Phonics in the vocational classroom

Education and Training Collective

This project builds on work previously undertaken by English and maths teachers using phonics-based approaches to improve learners’ English skills (OTLA 6, 2020). We extended our work to include vocational teachers and their learners. Vocational teachers at the college were introduced to phonics-based approaches and encouraged and supported in using them to enhance their learners’ vocational literacy.

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


Redcar and Cleveland College, part of the Education Training Collective Group, operates in an area of social deprivation with lower-than-average academic performance. Our learners, like many FE learners, struggle with literacy which frequently inhibits progress in their subject specialist area. Additionally, learners often have low self-esteem, a history of underachievement and many barriers to learning.

This report discusses approaches the project team used to build on previous work, extending the project to vocational teachers seeking to improve their learners’ vocational literacy. The English team worked with vocational teachers enabling them to gain skills, knowledge and understanding of phonics-based approaches to use with their learners to enhance, not only their literacy skills but, importantly, their confidence and self-belief.

As a result of the project, vocational teachers introduced phonics-based approaches into their teaching practice, leading to improved learner performance. Additionally, they extended their own skills and confidence in embedding literacy practices.


Our intention was to address several significant issues:

  • As one vocational teacher stated; “poor English skills is the biggest barrier holding our learners back”. Therefore, we wanted to enhance vocational learners’ literacy skills and limited confidence through introducing phonics-based approaches. Many of these learners have poor attendance at English sessions, are reluctant to engage in activities and sometimes display inappropriate behaviour. They often fail to understand the relevance of good literacy skills and over-rely on teachers or Learning Support Assistants (LSAs). They are generally reluctant to use vocational terminology both orally and, especially, in written work, which further inhibits progress.

    Learner Journey

    Learner Journey

  • We were aware that many vocational teachers lack confidence, not only in supporting their learners’ literacy skills, but in their own literacy abilities. By introducing them to phonics-based principles and practices, and supporting them throughout the project, we intended to enable them to confidently embed literacy into their teaching so they could support learners more effectively and improve their practice.
  • Through encouraging and supporting increased collaboration between the English and vocational teams, we intended to ensure learning was relevant to learners’ needs, whilst strengthening relationships between the teams which would be mutually beneficial.
  • Lastly, partaking in the project would support the team’s personal and professional development, encouraging them to recognise and undertake educational research as part of their everyday teaching.


We followed an Action Research process (McNiff, 2017):

  • We reviewed learning from OTLA 6 (2020), selecting a project team of English teachers and vocational teachers from Early Years, Hair and Beauty and Sports Studies. We later included Foundation Learning and the English Progress Coach, as engagement from some vocational teachers was limited.
  • An external expert, Tricia Millar, provided specialist training, introducing vocational teachers to phonics-based approaches and their potential for improving learners’ literacy. Tricia provided support throughout the project.
  • Vocational teachers then observed experienced English teachers using phonics-based activities. This was

    Screenshot from the Post-16 Phonics Toolkit

    reinforced by a buddying system with English teachers continuing to support vocational colleagues.

  • Vocational teachers gradually introduced phonics-based activities into their classrooms, often with the English teacher present to support them. Shared observations and meetings continued with vocational teachers gradually gaining confidence.
  • Activities were multi-sensory: Words were broken into syllables, with learners encouraged to say them aloud (Appendix 2). Learners next wrote the syllables onto individual whiteboards in separate word boxes of one grapheme per box, pronouncing the sounds as they wrote, aiding recognition of grapheme-sound relationships. They were encouraged to identify parts of the words spelled correctly, building confidence with the realisation they perhaps only needed to improve limited areas. We saw recognising success and building confidence as crucial in motivating learners to continue with the activities.
  • Grapheme tiles and sticky notes were used to support word building (Appendix 3). Learners moved the tiles to form whole words which reinforced grapheme-sound relationships. Picture matching activities (Appendix 4) enabled learners to understand the meaning of words as well their spelling and pronunciation. Exit tickets and learner interviews were used to gain learner feedback.
  • New words were slowly introduced with teachers linking new to previous learning. Learners began to recognise spelling patterns, letter sequences and useful prefixes and suffixes, using examples from the Phonics Toolkit (see below, ETF, 2019) as a model. They were also encouraged to keep personal glossaries of key words appropriate to their learning.
  • Teachers kept reflective journals to review progress and regularly assessed learners’ work to gauge progress (Appendix 5).

