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Alphabetics: Phonemic Awareness Training And Phonics Instruction

The term alphabetics refers to the skills of phonemic awareness and decoding. These word identification skills are the foundation of reading instruction.

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in spoken language, and phonemic awareness is the ability to detect those individual sounds within words. Although most good readers hear and recognize entire words and understand them as wholes when they read, when asked to do so, they can also identify phonemes within those words. That means when they hear or read the word rug they think of the thing that lies on the floor, but they can also can identify the sounds in rug: /r/ /u/ /g/. (NOTE: Letters within slash marks represent the sounds.) And they can manipulate the sounds, for instance, creating a rhyme for rug, by substituting the /b/ sound for the /r/ sound. For most of us these are simple abilities associated with childhood games and songs, and we're not even sure how and why we know how to do this.

However, phonemic awareness is not acquired "naturally" as we learn to speak. Instead it is usually learned through reading and writing an alphabetic language like English or Spanish (Kruidenier, 2002), and many children pick it up easily. Although some adults don't remember learning this skill and don't know they have this capacity, if given training, many good readers can identify and manipulate phonemes with reasonable accuracy (Scarborough, Ehri, Olson, & Fowler, 1998).

But some people (and many poor readers) do not easily acquire phonemic awareness. When struggling with reading or spelling, they may not understand what the teacher means when she asks, "What sound does it begin with?"--or even more difficult--"What vowel sound do you hear in the middle?" They don't understand because they don't perceive the individual sounds. They hear the words, but are not aware of the phonemes. For these learners, the teacher may as well be speaking a foreign language. This quote from an adult learner says it all: "It's not that no one ever taught me how to read before; it's just that they never took me back far enough. They didn't know what I didn't know" (Podhajski, 1998).

Phonemic awareness, decoding, and phonics

Phonemic awareness is related to, but different from, decoding. Phonemic awareness is about speech sounds only. Decoding makes the connection between letters and the sounds they represent. When we talk about phonics instruction we refer to training in the use of letter-sound relationships to identify words in reading or to approximate the spelling of words. Phonics instruction builds decoding skills, which depend to a large extent on phonemic awareness.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is a broader, more general term that refers to the sounds of speech as distinct from their meanings, in particular an understanding of the ways that oral language can be subdivided. Phonological awareness has been described as a continuum of abilities beginning at the simplest level with rhyme awareness, moving up to an awareness of words within sentences, syllables within words, onsets and rimes (/b/ - /at/, /th/ - /in/), and finally the perception of individual sounds within syllables and words (Chard & Dickson, 1999).

Phonemic awareness, then, is the most refined (or most difficult) level of phonological awareness. Understanding this continuum is important when working with struggling readers. You may discover that most adults have awareness at some level, although phonemes escape them. In fact, individuals with a reading disability may never acquire complete awareness at the phoneme level, although they may eventually learn to manipulate onsets and rimes (Bruck, 1992).

Content of phonemic awareness training

The National Reading Panel identified six phonemic awareness tasks (listed below) for assessment and instruction (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-10). Although they are not necessarily listed in the order in which they should be introduced, common sense suggests that the first couple of tasks are simpler and may be prerequisites for the more difficult ones.

  • Phoneme isolation, which requires recognizing individual sounds in words, for example, "Tell me the first sound in paste." (/p/)
  • Phoneme identity, which requires recognizing the common sound in different words. For example, "Tell me the sound that is the same in bike, boy, and bell." (/b/)
  • Phoneme categorization, which requires recognizing the word with the odd sound in a sequence of three or four words, for example, "Which word does not belong? bus, bun, rug." (rug)
  • Phoneme blending, which requires listening to a sequence of separately spoken sounds and combining them to form a recognizable word. For example, "What word is /s/ /k/ /u/ /l/?" (school)
  • Phoneme segmentation, which requires breaking a word into its sounds by tapping out or counting the sounds or by pronouncing and positioning a marker for each sound. For example, "How many phonemes are there in ship?" (three: /sh/ /i/ /p/)
  • Phoneme deletion, which requires recognizing what word remains when a specified phoneme is removed. For example, "What is smile without the /s/?' (mile)" NICHD, 2000, p. 2-10

Principle 2
Adult nonreaders have virtually no phonemic awareness ability and are unable to consistently perform, on their own, almost all phonemic awareness tasks (Kruidenier, 2002).

