Benefits of audiobooks

I’ve been chatting this week to Sam Duncan, discussing audiobooks and reading aloud. If you aren’t yet familiar with it, Sam has recently conducted research into reading aloud, which I think anyone interested in adult or family literacy would find very interesting and helpful.


Driving about the community between classes, I’ve habitually been a Radio 4 diehard. However, I’ve abandoned radio (and toxic news) a little in the last year, in favour of audiobooks. A little escapism is sometimes good for the soul.


I first became interested in the potential of audiobooks for adult learners last year, after listening to William Ford, from the Birmingham Adult Dyslexia Group, discussing using technology to help adults with dyslexia.


According to Prof Maggie Snowling CBE, President of St John’s College, Oxford, dyslexia is a phonological problem, in translating text to sound. Hearing a text out loud can really help people (and not just with dyslexia) to understand it better. Have you ever caught yourself reading out loud something you did not understand, to make better sense of it? Without the text getting in the way of a good story, it’s possible to enjoy it more too – don’t forget that stories have been oral long before anyone learnt to write them down.


Snowling also notes that, because dyslexia often is hereditary, it seems possible that parents who don’t enjoy reading will have fewer books in the house, and thus are less likely to raise children in reading-rich environments. There is no judgement from her, only an understanding of the difficulties this can cause families in supporting children’s literacy development.


This is where audiobooks have the potential to help engage families in stories. I was telling Sam that, in my own family, reading aloud is such a normal, everyday practice that my children will choose to read to me and to read to each other. Lately, I’ve been discussing with some learners the potential for enjoying audio-stories together as a family and so, without realising it, making time for reading.

In their own words: writing class blogs

From September 2019, we have been delivering the reformed Functional Skills qualifications. City & Guilds now include writing a forum contribution or a blog article in the Level 1 and Level 2 English qualification. This seems like a good opportunity to take a piece of writing all the way from draft form to ‘published’, by creating a class blog.

So far, my teaching approach for blogs has been the same as it is for all new writing styles. First, we define what a blog is and look at some examples. I always then ask if anyone has any experience of writing the type of text. Then, we decide what the features of a blog are, which I record on the whiteboard (in the students’ own words) so that we can refer back to it later. Finally, I will introduce a writing task and we identify what our purpose is and who the audience is likely to be, which helps us make decisions about language style and tone.

For my first ever attempt at teaching blog writing, I wanted to choose a topic that is personal. This would reflect well the style of a blog article, and to help differentiate between blogs and newspaper articles. For that reason, I decided to use the theme ‘what is the value of adult education’. My logic for theme choice is explained further in my post, ‘Empowered writers empower writers’.

Depending on the level of the group and how confident the group are (including how much experience of the type of writing they may have), I might then model some planning and scaffold the writing task with the group, before letting them have a go at writing their own.

Following this blog writing lesson, we have been proofreading and editing our drafts and turning them into real blogs! Do take a look at our class blog that we have created:

Kerry’s Adult English Class: A place to practise and share our writing





Winter Wonder – the first Midlands #FEResearchmeet of the year

I’ve been feeling a bit hopeless lately. After the election result, I was in a state of utter disbelief and left wondering what it meant for the future of education (as someone with a foot in primary, further and adult education, I see the effects of austerity through all sectors). After Christmas, I’ve returned to work, getting up on dark mornings feeling like maybe life would be better if we got to hibernate…

But today has brought me the possibility of working through my stages of grief to acceptance and, more crucially, back to activism and hope.

My friend and SET colleague, Annie Pendrey, hosted the first of a pair of #FEResearchmeets that we are running this year in the Midlands. The line-up of speakers was impressive and, in hindsight, it is probably no surprise that there were some similar threads running throughout the day, notably the effects of a decade of austerity, of critical incidents, but also of empowerment, agency and hope.

The key note speaker, Birmingham City University’s Professor Matt O’Leary, set the scene, reminding us that further education has suffered year on year of funding cuts, causing a decade of harm. He drew our attention to some of the horror stories, such as an incredible 23,000 redundancies across the sector (source: UCU), causing us to reflect on the effects of austerity and neo-Liberal education. And yet, his words were full of inspiration and full of hope, causing us to take stock and celebrate what we are achieving regardless.