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

Most of the vocational teachers were unfamiliar with phonics-based approaches, not having encountered them in their education or teacher training. They initially struggled but appreciated the specialist training and ongoing support they received. They admitted to making a slow start but grew in confidence using the strategies more frequently as an integral part of their teaching sessions. As one teacher stated; “it’s good to go out of your comfort zone and be open to new learning”. This positive attitude is an essential element of continuing professional development and one the project management team sought to foster.

Several teachers indicated learning new approaches gave them deeper insights into learners’ feelings when confronted with new and challenging material and activities, as this was exactly what they were having to do. They were increasingly aware of the importance of avoiding cognitive overload (Sweller, 2010) and gradually building learners’ knowledge and understanding to reinforce learning. This has increased teachers’ knowledge of their own and learners’ learning processes.

The majority felt using phonics-based strategies should be part of every teacher’s practice and appreciated the value of taking time to work on spelling and reading issues, rather than pressing on and largely ignoring the problem, hoping the English team would address it later. This meant they no longer saw teaching of spelling, reading and writing as stand-alone activities or the responsibility of the English team, but as worth integrating into their sessions to promote learners’ vocational literacy development. One teacher, in particular, stated he had improved his pronunciation of vocational terms, making the sounds clearer to learners, which helped their spelling.

Teachers believed they had increasing confidence and enthusiasm for teaching, taking part in a research project gave time and space for reflecting on practice and identifying future actions. Additionally, they developed toolkits for supporting learners, actively seeking and listening to their feedback which improved working relationships, increasing learner involvement in the project.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

In the hectic world of FE, it is often challenging for colleagues from different teams to meet and work together effectively. Striving to build collaboration and open up channels of communication was a major aim of this project.

English team members, experienced in using phonics-based approaches, provided ongoing support to colleagues. Following initial phonics training, they invited vocational colleagues to visit their classrooms to observe how they embedded phonics activities. They met regularly with vocational teachers, providing advice and guidance. Additionally, English teachers have visited vocational teachers’ classrooms to both observe their phonics practice and support learning, which has been mutually beneficial.

This shared practice, although time-consuming, has been integral to the success of the project, enabling vocational teachers to grow in confidence whilst still having support at hand when necessary. Significantly, the process has not been one-sided, as both English and vocational teachers have encountered new teaching strategies and classroom management approaches, gaining insights into how learners can be effectively supported. Learners, too, loved seeing their vocational teachers taking on the role of student. This was particularly apparent when Natalie (Programme Lead) worked with Lee, demonstrating phonics approaches while he looked on and adopted the learner role (See Appendix 5, Teacher Reflection 3)

Team members engaged in both sharing and developing resources and reflective activities, further increasing their professional development and mutual respect. Teaching sessions were planned to reinforce learning, with learners actively encouraged to recall their phonics learning from previous sessions. Team members have become working colleagues, gaining valuable insight into challenges each team faces and how these could be overcome.

The team worked closely with LSAs and Progress Coaches who reinforced individual learning, providing any necessary ongoing support. The team valued this, recognising the importance of teachers and LSAs working effectively, thus consolidating work from our previous OTLA 3 project (ETF, 2018).

Without this active collaboration, continuing support and ongoing encouragement from the English team it is unlikely vocational teachers would have engaged so actively in the project.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

As in our OTLA 6 project, there was concern vocational learners may be unwilling to engage with phonics. Many

Image showing Kirsty who won a National Talent for Writing Award and her work is to be published in a Young Writers’ Anthology

National Talent for Writing Award

learners had previously openly expressed their dislike of English and reluctance to attend sessions. The majority lack self-confidence, have had chequered educational histories and many barriers to learning. Aaron, for example, was quite open in stating that he initially hated English and would leave sessions if he thought the work was too hard for him. He is now one of our shining stars, gaining many skills and qualifications and is only too willing to share his learning and enthusiasm for English with others (see Case Study, Appendix 6).

Another major success story belongs to Kirsty who has undergone a transformation since coming to college. She initially lacked self-belief, was withdrawn, extremely anxious and reluctant to put pen to paper. After working with phonics-based approaches over the last two years, and receiving support, she is hardly recognisable as the same individual. She has grown in confidence, actively contributes to lessons and, above all, enjoys her literacy work. So much so that she has now won a national Talent for Writing Award and her work is to be published in a Young Writers’ Anthology (See Appendix 6).

