I recently bought Phonetics for Phonics by Maxine Burton (2011) to help me increase my understanding of phonics. I’ve decided to use a think alouds method when researching phonics as I like to try things out for myself before giving it to learners; click here for some thoughts on think alouds.

What do I know about this topic?

I know that phonics is a way to help learners decode words through sound-letters. I know that there is some debate over which works; language experience or phonics. I know that it has gone in and out of teaching vogue, and recently, there seems to be a higher precedence on using them. I know that there is a programme called Jolly Phonics, Toe by Toe and Yes We Can Read. I’m aware of others in the company I work for using Yes We Can Read, and have spoken to them briefly about it. I have a volunteer I have trained to work with learners who need 121, however there are some challenges this brings on outreach, and in terms of being able to assess success, without doing it myself.  I know about the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). I know that there are about 44 sounds, accent can affect phonics delivery, and that the problem people have are more with vowels than consonants. I have an awareness of where sounds are produced (e.g. labio-dental, fricative etc) and understand a big part of voiced and unvoiced sounds.

What do I think I will learn about this topic?

I think I’ll learn some of the answers to these questions I have:

Are there different types of phonics programme? Do some say Dolch words come first, or language which the learners will find useful? What’s the difference between the different type of phonics (synthetic/analytic) etc?

Do I understand what I just read?

Yes, and here are some points I felt interesting to make it more accessible for me in future. Burton (2011, p.8) notes that many adults have learnt the alphabet but haven’t been able to link the letters to the sounds they make. She notes that learners might be successful in reading some words, but not have the knowledge to apply their knowledge to new words:

‘Even learners who are able to ‘sound out’ the letters, in the sense of connecting certain letters with certain sounds may still struggle to blend these sounds into words. This is a very specific skill and to the beginner reader it is not immediately obvious’. From experience using the Yes We Can Read programme, I first found it necessary for learners to know the majority of the initial sounds (26 – based on the alphabet rather than number of sounds which actually exist), which I think helped learners to use their prior knowledge of English, especially if they know the letter names. Some, from my experience, have been rather surprised to find out that there are (about) 44 sounds, and by blending letters together, they create new sounds.

Once my learners felt comfortable with this, they hurdled quickly into blending 2 letter words, most without major problems. Being explicit about blending, and ensuring that I followed the same process for each word I think helps the learner know what to do and when – they have a difficult enough time concentrating on learning the sounds, nevermind when to repeat, not repeat etc so I think consistency is the key to moving ahead quickly.

Burton (2011, p.9) states, ‘if word recognition is a prerequisite for the ultimate comprehension, then it seems perverse to withhold or downgrade knowledge of phonic techniques as a useful first step in decoding, and this empowering learners to become independent readers’. She believes ‘strongly that phonics should be the first (but not the only) word identification strategy used’.

Chapter 2 discusses ‘why does phonetics matter for phonics?’ She notes that many teachers don’t have an understanding of phonics and that ‘beginner readers and writers above all need highly skilled teaching from teachers who are totally secure in their knowledge of language’. Unfortunately, this highlights one of my main issues with adult teacher training; you just don’t get to know what you need to know quickly enough, and is the main reason why I have felt so uncomfortable. I hated going into a classroom, not knowing what I was doing. There were many points which I thought, and sill think, I have done well, but I’m surprised that you’re trusted with that level of responsibility so soon, and is not something which I have observed happens in quite the same way if you train for a different type of teacher role. The irony is that adult literacy learners have quite possibly been failed before, and are set up to fail again. I still think I have a million things to learn, and I am by no means complacent. You just don’t learn what you need to quickly enough.

On page 14, she points out that ‘this system is for the use of teachers, not for learners’. Maybe this is the case in literacy instruction, however in ESOL we would use the IPA. I’m not 100% sure why yet, so this is something I’ll look at at another time.

Do I have a clear picture in my head about this information?