Why Is Phonemic Awareness Important?

Phonemic awareness is a foundational ability, required for developing decoding skills (Chard & Dickson, 1999). English is an alphabetic language, which means that written English uses symbols (letters) that represent the sounds in spoken words. But when "sounding out" a word, we not only must (1) know and be able to produce the sounds the letters represent; we must also be able to (2) blend those individual sounds as we hear them in sequence, and (3) recognize the word. Beginning reading instruction often focuses on step 1, which is the heart of the phonics approach. We teach beginners the sounds of the letters, thinking that is all they need. But for many learners, the process breaks down at steps 2 and 3 because of a lack of phonemic awareness.

Think about the learner quoted earlier who said, "they never took me back far enough" (Podhajski, 1998). It's not enough to memorize the sounds the letters represent if a learner can't make use of that knowledge because he doesn't perceive the individual sounds in a word. How can a struggling reader blend the sounds and recognize the word if his brain doesn't process the individual sounds? For this reader, the string of sounds doesn't automatically translate to a whole word. Similarly, how can a writer sound out a spoken word to guess at its spelling if he doesn't "hear" those sounds? Phonemic awareness allows readers to use phonics to identify words while reading and to spell words as they write.

Principle 3
Adult beginning readers, like all beginning readers, including children, perform poorly on phonemic awareness tasks that require phoneme manipulation. The ability to perform more complex operations with phonemes generally increases (in adults without a reading disability) along with reading ability until word analysis is established (Kruidenier, 2002).

Who Needs Phonemic Awareness Training?

Research tells us that adult nonreaders have almost no phonemic awareness and adult beginning readers also have phonemic awareness deficiencies (Kruidenier, 2002). Even intermediate ABE readers may have somewhat limited phonemic awareness (Read, 1988). Research also suggests that adults at the lowest literacy levels may profit from direct instruction to build phonemic awareness (Kruidenier, 2000). Learners at the next level—those with some independent reading ability—may also benefit.

On the other hand, the research on phonemic awareness deficiencies may not apply to ESOL adults who can't read English. You shouldn't assume that these "nonreaders" have phonemic awareness deficiencies. Other factors, including a limited English vocabulary, are more likely.

How Can We Assess Phonemic Awareness?

Not all adults need phonemic awareness assessment and instruction. If you are working with beginning literacy learners, you should be using a structured curriculum that includes initial assessments. However, you may want a test to make referral decisions or a diagnostic measure (for example) for a mid-level learner with poor decoding skills, to get more information about the nature of the problem. For these purposes, you may use tests or alternative measures.

Alternative Assessments

Alternative assessments may be useful for both initial identification of strengths and needs and progress monitoring. Assess skills informally by asking learners to perform one or more of the tasks identified by the National Reading Panel: phoneme isolation, phoneme identity, phoneme categorization, phoneme blending, phoneme segmentation, and phoneme deletion (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-10).

You may check on these abilities by scheduling one-to-one time with a learner and asking her/him to perform samples of these oral tasks. You may also incorporate informal "check-ups" in your regular lessons:

"What sound do you hear at the beginning/end of (new vocabulary word)? Let's practice blending the sounds of the letters."

You should include a sampling of several types of tasks because abilities vary and some tasks are more difficult than others. Research suggests that segmenting and blending may be the most useful skills (NICHD, 2000), p. 2-4), but isolating sounds may be a good place to start for assessment.

Although informal assessment may give you a sense of the learner's abilities, you should be aware that your choice of tasks may not be a good sample. Assessment may be more complete and consistent if you use a test for placement, referral, or initial planning decisions.


Tests of phonemic awareness include samples of one or more of the six tasks described earlier. Because of the nature of the skill, these are oral, individually administered tests. A test may begin with simpler tasks that assess the ability to perceive larger phonological units, syllables, for instance, instead of phonemes.


