Somewhat surprisingly, this Guardian article says that there has been no serious study of the use of phonics to teach adults. It is followed by an anonymous comment saying that phonics only work well with people who are good at processing sounds. Both the article and the comment misunderstand the role of phonics in reading and learning to read in English in a way that is as tedious and half informed as Tim Beadle's efforts on Channel 4.
The issues in phonics, for adults as well as children are as follows:
English is phonically based, so phonics are not just an essential element, but the basis of reading.
Because of the Norman conquest, and changes in pronunciation over centuries, English spelling is roughly 75% regular - that is, in roughly a quarter of cases, a letter does not represent the sound it most commonly does. This creates unique issues in English, and leads the brain to adapt a special mechanism to sort out anomalies and irregularities. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Professor Utah Frith, FRS, term this "the word form area". (The Learning Brain).
Teaching reading to children and adults in English is more complex than in other languages, as the learner has to cope with the constant interference of irregularity as they try to apply what they have been taught about phonics.
Weak sound processing slows people down in any language. The real issue in English is that sound processing is complicated by irregularity, so that a slower learner can become a non-learner.
The solution is to explain from the outset, to adults as well as children, that the language, like people, is not perfect, and that letters, like people, do not always behave. Once we have said that phonics works most of the time, and explained how and why spelling varies, we lift the burden of confusion from the learner and help them to think flexibly. Rose and his colleagues did not understand this, and neither do most of the "phonatics", who present irregualar words as "sight words" and leave learners with insufficient explanation of how to read them. When the teacher is not on hand to prompt, the result is breakdown. On the other side, critics of phonics do not acknowledge the 75% regularity of English, and have too often bought into guessing game theories that do not work at all.
The result is not so much a dialogue of the deaf as a head-on clash of blockheads.This failure to think hard enough is the root cause of our continuing problems with literacy, and is shameful to the academics and senior advisers who perpetuate it. There is no point in naming names here - they know who they are, and the people professionally involved in literacy who are not involved in the mess in some way can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
As an independent consultant and teacher, my own evidence is necessarily limited to the cases I've dealt with. Anecdotal, no doubt, but anecdotes are based on fact and not fiction. Here are some, with apologies to those who have seen them mentioned elsewhere in this weblog:
1. A young man with cerebral palsy, whom I taught to read at an adult level using Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. He is now one of the two leading experts on computer spectrography in the country, and has saved us hundreds of millions of pounds by his fraud detection activities.
2. A parish councillor in her late fifties whose working life had been blighted by not being able to read and spell to the level of her intellectual ability. Her reading and report writing improved beyond measure.
3. A young lady who was able to pass her entry test to be an air stewardess after being assessed as dyslexic.
4. A young man who had been assessed as dyslexic who was able to read correspondence and manage his life more effectively.
5. A secondary school teacher who gained confidence in preparing materials for students and writing reports.
6. A mother in her thirties, whom I taught to read in about three months, in order to enable her to read to her son. He is now three, reads with his mum every day, and knows his alphabet.
There are plenty more. As this issue is so central to people's lives, I am happy to repeat my offer of helping anyone with reading and spelling difficulties, without charge. Teachers, or indeed professors, are always welcome to watch.