In parts no. I have read a few books by Maxine Burton now, and love how she writes simply. Sometimes when getting my head around something it takes me a while to process what is written, naturally, but sometimes authors make it a bit more complex than they need to. Burton is not one of those writers, however I had to re-read the following a few times before it sunk in. She discusses some of the problems/misleading information teachers have given learners about phonics (2011, p.12):

Trying to help a learner read the word <ship> by pointing ut the /h/ ‘sound’. The problem is is that /h/ is not the phoneme at work here, rather /ʃ/ is. It would be more helpful to discuss ‘sh’/ʃ/ and examples.

Breaking down the word <married> into ‘syllables’ – marr-i-ed to make it easier to read.’ For a start, ‘married’ has 2 syllables, but it might also be helpful to look at how we form past tenses, depending on what stage the learner is up to, or to look at ‘ied’ spellings//Id/ sounds.

Helping a learner spell the last letter of <floor> by asking what sound there was at the end of the word.’  The last sound of the word is /ɔ:/ (depending on your accent).

I also had to read this a few times before I could ‘get’ it: ‘in words such as ‘light’ and ‘sight’ the sound /t/ is represented by the grapheme <ght>…comparison with words such as ‘site’ and ‘sigh’, would suggest a different correspondence’. I’m not sure how I’d present this yet, but I’m sure I’ll know more soon!

Burton (2011, p.17-18) describes Phonetics as the actual sounds and how they are produced, and Phonology as how sounds are organised and the patterns made by the sounds. She explains that not all sounds are phonemes.

I will have to re-read chapters 5 and 6, as although I understood the meaning, it didn’t really sink in, and I have not yet noticed how the information can be used in future.

What were the most important points in this reading?

Probably the bits I will need to read again! Chapters 5, 6 and 7 need to be looked at again. I found them confusing to transfer into teaching.

What new information did I learn?

  • The most interesting thing I learnt was that when we say ‘the apple’ we use /i:/ rather than the schwa. If we say ‘the banana’ we use the schwa. I would have expected that I would have known this teaching ESOL, and that’s probably why I find it so exciting!
  • I understood a little bit about assimilation, and would like to understand more in future, however I found it interesting that ‘if you have a voiceless consonant it’s easier to follow it with another voiceless one’ (Burton, 2011, p.21) and vice versa. She continues this…means that consonant clusters – adjacent consonant phonemes – in English are either all voiced or all voiceless’.
  • a schwa can usually only be used in unstressed syllables, and spelled with any letter, but usually ‘a’
  • stress can change phonemes e.g. conduct (verb) v conduct (noun)
  • learners are used to using connected speech – remember this.

How does it fit in with what I already know?

It doesn’t in many respects. I’ve found more questions and action points than I have answers. My questions still stand: Are there different types of phonics programme? Do some say Dolch words come first, or language which the learners will find useful? What’s the difference between the different type of phonics (synthetic/analytic) etc?

Some further questions:

  • Where do different programmes start? All 26, then digraphs, chosen to high frequency words, or learner’s idiolect?
  • Why do you use phonics in 1st language, but the IPA in ESOL? The British Council’s Nexus site shows how to use phonics/language experience with beginner literacy learners. Is there more debate than I realised?
  • How would I teach <ght>?
  • What are the ambiguities mentioned on p.15?
  • assimilation
  • articulation
  • connected speech – features in Liverpool/how much do learners need to explicitly understand?
  • how do I present phonics in regards to accent?

She suggests many further reading lists throughout the book, and I have added these to my further reading post.


Burton, M. (2011) Phonetics for Phonics. Underpinning Knowledge for Adult Literacy Practitioners. Leicester: NIACE

Language and literacy development & models of writing


Today we worked in pairs and discussed/listed the factors which influence language and literacy development both in children and adults. One of our objectives was to describe how literacy skills are acquired and learnt. We formed the table below.