Syllable deletion: Say remember. Now say it again but don't say /re/. (member)

Phoneme deletion: Say bake. Now say it again but don't say /b/. (ake)
Say stack. Now say it again but don't say /t/. (sack)

Phoneme segmentation: Break each word apart and say each sound in order--so (/s/-/o/); man (/m/-/a/-/n/)

Phoneme blending: Listen as I say the sounds in a word slowly. Then tell me what the word is--/f/ - /it/ (fit), /p/ - /op/ (pop), /s/ - /a/ - /d/ (sad)

A Phonemic Awareness Assessment Plan
  • Initial planning/placement: Informal assessment activities or tests may be useful in identifying phonemic awareness skills and deficits. A formal test may be more accurate than other measures.
  • Ongoing progress monitoring: Informal activities built into instruction are probably the best way to monitor growing phonemic awareness and identify problems.
  • Outcomes measurement: Phonemic awareness is not an end in itself; it is important because it is required for developing decoding skills. A test of decoding skills may suffice as an outcome measure.

Principle 6
Phonemic awareness and/or word analysis instruction may lead to increased achievement in other aspects of reading for adult beginning readers (Kruidenier, 2002).

What Kind of Phonemic Awareness Training Is Most Effective?

Developing phonemic awareness is a step toward the goal of learning to read with understanding or improving reading ability. It is not an end in itself. We teach phonemic awareness when and for as long as necessary, and then move on when learners have enough ability to manipulate the sounds to enable them to use phonics in reading and spelling. And we teach phonemic awareness in combination with phonics instruction and other reading skills because the skills reinforce each other. In fact, research with children has shown that using letters to teach phonemic awareness is more effective than oral practice alone. This approach to phonemic awareness actually qualifies as phonics instruction, but if the primary focus of activities is on manipulating the sounds, they may also be understood as building phonemic awareness (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-34; Kruidenier, 2002).

Suggestions based on the research with children
  • Focus on one or two types of tasks at a time.
  • Segmenting and blending may be most useful to learners.
  • Use letters as well as sounds--writing or manipulating letter cards, for instance--as learners produce the sounds the letters represent. Kruidenier, 2002, p. 50

Since blending is required to sound out a word and segmenting is what we do when we're trying to spell a word, it makes sense to teach these. However, you should use assessment to see where to start.

Taking a systematic approach. Learners with very weak phonemic awareness need a systematic introduction to and practice of the various types of tasks over several days or weeks. For adult nonreaders and beginning readers, an idea from the children's research suggests that it may be most effective to provide phonemic awareness instruction immediately (Kruidenier, 2002, p.53).

Fortunately, you don't have to develop your own training program. Instead you can take advantage of the phonemic awareness activities that are built into a structured phonics curriculum. In fact, to work with beginning readers, you could consider learning more about one of the evidence-based reading programs.

Teaching phonemic awareness to adults

Some of the activities you will use in building phonemic awareness may seem childish. However, as explained above, they are vitally important for some learners. How do you deal with this sticky situation?

Experience with adult learners suggests that you will want to be careful when using materials developed for children (although you may be able to adapt them) and sensitive to the need for privacy if adults with minimal literacy skills are members of a class with varied skill levels. You should also remember to explain carefully why such activities are important to the achievement of reading goals that matter to the learners. Sometimes the connection between an instructional activity and a long-term goal is not obvious. Adults with learning disabilities, for instance, will likely need a clear "map" of the road to reading and frequent reminders of where they are on the journey. Understanding the relationship between daily lessons and the long-term goal may make phonemic awareness activities more palatable for you and the learners.

Also, remember that you should not expect adults to acquire perfect phonemic awareness as a prerequisite for beginning work on decoding skills. Research suggests that some disabled readers may never become capable of the most sophisticated kinds of phoneme manipulation, but may learn to use onsets and rimes (Bruck, 1992). Be aware of phonemic awareness limitations and choose strategies carefully, but don't put off phonics instruction waiting for perfection.

Finally, keep in mind that even for beginners, phonemic awareness activities and decoding practice are not the only focuses of instruction. To maintain an emphasis on meaningful, goal-related reading, try using simplified texts on adult-interest subjects, learner-dictated stories, taped readings and other assisted-reading strategies to build vocabulary and improve comprehension.

What Does Phonemic Awareness Training Look Like?

If you are working with beginning readers you should use a structured curriculum that ensures systematic instruction and provides a framework for learning activities and lessons. These programs include phonemic awareness training. The sample on the next page is just an example of the type of activity often used to develop phonemic awareness. It does not represent any particular approach or program and is not intended as a model for instruction.

