Did you finish that sandwich? Using structured sequential phonics with adult literacy learners

Islington Adult Community Learning

This project tested the use of That Reading Thing (Millar, 2020), a linguistic phonics literacy intervention for teens and adults, in one-to-one sessions with Entry Level 2 literacy learners during the COVID-19 pandemic, both online and face to face. It demonstrated that adults with reading and spelling challenges made more progress using this approach than we would normally see in a group class context.

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


This project had an initial aim of developing a range of phonics-based resources using the ETF Phonics Toolkit (UCL/CCC, 2019) but the COVID-19 pandemic forced a re-evaluation both in the project and the way that we delivered the lessons for learners studying Functional Skills English at Entry Level 2.

I am a Curriculum Manager and literacy teacher at Islington Adult Community Learning, the adult learning department within Islington Council in London. We serve the multi-cultural inner London borough with a range of adult learning programmes including ESOL, English, Maths, Family Learning, Digital Skills and Employability. We have approximately 2000 enrolments per year and deliver with a range of partners and from a range of community venues throughout the borough.

I trialled the That Reading Thing (TRT) phonics programme initially face to face in one- to-one sessions with a number of my learners, all at Entry level 2, some with formal diagnoses of dyslexia but all with spelling challenges that seem to be consistent with what I recognise as dyslexia.

I had first encountered TRT at the launch of the ETF Phonics Toolkit but it didn’t seem to be compatible with the class-based delivery model that most organisations use at Entry Level for literacy learners. The pandemic made it impossible to meet as a group so it was an ideal opportunity to trial using TRT and TST (the related spelling approach) with the appropriate learners.


We wanted to support these learners to make progress with reading and spelling and to feel more confident in their abilities.

Many of our adult learners have significant literacy difficulties, such that their level of reading and spelling seriously impacts their everyday lives. Most of the learners I use TRT with had stronger reading than writing skills, and all avoided writing if they could help it. Some had created their own coping and masking strategies, for example using voice notes instead of WhatsApp.

We wanted to see how our learners progressed using TRT and TST in one-to-one sessions, in comparison to regular group classes.

It had long been a frustration as a teacher of Functional Skills Entry Level 2 classes that learners with spelling challenges (some with diagnosed dyslexia, some not) did not thrive in class settings. I have always taught in London and my classes were often a 50:50 split between learners that I think were dyslexic and second language learners who definitely were not. The learners in most Entry Level 2 groups were all quite different in terms of their prior knowledge of phonics strategies for reading and spelling and therefore a completely phonics approach would not have been appropriate for the whole group, but I knew that for these dyslexic learners to make progress they would need some structured way of attacking spelling.

Spelling and reading improve at a similar rate during the early levels of TRT making the method suitable for these dyslexic learners.


The launch of the ETF Phonics Toolkit provided a clear structure for using phonics with our learners and TRT is underpinned by the same linguistic phonics principles. However, it was only when we were not allowed to meet as a group during the COVID-19 pandemic that I was able to put it into practice and see the progress that learners made.

TRT Foundation Level boards

TRT Foundation Level boards

My time with the learners using TRT was determined by the various lockdowns during 2020 and 2021. I first started using TRT in hourly one-to-one meetings in a community centre in Islington in October 2020. From the end of the Christmas term in December 2020 we were unable to meet in person. Of the group of six learners in this study four  were able to get online and classes continued for them. The other two didn’t have the skills or hardware to get online so I didn’t meet them again until May 2021, although we stayed in touch using phone, SMS and WhatsApp.

Delivery of the sessions followed the TRT programme (see Appendix 4), albeit my learners needed a noticeably slower pace than the young people for whom it was developed. TRT is tightly structured so a learner takes in only a little of new information at each of the 30 levels and the words get a bit more complex with each level. The starting level includes multisyllabic words like ‘upset’, ‘rapid’ and ‘fantastic’ so adult learners do not feel patronised by the vocabulary.

The programme allows learners to progress as quickly as they can until they get stuck, then the teacher uses consistent prompts to help them become unstuck in that moment. The hope is that they internalise the prompt as a tool for reading and spelling unfamiliar words.

When we went online, I had to develop resources that could be shared on screen via Zoom but some of the activities were not possible (primarily using ‘puzzle pieces’ for the learners to build words) owing to software restrictions on our laptops. These kinaesthetic activities were certainly missed online but learners appreciated the opportunity to continue their studies even in this restricted form.

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

The takeaway for me as an Entry Level 2 literacy teacher has been unlearning everything I had been trying with these learners. No more clever mnemonics (which I now understand adds pressure to working memory), no more ‘helpful’ shortcuts to spelling. What made the biggest difference to my learners is adherence to the prompts thus ensuring learners were consistently practising saying the sounds associated with the graphemes they were seeing (for reading) and breaking words down into their component syllables and sounds for spelling.