 Children  Adults
learning difficulties (possibly undiagnosed)
Chomsky’s genetic blueprint/LAD
social/peer/parental influences
background/school they go to
background – abuse etc
religion/other cultural groups and norms within these
approaches taught through – top-down/bottom-up, whether phonics is “in” at the time etc
speech difficulties
technology dependency
access to reading/norm of this at home – how often parents read
parents’ first language
highly prized handwriting culture
how literacy is valued in their multidimensional cultures
skills of the teacher/rapport
literacy levels of parents
gender – boys read fact-based/girls read stories
learning difficulties (possibly undiagnosed)
” especially if bilingual
social/peer/employer/media and wider society influences
background/school they went to
background – abuse etc
political opinions, economic status, identity and perceived identity
religion/other cultural groups and norms within these
approaches might need to be similar, or completely different to school depending on the learner
speech difficulties
technology dependency/lack of skills
access to reading/norm of this at home – how often parents read
parents’ first language
highly prized handwriting culture
how literacy is valued in their multidimensional cultures
skills of the teacher/rapport
literacy levels of parents
skills required at work
gender – stereotyping as adults – e.g. advertising, social norms

Many factors which affect children also affect adults, and sometimes in different ways. Making this list highlights the need to acknowledge the wider issues in literacy teaching which might not be so apparent in other subjects. For example, a learner who had a hard time at school, often with basic skills, comes to a literacy class with many assumptions, where as if they are studying a new subject, they might not have the same reservations. It also highlights that teaching and learning are not stand alone things we do outside of contexts, and it is easy to see why teaching literacy as a social practice can help give it more weight as a subject for both adults and children alike. It also shows the importance of knowing your learners and being able to relate to people in different ways. Sometimes it is necessary to get away from the ‘teacher-like’ behaviour, and sometimes learners like, work well and even expect this. Children often don’t get a chance to negotiate learning so much, but with adults you kind of have to due to the lack of contact time you typically get with them.

Stages of writing development 

We also looked at the stages of writing development from Abbots Langley Primary School. It was interesting to look at the typical patterns of mark making. I did think about how we can relate this to our adult learners who may have missed this step. On average, the adult literacy learners I have encountered have been able to formulate letters, even if they have extremely low reading skills. I have experienced learners who have had unusual letter formation, which includes a guy who was from a travelling family. He does ‘need’ to work on handwriting skills, but I’m not sure how I feel about addressing this yet, and whether it’s something which will help him in the long run. We did start to look at letter formation, however he stopped attending. I’m not sure whether this was due to something that happened with the class, or external factors, but it got me thinking about how to approach handwriting with adult learners. When we were ESOL trainees, we looked at teaching learners cursive script as it built muscle memory and involved taking the pen from paper less times. I have yet to actually complete a handwriting programme with someone. I can totally see how the theory works, but in practice? I’m going to add this to my action plan of things to look at again as I’ve got a million other things to focus on at the moment. Food for thought though.

Writing activity

We then were asked to consider how we would write a letter of complaint, including think about what would we need to do to prepare, to complete the letter and note what skills were involved in this.

2014-12-29 20.36.59

In order to prepare for the task, I drew upon previous knowledge such as accessing my memory of how a letter looks and we started to discuss the task. I noted in my group that I needed to think of the audience, purpose, and draw up a plan in order for me personally to think of how to complete the task. I’m unsure whether this is because this is the way I encourage learners to do it, or whether this is actually my preferred method. In my plan, I noted that I had to decide on the register, greetings and endings, facts and nature of the complaint, answering who/what/when/where/why/how if applicable, state my expected outcome and say that I wanted a reply.

We then split the activities/skills we noted into:

Composition, which The National Literacy Strategy (2001) (available on Sassoon Fonts website), describes as:

● Planning: What am I writing about and who is it for? i.e. content, purpose and audience
● Composing: How do I say it in writing? i.e. word
choice, sentence grammar and text organisation

Frank Smith (1994) Ch.3. Writing and The Writer. Routledge:London, describes composition as ‘getting ideas, selecting words, grammar’.