Sample activity: Recognizing the /s/ sound


  1. Explain to learners the purpose of the listening activities to come, and make the connection to the goal of independent reading. Being aware of the sounds in words will help them learn how to recognize and spell words on their own.
  2. Make the sound /s/ several times, asking the learners to listen carefully and watch your mouth as you say it.
  3. Show several items (or pictures) that begin with /s/ (sock, soap, soup, sandwich, sign) and say the words one at a time, asking the learners to repeat after you. (Avoid words beginning with consonant blends, like stack, or skip. It's easier to hear the /s/ when it's followed by a vowel.) Say the words again, exaggerating the initial /s/, and have them repeat again.
  4. Hold up a card with the letter s on it and explain that most of the time s stands for /s/ when you see it in words.
  5. Explain that you are going to name several things in the room and hold up the card every time the word begins with /s/. Demonstrate with six or seven items, and be sure that some of them don't begin with /s/.
  6. Hand out s cards to each learner and have them all practice with you as you say several words, raising their cards when they hear /s/ at the beginning of a word.
  7. Watch carefully to be sure everyone is able to perform this task. (In groups, it's possible, of course, to just do what the others are doing.)
  8. Moving from one learner to the next, ask them to compare the initial sounds of two words: Does bank start like sock? Does song start like sock?
  9. If they seem to be able to perceive the initial /s/ you could try some independent practice. Ask them to number their papers 1-10, and then call out ten words, one at a time. Tell them to write an s next to the number of any word that begins with /s/. (This assumes some writing ability--which most adult learners have--and knowledge of the numerals. This practice could also be done orally, using the cards.)

Next steps:
After students have learned one sound, you can compare it to the next sounds they learn, pointing out differences. (Where are your lips and teeth when you say /f/? When you say /s/? Or /m/?) When they've learned several sounds, they can practice by identifying the beginning sounds in words you speak, or they could practice independently by listening to words on tape. As they begin to work on phonics and can read a few words, they might also write (copy) words that begin with sounds they have studied. Working with sounds at the end of words might come next.

Phonemic awareness is taught along with other reading skills. Learners should be developing decoding skills and beginning to read as they continue to develop phonemic awareness. As they progress, you'll find numerous opportunities for quick phonemic practice activities, perhaps integrated with oral reading or spelling tasks.


  • Build awareness of a consonant sound in the initial position in words


This activity might be used with non-readers or beginning readers as one of the first steps in building phonemic awareness. The activity is limited in focus:

  • It involves only simple phonemic awareness tasks (isolation and categorization).
  • One sound only is practiced. The /s/ sound is often one of the first consonant sounds introduced because it is a continuant, which makes it easy to blend with a vowel. A speaker can continue the /s/ and slide into the next sound, as in /s/-/s/-/s/-/a/-/d/ (sad). (Stop sounds like /b/ and /t/, on the other hand, cannot be continued, so they're harder to blend. For instance, try holding onto the /b/ to blend it with a vowel, as in bad.)
  • Awareness is limited to the initial position only.


  • Recognize /s/ at the beginning of words


  • Curriculum or teacher-made materials


  • Small groups or one-to-one

Summary: Phonemic Awareness Tips in a Nutshell

  • Teach phonemic awareness explicitly and systematically to learners who have phonemic awareness deficiencies.
  • Use letters as well as sounds in teaching the phonemes. Use a structured phonics curriculum to develop phonemic awareness and decoding skills.
  • Focus on one or two types of phonemic tasks; segmenting and blending may be most useful.
  • Be sure learners understand the connection between phonemic awareness activities and their long-term reading goals.
  • Integrate short phonemic awareness activities within the reading lesson. In each lesson, try to address all needed components of reading instruction--phonemic awareness and phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension--as well as opportunities to experience and learn from adult-relevant materials.

What Is Decoding?

Decoding is a word identification skill that involves using letter-sound correspondences to recognize words in print. Beginning learners use decoding to identify words when reading and to approximate the spelling of words when writing.

Phonics is an instructional strategy for teaching decoding that enables beginning readers to read words independently and accurately. And, of course, word reading is necessary for comprehension, the larger goal of reading instruction. But decoding skills don't work alone: they support other language-related processes at work in reading. The reader uses spelling, sound, meaning, and context clues in the process of identifying words (Adams, 1990).

