Why Phonics is Important For Adults

portrait of young female student at school classroom

It is common practice for elementary teachers to go over phonics in the early grade levels (PK-1st grade). Little children have an inherent ability to absorb the phonetic structure of (any) language. Noam Chomsky attributes this to the L.A.D or Language Acquisition Device. It is widely believed by the teen years this L.A.D. begins to dissipate and people generally lose their abilities to acquire the essentials of a new language. This is believed by many to be due to the fact that by the young adult years, the mind has acquired what it needs to survive socially, culturally and otherwise. In contrast, it is also believed if people continue to learn new languages throughout their youth, the L.A.D. remains strong and people have been known to learn many new languages throughout their adult life.

There have been a slew of studies to support the existence of the L.A.D. and its attributes, so it is difficult to argue the “use or lose it” tendency inherent with it. This is important to keep in mind when considering the difficulties adults encounter when learning a new language, especially the English language. English is an especially difficult language to learn because of its “Frankenstein” composition. English is comprised of several world languages (Old English, Latin, Germanic, Danish, Norse, French, Greek, to name some), and many of their original rules traveled with them into English. This is quite evident when someone is trying to understand the many pronunciations of “ough” in different English vocabulary words, for example. The English language is filled with such examples. Although these complexities seem arbitrary at times, they really exist as a culmination of old pronunciation rules (and syntax) and a creole effect, meshing several languages in parts and morphing with trending acceptances to the rules. If this seems confusing to the native English speaker, imagine the confusion to non-native speakers and people new to the language. The one thing that can tie everything together is establishing English at the phonetic level. Having a strong phonemic awareness is tied to literacy, as well as listening and speaking skills. Before tackling the daunting, complex rules of the English language, ELLs should first establish a strong phonetic foundation.

The National Institute for Literacy published a report in an effort to “strengthen literacy across the lifespan” authorized by the U.S. Congress under two laws: the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The report’s section on “Alphabetics” (Chapter 4) is at the heart of what the I Want To Learn English textbook was designed to do with adult ELLs. The  Phonemic Awareness Training and Phonics Instruction chapter gives a comprehensive synopsis of the complexities of teaching phonics to adult learners (click here to read the report). Many of the highlighted issues in this report are primarily what IWTLE addresses in the strategies and methods employed throughout the textbook. Instructors and administrators are encouraged to review this report. When the issues in the report are compared to what the student textbook covers, it will become apparent this textbook was tailored to meet the phonemic awareness needs of adult English Language Learners struggling with literacy and overall communications skills. With grant funded programs becoming more competitive and the needs for adult English learners to acquire the language more efficiently in order to apply their acquisitions at the workplace, the need for excellent language learning tools grows. “I Want To Learn English” takes all of these factors into consideration and works to resolve the fundamental needs of ESL students, which in turn will contribute to the improvement of communication in the workforce and make adult ESL (and high school) programs become more productive.

The Teacher’s Manual Is Now Available

Everything teachers need to know about the strategies and application of the lessons in the textbook “I Want To Learn English” for Level 1 Beginners is in the Teacher’s Manual. This manual gives an in depth look into all the nuances of the student textbook, gives suggestions and expanded activities, rationale for lessons, and gives a thorough explanation of every Section and subsection. The manual also includes some additional worksheets and activities which are not in the student textbook, audio scripts, answer keys and illustrations to make the application of IWTLE as user friendly as possible to instructors of English all over the world. Order your copy here.

The 30 Days Song

IWTLE will host all of its audio contents on PodBean. This will make access to the audio tracks that correspond to the textbook much easier with phone apps and free download options. We are nearing the official launch of the textbook. Check out this sample.

The 30 Day Song

Do you know how many days are in each month? Well, here’s a fun way to remember. Sing along.

30 days has September, April, June and November.

The rest have 31 days, you see, except February.

An Audio Sample From The Textbook “I Want To Learn English”


Here is an audio sample for the “soon to be released” Level 1 ESL Textbook “I Want To Learn English.” It comes from Unit 3 which focuses on consonant blends. The textbook will be released in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

blue-play-button_fyMs9LUO_L33.1 Listen to the following short conversation and repeat. Then, practice with a partner.

Student A: Excuse me, sir. Where is the Florida school?

Student B: It’s on twelfth street.

Student A: Do I need to travel very far?

Student B: It’s just three blocks away. If you walk fast, you can get there in a few minutes.

Student A: Thank you very much.

Student B: Oh, you are very welcome.