In the above task, we noted that choosing the following were examples of composition:

  • deciding who the audience was
  • what the purpose was
  • what the context of the letter was e.g. a serious complaint, or a more trivial one
  • thinking about content e.g. setting ourselves who/what/when/where/why/how questions in order to help us plan
  • deciding on the register, and therefore word choice such as greetings and endings conforming to genre-based expectations of how the letter should be written
  • deciding that there needed to be an opening and an ending saying what we expected from the complaint, and saying that we wanted a reply at the end of the letter
  • research to inform what address etc I write (transcription)
  • choosing the vocabulary to ‘fit’ with the tone, context, audience and purpose, or to choose to not ‘fit’ by using sarcasm etc.

Transcription, which The National Literacy Strategy (2001) shows transcription as:

● How do I write it down? i.e. spelling and handwriting
Frank Smith (1994) Ch.3. Writing and The Writer. Routledge:London, describes transcription as ‘physical effort of writing, spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, paragraphs, legibility’.

In the task above, there were some examples of transcription such as:

  • knowing how to complete a mind map
  • using some punctuation e.g. forward slash to separate ideas, additional information in brackets, however as these notes were just for myself in the session, I used no capital letters or full stops. I did use a few question marks though and some commas and dashes too as bullet points, and to separate ideas.
  • I used very rough handwriting, and as it was only for myself, it wasn’t very legible. Sometimes I have a problem with this. I tend to take notes, take them home and wonder what the hell I wrote. I also have a habit of randomly abbreviating things too!

If we actually wrote the letter, these are the transcription skills that would be involved:

  • layout of a formal letter (genre)
  • choosing the mode (writing on paper possibly first, then on a computer as it is the norm to write letters via word processing now)
  • organising it into paragraphs – choosing that the greeting goes first, then an opening sentence, main body, expectations, end, signature, researching and writing the address on the envelope
  • proof-reading skills – spelling, punctuation, grammar

Evidence of composition and transcription in CC

Learners are expected to be able to plan, an example of composition. They are then expected to draft, re-draft, proof-read for grammar, spelling and punctuation which are examples of transcription.

We then discussed how to support compositon with our learners. We decided that the following would help:

  • brainstorming ideas in pairs or groups
  • mind mapping/spider diagrams (lone-working)
  • scaffolding – providing starter sentences
  • discussion
  • language experience approach
  • photographs/pictures
  • story boards/vision boards/graphic organisers/collages
  • consequences
  • kernel sentences
  • who, what, when, where, why, how questions
  • decide on purpose and audience.

Frank Smith (1994) Ch.3. Writing and The Writer. Routledge:London, discusses that, ‘compositon and transcription can interfere with each other’, and that ‘the more attention you give to one, the more likely the other will suffer’. He discussed that both ideas compete against each other for attention and that writing is the most tiring and effort-heavy skill of them all. He suggests that being able to use word processors may help as ‘anything that can reduce the effort of writing is likely to improve its quality’. He also notes that writing has the slowest number of words per minute compared to speaking, listening and reading, increasing the likelihood of people forgetting what they’re writing because there is so much going on. He suggests that if we try to concentrate on legibility, thoughts slow down, but if we concentrate on thoughts, then accuracy in spelling and handwriting is diminished.

Smith suggests only one answer, that the ‘two aspects of writing have to be separated. Thus rewriting and editing can be as important as writing’ and that transcription must come last. On the face of it, I must say I agree with him. I have often thought that the skills I needed to cover in order for a piece to be successful were too much. I felt a pressure to ensure that I covered everything in the CC and panicked when I was nowhere near. Over the past year, I have relaxed so much in my expectations of learners. I don’t mean that to sound negative! I mean that it’s apparent that I didn’t quite understand what constituted progress before.

If one of my learners manages to compose a text and make an attempt at transcription, I’m happy. I could ask for no better starting point. The rest is negotiated from there.

How we achieve competence in writing

  • Need to understand that we write for different purposes, audiences, contexts
  • Usually need a situation
  • composition – what?
  • transcription – how?
  • draft/re-draft – different stages of the process
  • Writing as a product
  • Writing as a process – your first thought isn’t always your best thought
  • research – staged writing – where you work through a text together as a class (Genre theory)
  • differentiated – already have writing and match heading (consequences, name of the game) a
    • by outcome
    • writing frame/sentence starters
    • depersonalising/personalising
    • fairytales – each think of a fairytale and then pass round etc, get teaching for progression: writing?




