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'It Sounds Funny But It Works' An Adult Literacy Tutor's Experience of Using Phonics With Adult Basic Learners


Angela Cahill Angela has over eight years' experience as a literacy, numeracy and family learning tutor and currently works as a Resource Tutor with Louth and Meath Education and Training Board (LMETB) in Drogheda, Republic of Ireland. In this role, Angela combines teaching with a learner and tutor support role. Angela has recently completed her M.A. in Education with Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). The study described here was undertaken as part of a small scale research dissertation project for the M.A. under the supervision of Dr. Maeve O'Grady


'It sounds funny but it works' was a comment made by one of the people in my class regarding the use of phonics and specifically, nonsense words, as part of their reading and spelling instruction. The opportunity to conduct a short ten week research project, as part of my Masters in Education, gave me the chance to examine the value of using phonics in the adult basic education (ABE) classroom. I was unhappy with the way that I had used phonics on an ad hoc basis previously and felt that I could not make a decision as to its value, having never really used it in a systematic and consistent manner. I welcomed the opportunity to critically examine practice and to reconcile to some extent whether the teaching of a de-contextualised skill such as phonics can sit alongside a social practice ethos.


The adult literacy landscape in Ireland is predominantly conceptualised as one of social practice (Stewart, 2011). The National Adult Literacy Agency's (NALA) definition of literacy is;


'Literacy involves listening and speaking, reading, writing, numeracy and using everyday technology to communicate and handle information. But it includes more than the technical skills of communications: it also has personal, social and economic dimensions. Literacy increases the opportunity for individuals, families and communities to reflect on their situation, explore new possibilities and initiate change' (NALA, 2012)


Thus, literacy is recognised as more than a set of technical skills to be acquired. As Stewart mentions, 'the purposes, uses and contexts of literacy practice are fundamental to literacy development in Irish basic education' (2011, p.45). So does phonics instruction have a role to play in the literacy classroom in Ireland?


Phonics is an approach to teaching reading and spelling that is based on the association of sounds with letters. English is an alphabetic language meaning that written English uses letters (graphemes) to represent the sounds (phonemes) in words. Decoding involves using letter-sound correspondence to recognise words in print (phonics), essential in the reading process. Phonemic awareness is the ability to detect individual sounds within words and is important in spelling.


There is compelling evidence that using a systematic phonics approach with children in early literacy instruction promotes phonemic awareness, the development of decoding skills and results in better outcomes in word identification (Burton, Davey, Lewis, Ritchie and Brooks, 2008). Research from both the US and the UK suggests that phonics has a role to play in reading instruction with adults (Kruidenier, 2002; Kruidenier, 2010; McShane, 2005; Burton et al, 2008). The US research identifies four components of the reading process, alphabetics (incorporating phonics and phonemic awareness), fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension, as forming an evidence-based framework for teaching reading to adults in basic education settings (McShane, 2005). Most adult reading research in the US is quantitative in approach using random controlled trials and large sample sizes. Very few qualitative findings, with the exception of Massengill's work (2004, 2013), have emerged from the US. The 'Phonics Project' in the UK (Burton et al, 2008) investigated the effect of a phonics intervention strategy with adults. The authors reported significant progress in reading comprehension and spelling. Most importantly, the authors, using qualitative measures,


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