Amongst other reasons, Matt had us thinking about how important it is for teachers to engage in research to make sense of policy and practice; to help us make informed decisions; and to continue to enhance our professionalism. For me, the most important messages were about context and that teaching and learning are complex and cannot possibly be reduced to simplified models: a theme I am encountering over and over, not only in my research but in my everyday practice.

As the day progressed, there was the opportunity to hear about some incredible practitioner research shared by: Lynne Taylerson (on informal professional development through social media); Kathyrn Sidaway (on exploring the motivation of ESOL learners); and Lousia Williams (asking, ‘What motivates the motivator?’).

Inspirational Advanced Teacher research projects were shared by Tina Reilly and Annie Pendrey, and Mike Tyler shared insights into dual coding – very effectively demonstrating how to put research into practice.

Lou Mycroft and Kay Sidebottom brought us some useful philosophical theory to help us frame our thinking and our work, before Lou closed the day by sharing with us her ‘ethics of joy’, and challenged us to look at our own values and to work in ways that bring joy.

I think today has brushed away my winter blues and, while I haven’t quite worked my way through the seven stages of grief yet, I’ve definitely got my mojo back. This year I’ll be furthering my own research adventure, working in and with the rhizomes, and doing so with joy.

(Many thanks to the Society of Education and Training for their generous sponsorship, which enabled us to keep the event free for delegates).

Join us for our next Midlands #FEResearchmeet – on Monday, 29th June at Solihull College and University Centre, hosted by me and Annie Pendrey. Details to follow on Twitter.


Welcome to a guest blog post from my friend and colleague, teacher educator Laura Jackson. At the dawn of a new year, Laura welcomes you to join her in considering the journey of your past year and to celebrate your achievements during these challenging times in education. Thank you to Laura for your contribution.
At a time when we are closing down one year and starting another, we seem to be in a period of reflection of the year gone by and anticipation of what’s to come.
The focus of this article is a conversational piece looking at ‘distance travelled’. It features heavily in SARs, and OFSTED love a bit of progress monitoring too, let’s be honest who doesn’t like to chart the progress however small, of those we teach. After all, is that not what education is about? Enriching lives, furthering knowledge, expanding horizons and such.
‘Distance travelled’ appears to be always used in relation to our students. Their journey. Their progress. But what about distance travelled for us? As practitioners in our field, we also travel many distances over the course of the year, both metaphorically and literally!
Aside from the literal sense of travelling distances to conferences, different education providers and many other places, what distance have I travelled? Whilst I consider my own distance travelled, I hope it sparks something in you to consider your own distance travelled in the hope of giving yourself a massive pat on the back for getting through the last year amid many challenges the education sector can throw at you.
Here’s to a Happy New Year 2020!
Laura Jackson
Based at: Solihull College & University Centre

100 years of adult education

Anyone who follows me on twitter will know I have followed the developments of the ‘Centenary Commission’ with great interest. A little background: in 1919, the then Ministry of Reconstruction produced a report into adult education in England, viewing it as an opportunity for developing citizenship and growth. The most well known quote from the introduction of the original report describes adult education as “permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong” (1).

This year, a new commission, the ‘Centenary Commission‘ was created to review what is now known as the ‘1919 report’, with new recommendations for a 21st century Britain. The report, released on 18th November to tie in with the original report’s release date, makes 18 excellent suggestions, which can be viewed here.

Last night, I had the honour of attending the inaugural presentation of the report, within a wider event celebrating adult education entitled: ‘Changing Lives: Celebrating 100 years of Adult Education’. The event was presented by Mel Lenehan, principal and chief executive of Fircroft College, sponsored by West Midlands Combined Authority, The West Midlands Further Education Skills & Productivity group, West Midlands Adult & Community Learning Alliance and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, and was hosted in the fantastic conference suite at Solihull College and University Centre.

I had the even greater honour of inviting one of my own adult learners to the event and I invited someone from the women’s centre, who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to attend a main college campus event due to her class meeting in an outreach centre. This vibe ran through the whole event, with one speaker commenting “wherever we meet, be it libraries, community centres, or in the pub!”, as did the feeling that none of us would be there without our adult learners.

Mel Lenehan opened the event with an inspiring presentation, including a powerful video showing Fircroft learners sharing the impact their education has had on them. She asked different stakeholders to stand and be welcomed with a round of applause, from policy makers, to leaders, to researchers, to tutors and, of course, most importantly: “please stand up if you have been an adult learner in the last 100 years!” No surprise when the whole room rose to their feet!