TESOL International Conference in April 2016



As in the past, I will be attending the TESOL International Convention. The difference is this year time I will be representing Baltimore City Community College and will also be presenting my findings of using phonics more explicitly with adult learners and how this methodology is prevalent in my own teaching practice. I presented at the Maryland  TESOL Conference in 2014 and shared the results of using my phonics based textbook (I Want To Learn English) with colleagues and other professionals. The response was very positive. Now, the book is in the final phases of publication and I will have physical copies of the book to share with professionals from around the world this April. This, as you can imagine, is not only exciting, but a long time coming.

It is fitting since BCCC has been supporting me in the project since day one. I cannot express enough how thankful I am for Doug Weimer and others at BCCC for their continued support of this textbook project. But all that aside, the numbers simply do not lie. This book and the strategies it employs are immensely effective in teaching adults English. Students’ CASAS scores have improved significantly. That was my goal at the onset, my purpose when I set out to write this textbook, and I can honestly say “Mission Accomplished!”

The obvious question I get a lot is, of course, when will the next book in the series be available? I don’t think it will take nearly as long as the first one (which took 5 years to complete), but depending on the financial success of the first book will likely be the greatest determinant of how swift the second will come along. If the book does well in sales, then it will obviously demand and Book 2 be available sooner rather than later.

Level 1 Textbook Due for Release Winter 2015

We wanted the book to be released by the end of summer, but due to financial setbacks (and logistical challenges) it was concluded the best thing to do would be to wait to release the I Want To Learn English textbook around the holidays 2015. Even though there were grants to help fund the project, the amount of money was insufficient to get everything in order for a late summer release. Therefore, more time to use the textbook on another sample of students to get more accurate data is clearly the silver lining here.

Kickstarter Campaign Launched

Now that the “I Want To Learn English” textbook (prototype) is going on its third year in use, the data collected thus far shows this program works for adult English Language Learners at the beginner level. It even proves to be a very useful tool for students at intermediate levels. Now, the textbook is in its final stages before completion. With an eye on publishing the first edition this summer, a Kickstarter campaign is being launched to fund the project. Students and instructors both can make pledges to help make this textbook project a commercial reality, and also be among the very first to receive of the textbook.

Please take moment to look at the Kickstarter page, watch the video promo and make a pledge today. Your time and consideration is greatly appreciated. At the end of the day, this project is all about helping people learn English and building stronger communities. Thank you very much.

Textbook Update

The original plans for the first textbook (level 1) was slated to have six units. However, after two years of trials in adult ESL classes, it became clear getting through just three units for the whole 72 hour course was difficult. It’s difficult because there are so many basic components of the English language that students need to understand in order to lay the foundations for more advanced comprehension. The three units address these fundamentals which are rich in phonic activities, listening and speaking exercises, and grammar components.

Having only three units simplifies many aspects of this textbook as well. For example, concentrating on pronunciation of words with specific digraphs, such as the “ch” and “th” sounds, also gives opportunities to engage in modeled conversations that have words embedded in them with these specific digraphs. This also extends to incorporating a short storyline, grammar practices, writing and reading activities. The concentrated portions of the lessons are in the main units, but the supplemental sections (toward the back of the book) give many more exercise and practice activities to further examine details explained in the main units. This also allows for more emphasis to be placed on details within each lesson without overwhelming students with too much information processing too quickly.

I believe the approach of going step by step renders more language dividends in the long run. Since 2012, students who worked with the I Want To Learn English prototype units have improved their scores on the CASAS exams and some even jumped two levels within a single semester. Some may attribute these highlights to a number of factors, but going further back to years before I developed IWTLE, the success rates did not have the kind of surges I see in the overall numbers now. And with help coming from other instructors using IWTLE with their students, overall student scores will reveal its effectiveness. Stay tuned for these results in the coming months.

The Voiced and Voiceless “Th” Sounds

One of the trickiest digraphs to teach new English Learners is the “Th” sound. This is because it isn’t a common sound produced in non-Latin based languages. In fact, with some exceptions like Arabic, Greek, Albanian and Burmese (for example), many languages do not have voiced or voiceless fricative “Th” sounds in their language at all. For Spanish speaking students, for example, learning words with the “Th” sound is very difficult. Most English Language Learners in my classes have expressed their frustrations in learning words with these voiced and voiceless “Th” sounds. What I always recommend to my students is their dedication to practicing words and sentences with these sounds in them to help them produce the sounds a little more fluidly. This is the primary reason I spend a great deal of time going over digraphs in the first place, especially when working with low beginner students and even all the way up to intermediate level students. An entire unit in the “I Want To Learn English” textbook is dedicated to practicing digraphs. I produced the following video for students to practice the voiced and voiceless “Th” sounds and give some examples to practice with. Please feel free to share this video with as many people as you like. Stay focused and practice as much as possible.