Synthetic Phonics for Older Learners - The Research Gap.

3rd September 2014

The synthetic phonics debate has moved on a long way over the past decade, and in so far as teaching reading in primary schools goes, it is now the accepted norm with full governmental backing.

There seems, however, a distinct lack of advice or academic study devoted to teaching the synthetic phonics system to adult learners, and certainly nothing as influential as the 2005 Rose report which extolled the virtues of teaching young children to read using synthetic phonics as the main focus.

Whilst the debate still drags on about the synthetic phonics instruction in primary schools, there is at least some meaningful evidence to suggest from the numerous studies carried out that synthetic phonics is an effective tool for young children. But what about its use with older learners or those that just didn’t learn to read whilst at school for whatever reason.

It seems that the success of using synthetic phonics as the primary approach to teaching young children to read has possibly been to the detriment of older learners. There are commonly held opinions that synthetic phonics is associated with primary school learners, that it could be perceived as babyish by older learners or that adults simply won’t be as engaged by the approach as younger learners, not to mention the fact that many older learners who lack literacy skills have negative and often challenging memories of learning to read whilst at school.

So why hasn’t there been as much research carried out into the impact of synthetic phonics teaching on older learners, and why has there been a fraction of the money spent on studies on younger children set aside to investigate how synthetic phonics could improve the lives and prospects of older people? Of course, the issue isn’t quite as emotive as dealing with something that affects our own children, but that surely doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile practice and one that should be explored further.

Naturally, one of the problems, other than funding, of conducting research of this kind is finding a sample group big enough. Whilst there are many adults out there who struggle with reading, many of them may not wish to come forward due to embarrassment or a fear of failure. There is also the issue of vastly different levels of pre-existing knowledge among older learners, as opposed to the relative blank slate you get with foundation phase teaching, making a truly quantitative study difficult to plan and to analyse.

Referring back to my earlier point concerning the perceived babyishness of the synthetic phonics approach, the lack of truly age appropriate resources for older learners is yet another barrier to both research and the actual practice of teaching older learners to read. The vast majority of phonics resources on the market are solely aimed at school children, and I for one would not blame any adult for failing to engage with and embrace such learning tools.

Now, whilst these excerpts and blogs are generally meant open the lines of conversation and to oil the wheels of debate about reading rather than endorse our own products, there really is very little by way of resources on the market to even remotely interest adult learners. I truly believe our approach to reading for older learners will reap great benefits for those who choose to use our resources. We hope that if you're reading this and know someone who would benefit from a new approach to synthetic phonics instruction, then you will give them option of opening up this door to potentially a new life.


Rose report, adult learning., adult literacy, adult reading, age appropriate synthetic phonics, literacy rates, reading for adults, synthetic phonics for older learners, synthetic phonics research,

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