The first speech came from a practitioner from Birmingham Adult Education Services, who shared inspirational stories of her learners (with their blessing of course), and really highlighted the impact adult learning has on the individual, their families, as well as the wider community and society. One such story was of a dyslexic learner who had struggled with school and, as an adult, was a single parent. He went from his English GCSE onto further and higher education, later becoming a scientist. The role-model he is for his children and what he contributes to our country must be understood and valued and, as the tutor pointed out, he’d been wasted previously spending the morning in the bookies and the afternoon in the pub.

The next story was of a young man called Fizend, who had walked across Europe from Syria, and then lived in The Jungle at Calais. He arrived in England as an asylum seeker and was told the best he could hope for was to work in a car wash. He admitted an ambition to study English, and arrived at Birmingham Adult Education Services hoping to study for a GCSE. Needless to say, after a successful GCSE, he has carried on his studies and he is now looking forward to starting a Masters Degree in English in September. We were honoured that Fizend attended the event to tell his story and the whole room simultaneously rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation. With no disrespect to car washers, but wouldn’t our country be the less if he’d have followed the original advice?

Next speaking was Dr Mary Mahoney, from the University of Wolverhampton, discussing “The Value of Lifelong Learning”. She highlighted some key points that make it difficult to place a value on this type of education, including the vague definition – what actually is adult education? And what is it about? Is it about employability and skills, or is it about a full-life development and opportunity? She highlighted a few other key challenges: we don’t know what the problem we are trying to solve is and there isn’t an imperative for adult education in the way there is for schools, so schools are favoured. It was an interesting presentation with food for thought. Maybe we need a more united front to be able to really demonstrate the value of adult education?

Next Professor John Holford, from Nottingham University and joint secretary to the Centenary Commission, shared the commission’s recommendations. First, he highlighted the original need for the 1919 report: not just at a time of great reconstruction after the First World War, but at a time when many more people were now entitled to vote. He noted that democracy was growing and changing and, as a result, adult education was viewed as a chance for “building citizenship” and for “life-wide learning”. Next, when focussing on the recommendations, he again highlighted the links between what adults learn and the impact on other aspects of their lives and wider society, which he described as “learning spilling into other domains” of our lives. He also noted a key problem with the current adult education provision in England, which is that the majority of those that are accessing adult education aren’t necessarily those in the most need. A lot of funding goes to the already well-educated, and those that could truly benefit aren’t.

It was such a fantastic event, which I was truly honoured to attend, and I hope it is the start of many such events around the country. We must stand up and advocate for adult education and all share the commission’s 18 recommendations so that, in an uncertain future, adult education gets the value and funding it rightly needs.

(1) The Ministry of Reconstruction’s Report on Adult Education, now more commonly known as the 1919 report.

(Please note: this blog reflects my personal experience of the event and I am happy to be contacted to correct any inaccuracies that may have occurred in my recording of it. I was not asked to review or share the event in any way, but have chosen to do so because I think was fantastic and that the message needs to go out. My views in no way are contributed to my own employer.)

The Dictionary Game

I recently shared a photo of my whiteboard on Twitter, with all the words we’d explored as part of playing the ‘Dictionary Game’. There was quite a bit of interest, not just in the words but how to play, so I thought I’d share the rules.

But first a bit of background: full credit to my colleague Sue for creating the game, as part of a project we were working together on called ‘Work Ready’. One of the challenges of our work was engaging adult learners with vocabulary outside of their usual experience. The ‘vocab gap’ has been widely talked about and published on in recent years (reference to follow), but I think most adult literacy professionals include some exploration of vocabulary to enable and widen learners’ language experiences.

How to play:

In an ideal world, every learner is given the same edition of a dictionary (to ensure the same words are available to all). Everyone has a scrap of paper and is challenged to find a word they think their peers won’t know (even better, their tutor won’t know!). At this point, folk quite often get distracted because flicking through a dictionary is actually a fascinating thing to do. Once chosen, the words are written on the scrap of paper and are redistributed around the room, so everyone has a new word. This way of choosing vocabulary feels involving and empowering, rather than it just being more words imposed by the curriculum or the tutor. The sky is the limit!

