7 project was to use audio as a key tool to further embed phonics into our Functional Skills English lessons and our ESOL spelling and grammar workshops.

It was also hoped that good practice in this project would be shared with a partnership organisation, Islington Adult and Community Learning Service.
The project lead (who also teaches Functional Skills English) collaborated in this research with an ESOL tutor and a volunteer who assists with ESOL lessons.


Our OTLA 6 project utilised phonics approaches to address under-performance in our Functional Skills English lessons, and spelling, punctuation and grammar were identified as particular barriers to success. Designed to build confidence, study skills and grit in learners with low literacy levels, the project secured improved achievement and engagement. However, as the project was relatively time-limited, there were limitations on the number of tutors involved and, therefore, there was room for further development in terms of the impact across the service. However, an unanticipated finding was the high level of engagement, interest and achievement from ESOL learners and, therefore, we wanted to build on this and continue the good practice identified in OTLA 6.

COVID-19 has entrenched existing inequalities and created additional barriers for learners with low level literacy skills. Many of our learners, across Functional Skills English classes and ESOL classes, struggle with reading and spelling and also have poor digital skills. These difficulties can negatively impact many areas of their lives and can often be a barrier to passing their courses and progressing. These are the issues that we wanted to address.


The majority of the lessons were delivered online. This brought many challenges such as access to devices, connectivity issues and poor digital skills for the majority of the cohort. However, HALS started teaching online in March 2020, prior to the project starting, so tutors and some learners already had some experience of learning online.

Early on in the project we identified The Drop-in Series by Frances Woodward (2021), a set of decodable readers for adults, that formed the basis for the majority of the teaching and learning in ESOL lessons and some Entry Level lessons. These readers are very simple stories for adults which are usually used in structured and sequential phonics lessons but we found them useful in our embedded phonics and mixed-methods approaches.

They were used:

  • in class to read for meaning and decode unfamiliar words
  • for independent study to listen and track text and to underpin pronunciation for learners with additional primary languages
  • as homework to write sentences using words from texts which all contained the same sound such as /ae/ in ‘say’, ‘cake’, ‘table’, ‘pain’ etc
  • in subsequent lesson spelling tests based on words and sounds from text
  • in ESOL lessons for writing stories inspired by the audio.

The use of audio was central to this. The readers were made into audio using PowerPoint and learners were asked to listen and read along with the text in their own time. This approach proved so popular that learners asked for it to be applied to other resources. For instance, the Entry level 2 spelling list was broken down into sections and audio was added. (Appendix 2).

Teachers used phonics approaches as a springboard for improved reading, spelling, writing, language acquisition and to achieve accreditation in Functional Skills English. The different approaches included One-to-Many word sorting and word stretching from Post-16 Phonics Approaches: A Toolkit (ETF, 2021) and others that had been developed by HALS during OTLA 6.

  • One-to-Many word sorting activities were key. For example, after reading a text, learners would be tasked with Image of a PowerPoint presentation slidefinding all of the words containing the grapheme and sorting them into a table according to the sound they made in the word. This helped learners to notice the different sounds that are commonly spelled such as ‘bread’, ‘great’ and ‘to read’. This process was used for many other graphemes, including . (Appendix 3)
  • Word-stretching activities helped learners to build their vocabulary and notice patterns for spelling. For example, ‘fun’ became ‘funny’ and then ‘funniest’ and ‘dirt’ became ‘dirty’ and then ‘dirtiest’.The English and ESOL teams worked together from the onset of the project to provide a two-pronged approach to delivering phonics. In English classes, phonics was embedded from the initial assessment stage and continued throughout the teaching of courses. A spelling diagnostic was introduced in the first week of teaching. It was a test based on ‘difficult’ words such as homophones and those containing digraphs or silent letters. Results of tests identified which graphemes to concentrate on.

Phonics was applied based on need and not imposed on learners who did not have spelling issues. To this end, flipped learning was used partially in lessons for some learners, whilst others concentrated on phonics spelling and reading strategies.

In ESOL lessons, a greater emphasis was put on pronunciation and reading fluency and the audio resources helped to model good practice in this. This was used in conjunction with resources to support the learning of spelling through phonics activities like sorting the various spellings of a sound. See Appendix 4 for our lesson on ways of spelling the sound /oe/. Digital learning was embedded throughout, with learners expected to use links to websites, such as Edmodo, in their learning.

Image showing part of a lesson evaluation form

Part of a lesson evaluation form

Learners enjoyed these activities and said they found them useful. The image below shows part of a lesson evaluation form.

A holistic approach was also taken in the English department where learners were encouraged to think not just of the sounds in a word, but also what the word meant, what its purpose was in the text, and also to think about how the spelling of a word impacts on its word class.

In class, phonics was delivered alongside grammar activities and other spelling strategies such as ‘i before e’ and ‘silent letters’. Phonics was embedded into most lesson activities. For example, after reading through extracts or doing spelling tests, the teacher would always ask the learners what they noticed about the spelling patterns. In a lesson, where learners were practising writing out the numbers from one to ten, they said they found ‘six’ and ‘ten’ easy to spell (because they were phonetically predictable). They also noticed that ‘five’ and ‘nine’ both contained the /ie/ sound spelled using the split digraph . Making these links aided their spelling. All learners said that ‘eight’ was the hardest to spell, but they recognised that it was a homophone with ‘ate’. These strategies also served as a springboard to other things such as:

  • enhanced digital literacy as learners were regularly asked to use emailed hyperlinks (for example)
  • better grammatical awareness
  • improved knowledge of homophones

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

The teachers involved in the project have a better understanding of strategies that help their learners, particularly:

  • who benefits from phonics approaches
  • how phonics can be embedded in lessons
  • the benefits of audio for language acquisition and spelling

In the process of the research project we also discovered the benefits of writing activities which are inspired by stories or things that are meaningful to the learners. You can see acrostic poems based on learner names in Appendix 6.