The process works something like this:

  1. Beginning readers learn letter-sound relationships and common spelling patterns (ack, op, ake, etc.)
  2. They use this knowledge when they encounter a word in print that they don't recognize. They "sound out" the unknown word, arriving at an approximate pronunciation.
  3. They match the approximation with words in their speaking vocabularies.
  4. Then they check to see if the word they think it might be makes sense in the context. For instance, the word color might "sound out" as collar or color, so readers use context clues to see which word makes sense and then make a final identification.

Why Is Decoding Important?

Research and experience tell us that unless children and adults acquire the ability to identify words independently and rapidly, they will not be able to read fluently enough to read with understanding. Because English uses letters to represent the sounds in spoken words, written language is a sort of code. Beginning readers must learn to break that code (hence the term "decoding") by matching letters with the sounds they represent. Without this ability, new readers must memorize thousands of words by sight in order to read even fairly simple adult texts--a very inefficient approach. In addition, they have limited strategies for identifying words not already in their sight vocabularies.

Principle 4
Adult beginning readers, like other beginning readers, have difficulty applying letter-sound knowledge in order to figure out new or unfamiliar words while reading, although they are generally better at recognizing familiar sight words than children who are learning to read (Kruidenier, 2002).

Who Needs Phonics Instruction?

Adult nonreaders and beginning readers almost certainly need to learn to recognize and use the letter sounds and common spelling patterns in our language. They will use decoding primarily as a tool for recognizing/decoding words whose meanings they already know. (They also use it to generate pronunciations for words whose meanings they don't know, but they encounter such words infrequently because beginning readers usually are reading simple texts.)

This description highlights a distinction between skilled and beginning readers. Beginning readers are focused on "getting the words off the page." Recognizing the word is their primary task and frequently their most pressing problem. New readers confront unknown words all the time, even in fairly simple texts. But most of these unknown words are in their speaking vocabularies, and if they can decode them, their problem is solved. Skilled readers also encounter unfamiliar words, but the problem for them is not decoding. A word is unfamiliar if they don't know what it means. Skilled readers generate a pronunciation fairly automatically and then use other strategies to arrive at the meaning: using context clues or consulting a dictionary.

Obviously, then, for beginning readers phonics instruction is very important. Intermediate readers may also benefit. If their decoding skills are less than automatic, phonics review and practice may lead to more accurate word identification, and hence increased reading speed and fluency.

How Can We Assess Decoding Skills?

Again, not all learners will need this kind of assessment and instruction. A structured curriculum is recommended for beginners, and these programs include assessments. For mid-level learners with gaps in their decoding skills, a test will identify which phonics elements should be taught or reviewed.

Tests of decoding skills/word recognition

These tests are oral, individually administered instruments. They typically require learners to identify words presented in isolation. However, because simple words may be in the reader's sight vocabulary (words recognized by sight without conscious decoding), tests often include pseudo-words, like sek, tob, and gled. The same objective may be accomplished by using real, but uncommon words, like tad and hag.

Once again, we can't be sure about the use of these instruments for ESOL adults. Research does not offer specific assessment guidelines for these learners.

Tests usually include samples of words with several vowel and consonant sounds; consonant digraphs, like sh and th; common rimes, like at (in bat and cat) and an (in man and ran); and at higher levels, multi-syllabic words. Analysis of test results reveals which sounds and patterns the reader knows and which need to be taught.

Some tests also assess word recognition with graded lists of high-frequency words. This type of measure identifies the words a reader recognizes on sight.

Some Informal Reading Inventories (IRIs) also include decoding measures. (See fluency tests in Chapter 5 for details on IRIs.)

A Decoding Assessment Plan
  • Initial planning/placement: A test like the ones described above may be useful.
  • Ongoing progress monitoring: If you adopt a structured curriculum, periodic assessments are likely to be included. In addition, of course, you may use your own tests or informal observations to make daily instructional decisions.
  • Outcomes measurement: For those learners who are working on developing decoding skills you will need a test with equivalent alternate forms for pre- and post-testing.

Principle 5
Participation in ABE programs may lead to increases in adult beginning readers' word analysis abilities (Kruidenier, 2002).

