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Teaching Reading to Adults - Lesson 2


What is Alphabetics?

Alphabetics is a combination of skills that come together to make the foundation of reading instruction.

Phonemic Awareness+Decoding=Alphabetics

So now you may ask, "what is phonemic awareness?" Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in spoken language. Phonemic awareness is the ability to detect those units within words.

rug is made up of three phonemes. So is ball

As successful readers, we take our ability to manipulate sounds in language for granted. As children, we demonstrated our phonemic awareness skills through the use of rhyming games. How many times have you said phrases such as, "snug as a bug in a rug," or "see you later, alligator"?

Phonemic awareness is not just acquired naturally. Many of our students who come to us in adult literacy programs may have missed out on the acquisition of these foundational skills, which are necessary for good reading.

According to McShane (2005), when we are building phonemic awareness skills, there are six tasks that should be addressed:

  1. phoneme isolation - the recognition of individual sounds in words "Tell me the first sound in paste." "/p/"

  2. phoneme identity - the recognition of common sounds in different words "Tell me the sound that is the same in bike, boy, and bell." "/b/"

  3. phoneme categorization - The recognition of the word with the odd sound in a sequence of three or four words "Which word does not belong? bus, bun, bug, rug." "rug"

  4. phoneme blending - The ability to combine a sequence of separately spoken sounds into a recognizable word "What word is /s/ /k/ /u/ /l/?" "school"

  5. phoneme segmentation - The ability to break a word into its sounds by tapping out or counting the sounds or by pronouncing and positioning a marker for each sound "How many phonemes are there in ship?" "Three. /sh/ /i/ /p/"

  6. phoneme deletion - The ability to recognize what word is left when a phoneme is removed. "What is smile without the /s/?" "mile"

The Importance of Phonemic Awareness

Without phonemic awareness, learners can't develop decoding skills. In order to decode words, learners must accomplish three tasks:

  1. Know and be able to produce the sounds the letters represent
  2. Blend those individual sounds as they are heard in a sequence
  3. Recognize the word

Early beginning reading instruction focus heavily on the first ability but may incorrectly assume that the other two are a natural result. A struggling reader without phonemic awareness skills can't manipulate sounds and words to make sense of their meaning.

Many adult basic education students who read at the very lowest literacy levels and at the higher levels have problems with phonemic awareness or lack decoding skills. "Approximately 75% of poor readers in third grade continue to be poor readers in ninth grade, and, unfortunately, reading disabilities persist into adulthood," (Mercer, 2000, p. 179) (.pdf).

Their difficulty began in childhood. Since no further phonemic awareness instruction is provided beyond elementary school, "many adolescents and adults who graduate from adult basic-education programs ... fail to attain automatic word recognition and therefore have to expend considerable effort to understand texts they are trying to read" (Royer, 2004, p. 57). Lack of alphabetic skills will affect these students in fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension, thereby slowing down their progress in literacy, adult basic education, or GED® classes.

Effective Phonemic Awareness Training

Phonemic awareness should be taught explicitly and systematically. Adoption of a structured phonics curriculum that makes use of letters and sounds and has a focus on segmenting and blending is recommended.

Many phonemic awareness activities, however, seem childish. It is often a sticky situation to use materials developed for children with adults. Teachers should be sensitive to issues of privacy if the learner is in a mixed-ability class.

It is also important to explain the need for such activities. Adult learners need to know how they are connected to their longer-term reading goals and why they are important.

Phonemic awareness should not be taught in isolation from other skills. It is not necessary for learners to have perfect mastery of phonemic awareness skills in order to begin to work on decoding skills.

image of structured reading document

Here is a list of structured reading programs that have successfully been used with adults. (.pdf)



image of procedures documentWord Sort:

An activity that you may use with learners to help them develop these phonemic tasks is a word sort. Instructions for using word sorts as well as additional references can be found here.


image of word sort template

We've also provided you with some word sort templates to get you started. (.pdf)



Another activity that you can try to help learners develop phonemic awareness through the study of word families using inexpensive, plastic Easter eggs is described in this video.


screen shot of word families

You can also find additional word families here.



Now on to the second part of our alphabetics equation, decoding.

What is Decoding?

Think about what you do when you encounter a new word. Do you ignore it? Or do you pause and try to sound it out?

Decoding is a word identification skill that involves using letter-sound correspondence 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 readers to read words independently and accurately.