The teachers also have a renewed understanding of the importance of adult learners having access to independent learning so they can learn at their own pace and access developmental resources. Digital resources (links to websites) and audio tools have been invaluable. These were discovered due to the sudden, necessary move to online learning but, nevertheless, they are learning points that we will carry forward even if we move back to face-to-face teaching.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The anticipated collaboration with Islington ACL did not take place due to the constraints of the pandemic. However, within our own organisation cross-curricula working between the ESOL and English departments did take place as a result of working on the project. This is a significantly positive outcome of the project because of the diverse backgrounds of learners attending courses. In essence, English classes are made up mainly of previous ESOL learners. In a class of 14 learners, it is not unusual to have 10 learners with a different primary language. Therefore, when effective collaboration takes place between the two departments, learners benefit from two distinct skill sets.

The project lead held regular monthly meetings to discuss the progress of the project and also delivered joint training sessions. Initially the training sessions were open to all staff. However, later training sessions were targeted at ESOL tutors. The reason for this was twofold: interest in the project from ESOL tutors was greater and the size of ESOL provision at HALS far exceeds the English provision and therefore the need was greater.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Learners were very enthusiastic about audio. They said:

“I can listen and practice when my children are in bed.”

“It helps me pronounce the words and then I can spell them.”

Three of the four learners in the Entry Level class had English as an additional language, so words had to be decoded. For example, in a lesson where we were looking at split digraphs, a learner questioning the meaning of the word ‘fake’ led to a discussion on ‘fake news’ see Appendix 5. This showed how using a phonics approach to decode words can be empowering. The learner chose to use this word in a sentence and, although the spelling and word order is unclear, she felt confident enough to tackle the complex concept of ‘fake news’. This is also a good example of how phonics works with an understanding of ‘adult literacy as social practice’ (Papen, 2005). The phonics activities led to real-world discussions, rather than just being spelling drill activities that learners may have found boring.

Image showing an example of one learner’s poem

Learner’s poem

The audio Entry Level 2 spelling lists were divided into sections and turned into audio PowerPoints. The learners not only found the words easier to spell but, as context was added in the case of homophones, they also gained greater understanding of the meaning of words (Appendix 2). The audio decodable readers were also used as writing prompts. The Entry Level 2 Functional Skills writing paper contains lots of instructions which learners felt overwhelmed by. They found it easier to write after using the decodable readers as a prompt. All learners achieved their Entry level 2 writing exam on their first attempt. Writing took place in every session using decodable readers with the result that learners were less intimidated by the writing exam. See Appendix 9, where the learner’s fantastic progress over time is evident.

In English lessons, the use of phonics strategies was taught alongside word classes and learners were encouraged to think about a word’s ‘function’ in a sentence. For instance, the words ‘bought’ and ‘brought’ both contain the same phoneme and grapheme but they are also both irregular verbs which added greater depth to the lesson.

ESOL learners found rhyme quite liberating because they were able to discover a wealth of new words which have the same sound at the end. Language acquisition was a key outcome from the project and increased confidence in learners’ spoken as well as written abilities. An example of one learner’s poem can be seen and further examples can be seen in Appendix 6.

Learning from this project

A key finding of the project is that phonics approaches, when delivered strategically, can have a very positive impact on learners’ spelling, reading fluency and language acquisition.

Learners benefit greatly when phonics is embedded into their regular curriculum. Phonics delivery does more than just help learners spell words. This is crucial otherwise phonics can be imposed on learners that do not need it. This is also emphasised in the Post-16 Phonics Toolkit, (ETF 2019, p.15). Tutors need to see phonics as a valuable tool that can be used, as opposed to yet another subject to teach, (ETF 2019, p.13).

The sharing of phonics resources that work is important, as tutors may not have the time or the confidence to make their own. However, the biggest challenge is to find websites that refer to graphemes rather than letter names. Two excellent resources for this are and which includes both audio and video pronunciation from British English speakers.

Using audio as a teaching tool gives learners agency over their learning. It was initially thought that audio would be a good tool to use online as it provided repetition of sounds. However, it emerged that learners liked audio because it gave them greater access to learning.

Audio also helped learners with concept checking. Retention can be an issue with learners with low levels of literacy and they found audio PowerPoints could be listened to again to consolidate their learning.

Going forward, we will be consistently using audio and embedding phonics into our practice and we now have a bank of phonics resources and approaches that we can use. This will also be useful for personalising learning. For example, in the future we would feel comfortable knowing when certain resources and approaches may help address the challenges a particular learner has, even if they are studying Functional Skills Level 2, for example, rather than an Entry Level qualification. As a result of the successful outcomes of the project, HALS have also now created a new course. It is a non-accredited course for people who have significant challenges with reading or spelling but have a good level of spoken English. The number of learners on the course doubled in the first six weeks and quickly reached capacity so we are hoping to be able to extend the provision to support even more learners in the future.

References Available at: (Accessed: 27/05/2021).

Collins (2021) Collins English Dictionary. Available at: (Accessed: 27/05/2021).

Education & Training Foundation (2021) Post-16 Phonics Approaches: A Toolkit. Available at:

Haringey Adult Learning Service (2020) Final Report on the OTLA Phase 6 (English) Project- Deepening understanding of Post-16 phonics approaches. London: ETF.

Papen, U., 2005. Adult literacy as social practice. London: Routledge.

Woodward, F. Forward With Phonics | The Drop-In Series. Available at: (Accessed: 29/05/2021).