Principle 6
Phonemic awareness and/or word analysis instruction may lead to increased achievement in other aspects of reading for adult beginning readers (Kruidenier, 2002).

Principle 7
Word analysis may be taught using approaches that include direct instruction in word analysis along with other aspects of reading (Kruidenier, 2002).

What Kind of Phonics Instruction Is Most Effective?

Research indicates that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is most effective for beginning readers (Kruidenier, 2002, p. 49; NICHD, 2000, 2-94). This approach is in contrast to instruction that addresses phonics skills incidentally, as the need arises.

For example, a teacher who takes the incidental approach might use the occasion of a problem word encountered in class as an opportunity for phonics instruction. So when learners need to spell a word or when they encounter an unfamiliar word in their classroom reading, the teacher might decide at that point to teach the relevant phonics principle. In explicit, systematic phonics instruction, a body of phonics content--letter-sound correspondences and common word patterns--is identified, logically sequenced, and directly taught. Taking this approach does not mean that phonics is the main focus of the reading lesson in such classrooms, just that it is a focus, not an occasional activity. Phonics instruction is a means to an end; the end is reading comprehension.

Taking a systematic approach

The research identifies different approaches to systematic phonics instruction that have been used with children, but doesn't suggest that any one approach is more effective than the others (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-89 & 2-93).

  • Synthetic phonics: Learners are taught the letter-sound correspondences and then taught to blend the sounds to identify words.
  • Analytic phonics: Learners do not pronounce the sounds in isolation; instead they analyze the sounds in a word that is already identified.
  • Phonics through spelling: Learners break a word into its sounds and then identify the corresponding letters to spell the word.
  • Phonics in context: Learners are taught to use both letter-sound correspondences and context clues to identify unfamiliar words.
  • Phonics by analogy: Learners use parts of words they already know to identify unfamiliar words by analogy. An example of phonics by analogy is learning how to use onsets (initial letter-sounds) and rimes like ack, op, and et (also called phonograms or word patterns) to sound out words.

Many of the studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel used one or more of these, sometimes in combination. While the literature on the efficacy of these approaches is inconclusive, synthentic phonics is more commonly used.

Textbooks and other programs. Phonics-based textbook series and other packaged programs may provide structure for you and the learners and simplify decision making about content and sequence. Contact a reading specialist in your school district, reading faculty members at local colleges or universities, or adult education staff development providers for recommendations of a scientifically based phonics curriculum or basic reading series.

Using proven programs of instruction. For adults with extremely limited decoding skills, you may need training in a program especially designed for such learners. Several highly structured programs have been proven to be effective in teaching people who have reading disabilities. Since many adult beginning readers have the characteristics of a reading disability (Chall, as cited in Kruidenier, 2002), one of these programs may be what they need.

Content and sequence. If you plan to adopt a textbook series or other program to form the basis of your phonics curriculum, the content and sequence will be determined for you. A brief sketch of the content for early phonics instruction is listed in Appendix B.

Problem-solving strategies for decoding. Because decoding isn't always enough, teach learners how to use other strategies in concert with phonics. For example, a beginning reader could learn this sequence for identifying an unknown word:

  • Step 1: Try to sound it out from left to right. (Do you recognize the word? Does it make sense in the sentence? If yes, go on reading.)
  • Step 2: If not, try a different vowel sound (long instead of short i for instance) or look for a rime or syllable you recognize (e.g., ack, ing or tion). Then put the parts together and try again. (Do you recognize the word? Does it make sense in the sentence? If yes, go on reading.)
  • Step 3: If not, read to the end of the sentence again and think of a word that makes sense. (Does this word match some of the letter sounds? If yes, go on reading, but make a note to check on the word later.)
  • Step 4: If not, ask someone for help.
Matching instruction to assessed needs

Not every learner needs a comprehensive introduction to phonics. Some adults may need only to brush-up on skills or fill in specific gaps in phonics knowledge, e.g., work on long-vowel sounds and diphthongs (au, aw, ou, ow, etc.). Still others may have little difficulty with short words, but don't know how to approach multi-syllabic words. If you do initial assessment of (at least) all beginning readers, you will get an idea of what each individual needs to work on.