Frank Smith (1994) Ch.3. Writing and The Writer. Routledge:London

What did you learn?

The theory of composition v transcription really resonated with me when I thought of my learners. It immediately jumped out as I have often thought about whether I was trying to do too much in the way that I was staging activities in the past. I agree from practice that learners spend most of their time in composition skills, especially in lower levels and it can be useful to separate these. I think in terms of genre theory, I usually try to give learners and example of what they’re heading towards at the start, but with an emphasis on content. I then focus on facilitating composition skills and lastly in the editing phase, transcription skills.

Thinking about how I usually write something, I usually start thinking about transcription and if I need to write.type anything at the top first, before moving on to content. I tend to edit as I’m going and compose thinking about transcription. However, as stated, I think this is too much for learners when starting off, so maybe staging it as originally discussed above, and explaining how competent writers think would be more useful for them.

How will you apply it? Practical implications? Resources made/changed? For assignment? Meet with? Find out more about? By ___ in my teaching.

As above. I introduced a stages of writing sheet to help learners see the process which we usually go through.

I tried this on:

I try this virtually every lesson, but feel a bit more confident about when to bring transcription in and why.

What went well?

For competent writers, it helps me assess them in terms of what I naturally do to gauge where they’re up to in their competence levels, whilst for beginners, it helps me judge on a long-term basis – as they plan more and more and are visibly more comfortable with planning, more effort goes into draft and so on.

What would I change?

Nothing at the moment. For me, this helps.

How will I make changes?

Phonetics and Phonology


Today we had a seminar on phonetics and phonology. One of the aims was to differentiate between the terms, which can be found in my glossary. 

We also discussed:

Articulary phonetics – how and where speech sounds are articulated

Accoustic phonetics – waveforms/frequency/amplitude

Auditory phonetics – reception of speech sounds


We discussed why Phonetics and phonology was more important in literacy classes now due to an influx of ESOL learners. I’m still not sure where my opinion lies on ESOL learners in literacy classes. Your thoughts would be welcome. We did an activity called ‘learner friendly explanations to articulate consonant sounds’ from Kelly (2000). If only the title was learner friendly! Anyway, you can find it below.

2014-09-08 10.03.50

We also discussed morphology, syntax, pragmatics, phonemes and graphemes, definitions of all of these terms can again be found in my glossary.

We looked at stress in language too, at both word and sentence level.

Stress patterns in mutlisyllabic words

Today we also looked at stress patterns with words which have the same root. Our task was to identify the stressed syllable in the following list of words. The syllables are shown with spacing, and stressed syllables are in bold:

pho to

pho to graph

pho tog raph y

pho to graph ic

pho tog raph er

Sentence stress

We also thought about the number of ways we could change the meaning of one sentence, depending on where we put the stress.

I’d love a cup of black coffee. – maybe someone else has been offered one

I’d love a cup of black coffee.  – I really want on/sarcasm

I’d love a cup of black coffee. – as opposed to the pot you just gave me

I’d love a cup of black coffee. – you just made me a white coffee/please get it right…people always put milk in!

I’d love a cup of black coffee.


The full IPA chart can be found here, and a learner chart here, with sounds and example words. The only problem being, if you have an accent, beware of the example words!


I already knew about most of the above, but as always, it’s something that I need to add to my action plan to explore further in future.

We do a lot of stress work with ESOL, but apart from to possibly help with spelling, I’m not sure how it will affect my literacy group entirely. I think if a learner knows a root words, and is working on multisyllabic words, then an awareness of stress is important to help them decode. With sentence stress, I can see that might be useful when learners are reading aloud as intonation helps reading confidence. Am I missing something else though?

Action points

  • Research glottal stops etc
  • Thinking about a book called Learner English which focuses on errors that speakers of a particular language make, I want to try to research some characteristics of learners’ talk which I might come across.
  • Recap IPA chart


Kelly, G. (2000) How To Teach Pronunciation, Longman.