With the new word they’ve received, each learner is tasked with looking up the word, finding out its definition, and then putting it into a sentence. This is then shared with the group. Everyone has a turn, but it’s low-stakes and non-threatening as we are all placed in the position of ‘learners’. When asked to share their word, I always ask them to spell it as I write it on the board. Again, this is non-threatening as can be read from the page, but I feel is vital to the learners’ ‘ownership’ of the word. The definitions often promote some discussion, especially if there’s more than one meaning of the word or if the word changes in usage, ie from a noun to an adjective. Putting the word into a sentence is useful. It helps us to understand that most of the time we encounter words we don’t know, we actually do so in context, thus enabling us to make smart guesses about the meaning.

I often ask learners how they found their word, which can prompt a useful conversation about how to use a dictionary effectively without me resorting to a ‘talk and chalk’ lecture. In my experience, the majority of adult learners know they need the first three letters of a word to find it effectively, but aren’t aware why there’s two words at the top of every page of the dictionary and that they represent the first and last word on the page. Why would they if no one has ever shown them?

You can use this just as a starter to get folk listening and engaged, before introducing your lesson topic, or it can be used to open up into wider discussions and to feed into larger class activities. It is easily adaptable across student ages and stages, as you can choose an appropriate edition of dictionary to reflect your groups.

Most of all, enjoy! I really enjoy playing, as I love to share my passion for words with my learners.

My action research thoughts

Previously, I completed action research as part of my Open University studies, namely for the “English Grammar in Context” module. The context was my teaching and I specifically focussed on an adult literacy class at a Birmingham probation office.

The problem I had identified to solve was seemingly about grammar, but turned into something much broader.

Initially, I had identified that some students could struggle to develop their writing due to incomplete sentence structure. I wished to investigate the barriers that students had to developing their writing. To enable me to do that, I asked the question:

What does a grammatical analysis of a piece of everyday writing by my own students reveal about its effectiveness?

I chose to follow a Hallidayan approach to linguistic analysis, particularly because he identifies that lexicogrammatical choices are not just about the language in use, but also about the social setting as well. The focus of my study was largely social, considering adult literacy through the lens of popular policy dialogue of the time[1] that apparently poor basic skills can impact on an individual’s life to the point of social exclusion or a higher probability of offending.

When collecting data for the analysis, I encountered an unexpected issue, namely the lack of everyday writing for the cohort. Using the categories of ‘writing to maintain the household’, ‘writing to maintain communication’, and ‘personal writing’, from Barton and Padmore (1994), I found that, from all the students within the cohort, they only identified with a maximum of one of the categories. I also encountered considerable anxiety around writing outside of their comfort zones, apparently linked to fear of making mistakes in spelling, punctuation or grammar.

Although not part of my initial study, I believed there was sufficient evidence that a lack of everyday reading and writing practices affected progress. Within the group was ‘student 4’, someone who had joined the class very enthusiastically, had excellent attendance, but whose progress had plateaued quite quickly. I was convinced the answer lay in his everyday literacy practices, or rather a lack of them. I compared his progress against another student, in a mainstream literacy class, who was also completing a counselling course alongside the literacy course, and who was reading and writing large amounts. This student’s progress was expediential.

Although small, my initial study allowed me to develop my teaching practice and pedagogy to ensure that students have the opportunity to develop their grammar to understand sentence structure, as well as lots of opportunities to write (therefore practising the art of writing). It also showed me the importance of using real-life examples and of modelling good writing. I believe this has the positive effect of building student confidence in their writing ability and, therefore, their ‘voice’.[2]

However, ever since, it has always felt important that I also promote everyday literacy practices. This led me to the Reading for Pleasure research and work, plus various writing for pleasure activities, which I promote to my students and are often the topic of this blog. I’d like, therefore, to be able to investigate further how effective this approach is and am intending to apply for the ETF/SUNCETT Practitioner Research Programme to give me the opportunity to explore this further.

I believe that raising everyday literacy levels would build confidence, voice and skills for all students, regardless of subject studied, so therefore hope to develop transferable models that can be used by other teachers and educators.


[1] The Skills for Life national strategy:

[2] For me, language and literacy have a strong link to identity, which I am currently exploring, looking at the work of Kate Pahl and Ruth Finnegan – to be followed up in a further blog post.

Barton, D. and Padmore, S. (1994) Roles, Networks, and Values in Everyday Writing, in Graddol, D., Maybin, J. and Stierer, B. (1994) Researching Language and Literacy in Social Context. Avon, The Open University.