Practice-text materials for beginning readers. No matter which approach to systematic instruction you take and no matter which sequence you follow, practice is important. It takes immediate and plentiful practice to get decoding skills and knowledge into long-term memory and enable learners to apply what they've learned rapidly and automatically.

One way to get practice is to read and reread words on lists and flash cards. Learners may read on their own or aloud with a partner, noting the words or sounds they know and the ones they need to work on.

But they won't often read words in isolation outside of the classroom, so even beginners need practice reading words in context. The most efficient way to do this is to use controlled-vocabulary texts, which include many examples of words that exemplify the elements previously taught and no unfamiliar words that the learners can't decode with their current skills.

For example, a basal reading series might introduce ten consonant sounds, three vowel sounds, and 15 common sight words in the first three lessons. The stories in lesson three, then, would use only words previously introduced or words that contain those ten consonants and three vowels. Obviously, these restrictions seriously limit the early sentences and stories! If you are not using a basal reading series, you may compose these simple texts yourself or make a list of decodable words and ask the learners to create sentences and stories using them.

Simple, controlled-vocabulary texts may appear childish and you may reasonably question whether adults can possibly find this material interesting and worth reading. However, as long as you show that you respect them as adults, keep their records confidential, provide privacy when necessary, and demonstrate that you are sensitive to their individual reading goals, you may find your concerns are unfounded, especially if you also explain how these texts will help to reinforce their growing reading skills.

Beginners know they need basic instruction and most often are willing to do whatever it takes to become functional readers. They need to experience success so they can feel confident about their ability to learn, and controlled texts increase the likelihood that they will read accurately--perhaps for the first time in their lives. And of course, as they acquire a larger body of phonics knowledge and sight words, they read more interesting materials. As long as they can feel successful and see progress, they are likely to accept the instructional materials you use.

Finally, no one is suggesting that these controlled texts are the only materials that adults will use in your classroom. Authentic materials related to individuals' goals, life needs, and interests should also be an important part of reading lessons. (See page 46 for ideas on accessing adult-interest materials.)

Adolescents and very young adults who are poor readers may be particularly sensitive about their skill deficiencies and unwilling to be singled out from their peers for special instruction, perhaps because they had plenty of experience with that sort of treatment when they were in school. They may not respond well to some activities that work with more mature learners, so you might need a different approach. In addition, you might consider getting access to their school records to learn about services they have received and still may be entitled to receive. For information on a program for adolescents, get the book, When Adolescents Can't Read: Methods and Materials That Work (Curtis & Longo, 1999).

What Does Phonics Instruction Look Like?

If you are working with beginning readers you should use a structured curriculum that ensures systematic instruction and provides a clear framework for learning activities and lessons. These programs include phonemic awareness training.

The sample on the next page is just an example of the type of activity often used to develop phonemic awareness. It does not represent any particular approach or program and is not intended as a model for instruction.

Sample activity on initial r-blends


  1. Review the /r/ sound by asking the learner(s) to read flash cards with words beginning with r.
  2. Explain that r often combines with another consonant sound at the beginning of words, and give several examples of words beginning with br, cr, etc. Be sure to say and write the words, and point out the r-blends.
  3. For this activity, focus on tr words only, so the learners hear several similar examples. Write several tr words on the board and point to each as you read them. Examples: tree, try, truck
  4. Pronounce the words carefully, perhaps exaggerating the initial sounds. Ask what the words have in common. Then have the learners pronounce the tr blend and each of the words several times.
  5. Using letter cards and/or an overhead transparency, do a visual and oral demonstration, blending the two sounds as you speak, while putting the two letters together.
  6. Ask the learners to copy the words, writing each one three times, underlining the tr at the beginning, and reading each word aloud, running a finger under the letters as the sounds are spoken.
  7. Add the tr onset to several rimes the group has studied: ay, ip, ick, ap, ail, ain. Begin by reviewing a series of words in one of the patterns, and adding the tr onset last.
    • may
    • lay
    • pay
    • say
    • tray
    Then introduce the other rimes, having the learners work with the words in various ways: reading aloud, writing them, building words with letter cards, etc. Monitor and help as needed with this practice.
  8. Give the learners a paragraph or story that includes several examples of tr words, and have them read it silently, and then aloud.