I also learned the value of being consistent in asking learners to say the sounds and not letter names so that they stopped the habit of using only visual strategies and instead engaged both their ears and their eyes for spelling and reading.

Learners that previously had no real plan or tools to help them read or spell were now very quickly able to attack words and have a fighting chance of spelling them correctly, regardless of a word’s length.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Our usual delivery model at this level is one or two classroom sessions per week with relatively small class sizes (10 typically) held in a community venue such as a library. We would usually follow the Functional Skills curriculum and I would normally do some class-based phonics but keep it very general as certain things would not be relevant to all learners in the group.

However, following the success of TRT I am proposing a change to the delivery model for Functional Skills Entry Level 1 and Entry Level 2. We will now offer TRT one-to-one sessions for selected learners that have spelling challenges to run alongside the normal classes. We will fund these sessions as Additional Learning Support rather than teaching.

Two colleagues at Islington ACL have taken the TRT training course and see the value of the approach and are incorporating it in their practice. One colleague said they

“found it easy to follow and probably, with a bit of practice, looks to be very effective”.

Another fed back that

“even after one session, [their learners were] beginning to get it.”

One is incorporating phonological awareness activities alongside TRT due to her learners’ needs (see Appendix 2).

I also delivered an online inset day session to the whole staff team which was well received and raised awareness of dyslexia and memory-friendly strategies to support spelling.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Learners’ progress using TRT

Learners’ progress using TRT

TRT begins with an initial assessment to determine at what pace you should proceed through the course. It consists of three pages of word lists, increasing in complexity. There are 15 words on each page and the learner reads the words as the teacher records their responses, stopping if they make three errors in a row. None of my learners managed to continue beyond the first page. I re-did the assessment with all six of the learners some weeks into the course to check on their progress, because one learner still doubted whether he was getting better.

The table shows the learners’ progress using TRT. It struck me that when using my previous spelling strategies (such as words within words and mnemonics) I would not have seen such fast progress.

I noticed that the strategy most of these learners had when faced with spelling a new word was to look up and to the left, as if trying to ‘see’ the word or to create a blank canvas where the word may appear. All my learners have a bank of words they can spell depending on their experiences. Most have family names they can rattle off easily, addresses, some learners that work have complex vocational vocabularies and some have words associated with hobbies or interests. Learner B knows how to spell the names of all the racecourses in the country but was delighted to find that the ‘th’ in Bath could help him spell

Learner B

Learner B

Smithsonian (as in the museum!) I noticed that any words outside of their bank of familiar words were disconnected from the rest of the language. They had simply memorised strings of letter names. TRT starts to convert the sounds they hear into letters and gives them a strategy to turn the squiggles on a page into sounds.

Learner B said to me very early on in the classes that he didn’t think he would ever be able to write a sentence. A few weeks later he wrote (and spelt perfectly) the sentence ‘Did you finish that sandwich?’ and included the question mark correctly. He was absolutely delighted, took a picture of the board to show his family and has agreed that I can buy him an exercise book so he can keep a weekly diary.

Learner N

Learner N

Learner N is doing a mentoring course and needs to write short essays. Her spelling is a challenge but she also gets confused by full stops and capital letters and says that thinking about spelling and sentences means she gets everything confused. Her confidence in her spelling has now improved and, perhaps because this has freed up working memory, it has allowed her to work on

Image of learners text

Learners text

her punctuation. She recently managed to correctly spell and punctuate the sentence ‘I hate this job. I want to quit.’ She is much more confident and says she is now able sometimes to help her Year 5 (aged 10) daughter with her homework.

Two learners also sent me some text they had written, one for another course they were doing and one for a report at work. Both texts demonstrated some issues with grammar and punctuation that you might expect at Entry Level 2 but the spelling was excellent (see Appendix 3).

I would also highlight learner M who had previously tried many times to improve her spelling with little success but had done so after only three hours with TRT. She has a long way to go but was encouraged by the improvement.

Learning from this project

I am completely converted to using TRT as a one-to-one tool to improve spelling at Entry Level 1 and 2. Alongside the usual literacy classes I think it will allow learners to address their main challenges and enable them to progress into better jobs, help their kids at school and make smarter choices in the betting shop. Adult literacy is about so much more than passing exams and these examples remind us of the importance of literacy for social inclusion.

I have certainly found that the pace I need to work at may be different with my older learners than the TRT programme recommends, but they need more recap and reassurance that they are improving. They would see more of a tangible improvement if they were also attending group classes at the same time because they would be putting their new skills into practice with peers.

The model of running one-to-one sessions alongside group classes is one that I will champion and look forward to monitoring next year. I certainly feel that these six learners I have worked with would struggle with the new Entry Level 2 Functional Skills spelling assessment without the intervention of TRT.


Millar, T., (2020). That Reading Thing: a complete course for teaching young people and adults to read. 4th ed. Stalashen Press.

UCL IoE & ccConsultancy (2019) Post – 16 Phonics Approaches: A Toolkit, London: ETF.