The Importance of Decoding

Research has shown that if students don't learn effective decoding skills, they will be unable to read with the fluency required for comprehension. The English language is a code that uses letters to represent sounds. Students need to learn this code in order to become fluent readers. If they did not, they would have to memorize thousands of words in order to read even simple texts. As you can imagine, this is a very inefficient process.

Obviously, phonics instruction is necessary for beginning readers; however, it can also be helpful for intermediate readers whose decoding skills aren't automatic.

Effective Phonemic Awareness Training

Just as with phonemic awareness, phonics instruction should be explicit and systematic for beginning readers. For intermediate readers, instruction can be targeted to needs as they arise.

McShane (2005) describes a number of systematic approaches to phonics instruction:

  1. Synthetic phonics - Learners are taught the letter-sound correspondences and then taught to blend the sounds to identify words.

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

screenshot of the National Reading Panel websiteMany of the studies of the National Reading Panel used one or more of these approaches, sometimes in combination.

No matter whether your students are beginning level or intermediate readers, decoding practice is essential to help them improve their reading skills. This can be achieved through controlled-vocabulary texts that feature words that model skills previously taught. As with phonemic awareness instruction, some of these texts can seem childish: your communication with your students about how these materials connect to their learning goals is essential.

Motivation and Persistence

It can be difficult to keep adult learners interested in staying with a program if they need intensive phonics instruction. Students often cannot see the connection between these activities and their reading goals. To maintain their motivation and encourage persistence, you need to meet their immediate needs while providing appropriate instruction.

Introduce reading materials that are of interest to them. Provide evidence of their progress through journals, observations, and previous lessons learned.

Tell learners that as with losing weight or training for a 5K run, reading development does not develop in a linear progression. Instead, they are interwoven with each other and reinforce each other. To this end, instructors may need to teach high frequency words as sight words to beginning readers (from 3-5 per lesson).

Project-based instruction may also help you keep motivation high with your learners. Stronger students working collaboratively with weaker students can help the weaker students to build their skills.

The use of taped readings or computer-based text readers is another valuable strategy to meet the immediate needs of adult learners while they are learning to read.

screenshot of Alphabetics Tips in a Nutshell

Read our Alphabetics Tips in a Nutshell for a synopsis of the key points regarding Alphabetics instruction. (.pdf)


Websites and Additional Resources

Each lesson will present you with a selection of websites to visit that are related to the lesson's topic. These websites are not required reading for this course; however, they will add significantly to your study of the topic of developing reading skills in adults and we highly recommend that you explore them.

Chapter 4 of Applying Research in Reading Instructions for Adults by Susan McShane
This chapter of McShane's book focuses on the topic of alphabetics. (.pdf)

The National Reading Panel Subgroup Report on Phonemic Awareness Instruction
This report contains an executive summary from each subgroup that introduces the topic area, outlines the group's methodology, and highlights the questions and results from each subgroup. In addition to the executive summary, the report provides detailed explanations of each subgroup's research methodology and the findings for each group. This is an excellent resource for anyone who wishes to understand the science and methodology behind the evidence-based assessment conducted by the NRP. (.pdf)

Alphabetics: Research and Teaching Strategies by the California Department of Education
This research digest on alphabetics is one of a series that reviews the four components of reading. This digest contains a discussion of current research on alphabetics, provides references, and suggests strategies for teaching alphabetics to adult learners. (.pdf)

Alphabetics: Closed Syllable video by CALPRO
In this video, teacher Guillermo Verdin demonstrates how to teach closed syllables to his class.

Making Sense of Decoding and Spelling: An Adult Reading Course of Study by Charles MacArthur, Judith Alamprese, and Deborah Knight
This publication is an evidence-based course of study designed to teach adult learners to decode and spell words accurately and fluently.

Structured Reading Programs That Have Been Used with Adult Learners
This is a list of structured programs that have been used in reading instruction with adult learners. It is by no means an exhaustive list and should not be viewed as an endorsement of any specific program. (.pdf)

Inspire a Life of Reading: Lesson Plans to Engage Adult Beginning Readers by Cheryl Knight, Appalachian State University
This manual includes activities in the areas of assessment, phonemic awareness, word analysis, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Activities are complete with goals and objectives, directions, handouts, game boards, and materials lists. All activities are correlated with reading competencies and are appropriate for individuals, teams, or large groups. (.pdf)

Comprehension & Phonemic Awareness
North Carolina middle school teacher Cara Pohlman summarizes current reading research, including the importance of phonemic awareness

Except where noted, all material is ©, Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. All rights reserved.