Next steps:

The remaining r-blends (br, cr, dr, etc.) would be taught at another time, to be followed perhaps by the l-blends (bl, cl, fl, etc.) and the blends that begin with s (sc, sk, sp, st, etc.),


  • Improve decoding skills


  • This activity is intended for a group that has been working on decoding skills, has studied all the consonant sounds and long and short vowel sounds, has worked with onsets and rimes, and knows many of the common patterns (ay, ill, ip, at, am, etc.). In this activity they are introduced to initial consonant blends. The activity is narrowly focused (one blend only) and should be explicitly taught, including several opportunities for learners to say, read, and write the letter combination and words being taught.


  • Introduce or review the initial consonant blend tr


  • Curriculum materials


  • Small groups and/or one-to-one

How Can We Address Adults' Reading Goals If They Need Phonics Instruction?

Since the adults in ABE and family literacy classrooms often have varied skills, you will need to use assessments to identify those who need a complete, systematic phonics introduction, those who might need a brush-up and/or practice with multi-syllabic words, and those who don't need direct phonics instruction at all.

However, skills assessment is not your only guide in working with adults. You also must consider individual goals and interests if you want to maintain their motivation to learn and participate in your program. Here are some suggestions--based on the accumulated experience of adult educators--for providing research-based instruction and addressing real-life needs.

Meeting immediate needs

You might need to find quick ways to help weak readers gain access to print they can't read independently, but need to understand to help their children or to be successful at work, for instance. Adults' real-life needs often can't be put aside completely while they develop reading skills. Options for these learners (many of whom have learning disabilities or other special learning needs) should also include other strategies. If these immediate needs arise, you might (for example) read the material aloud to a learner, tape record it for her later reference, or help with filling out forms.

Accessing adult-interest materials. Encourage and enable all adults in the program to read meaningful stories and articles that appeal to their interests. Remember that the components skills reinforce each other; they don't develop in a strictly linear fashion. You don't have to put off "real reading" until the learners have all the background skills. In fact they may learn new word meanings through exposure to more difficult material.

But what about the words they can't read independently? You can't control the vocabulary in high-interest materials, so how can you meet the real needs of adult beginning readers?

  • The time-honored sight words approach is still useful. You will need to teach the common, high frequency words (many of which are phonetically irregular) as sight words, because these must be rapidly, automatically recognized. Beginners also may need to learn other important words by sight because they are too long or too complex or too phonetically irregular to decode with their present level of skill. These might include survival words, like danger and flammable, or work-related terminology.

    The concern in teaching words by sight is that adults who have struggled with reading have often relied too much on their sight memories and you don't want to reinforce what may have become a bad habit of "guessing" based on the appearance of a word. Instead you want to help them build more efficient decoding strategies, using phonic and other clues.

    But remember that the eventual goal of teaching word identification skills is to enable accurate, rapid word reading, which facilitates more reading and increased exposure to words, which in turn leads to storing those words in memory as "sight vocabulary." In other words, we want each reader to come to recognize as many words as possible by sight. Because of real and immediate needs, some words have to be learned that way initially.
  • Project-based instruction may allow even poor readers to learn from print materials they can't read independently. If a class has chosen a high-interest subject or problem to study, small groups may work collaboratively on different aspects of the subject, and weak readers can contribute according to their abilities, perhaps reading short selections with the help of a tutor, viewing a video, and/or participating in group discussions. When the group members present their findings, skilled and less able readers alike may profit from each others' research.
  • Reading to adults and using taped readings or computer-based text readers are "bypass" strategies to enable individuals to access important written material when they need it. The focus on reading instruction does not preclude other such options for meeting the immediate needs of adults and families and providing appropriate accommodations for adults with disabilities.

Summary: Phonics Instruction Tips in a Nutshell

  • Assess phonics skills of adult beginning and (some) intermediate-level readers (see Chapter 8 for an initial assessment plan).
  • Provide explicit, systematic phonics instruction that is matched to the assessed needs of learners.
  • Follow a defined scope and sequence of skills or adopt a structured phonics-based program.
  • Provide practice of the phonics elements you have taught, including (perhaps) use of controlled-vocabulary texts.
  • Do not make decoding skills the entire focus of the reading lesson. In each lesson, address the other needed component skills as well, and provide opportunities for learners to gain access to adult-interest reading materials.

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Chapter 5