Learners generally enjoyed the activities provided and now see them as an integral and important part of vocational sessions. Foundation Learners, for example, have demanded more challenging work from their teacher, a very different attitude from the beginning of the project (See Appendix 5, Example 3). Early Years learners have shared their new learning with colleagues in placement, enjoying being able to demonstrate their enhanced understanding of phonics. They too asked for more information resulting in Rebecca (Programme Deputy) leading an additional information session for them (Appendix 7). Sports Studies learners, who need to learn complex terminology have also benefitted:

“Discussion really helped my understanding and was made simpler to take in and remember”.

“The thing helped me the most is when we used post-it notes to break the spelling down…made me able to spell the words more easily”

It is especially pleasing that learners now utilise their new learning in other classroom sessions, recalling and applying earlier learning from phonics-based activities. Their teachers encouraged them to do this and it has paid dividends with learners now applying previous learning to new experiences. They are much more willing to ‘have a go’ at spelling new words and more open to constructive criticism. This is especially aided by developmental, supportive formative feedback from their teachers.

Teachers believe phonics activities have helped learners’ concentration, as they have become more active classroom participants, often supportively challenging each other – especially true of Sports learners who enjoyed an element of competition.

Learning from this project

Despite numerous challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, college closures and engaging learners in online learning, we believe we have made significant progress, enabling learners to make progress not only in English, as evidenced by examples of learners’ work (Appendix 8) but in their vocational studies too. Additionally, vocational teachers are developing their ability to introduce meaningful English activities into their sessions.

Key learning points include:

  • The importance of building on and enhancing project work previously undertaken, ensuring it continues to be used in the organisation to the benefit of all.
  • The value of including a range of colleagues and subject specialisms in project work. The project has led to greater collaboration between teams, enabling teachers to actively engage in research, thus enhancing their personal and professional practice. This provided fresh insight into learners’ needs, enhancing learning and cross-college collaboration. It was unfortunate some vocational teachers failed to significantly engage with the project; an opportunity relished by some. This may be attributable to the consequences arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, but more likely from vocational teachers’ perceived lack of English skills, their unfamiliarity with phonics-based approaches and lack of confidence in using them. They did not have the same knowledge base as the maths and English teachers who took part in OTLA 6 and needed a great deal more support.
  • These realisations clearly indicated further work is necessary to enable vocational teachers to build their skills and confidence. Consequently, a new coaching approach was piloted later in the project with the Project Lead working closely with a Foundation Studies teacher. This was particularly successful and will be a model to take the project forward in the next academic year. (See Appendix 9).
  • It has become increasingly apparent that introducing and embedding phonics-based approaches requires time and commitment to enable the approaches to become part of both learners’ and teachers’ practice. This is evident from the learners whose long involvement with phonics-based approaches has led to newfound confidence, increased enthusiasm for learning and greater self-belief. They not only actively engage in learning activities, but now support peers struggling with the new, unfamiliar approaches. Similarly, teachers, who began using phonics-based approaches in our previous project, now successfully mentor their vocational colleagues further enriching their professional development.
  • It has been challenging to tackle learners’ entrenched spelling habits but, by persevering with the strategies, they are improving and showing less reliance on others. Learners are slowly developing their strategies, gaining confidence in using and correctly spelling vocational terminology, rather than using simpler, non-vocational words.
  • Significant learning includes an increasing awareness of the need to build learners’ confidence, recognise their successes and ensure they receive the positive formative feedback so integral to their continuing engagement with the phonics approaches (Appendix 10).

We recognise there is much more work to be done to enable vocational teachers to enhance their ability to support learners’ literacy development. This must be done through planned, regular, on-going support, similar to that which has paid dividends with our long-term phonics learners. We intend to continue our work in the next academic year to firmly embed and enrich the achievements we have made to date.


Education and Training Foundation (2018) Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment: A summary of projects in the OTLA Phase 3 (North East and Cumbria) Programme, London: ETF.

Education and Training Foundation (2020) Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment: A summary of projects in the OTLA Phase 6 (English) Programme, London: ETF.

McNiff, J. (2017) Action Research: All You Need to Know, London: Sage

Sweller, J. (2010) Cognitive load theory: Recent theoretical advances. In J.L. Plass, R.Moreno & R. Brunken (Eds.) Cognitive load theory (p. 29-47). Cambridge University Press.

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