Phonics for Adolescent Readers

Struggling Readers Missing Phonics Skills

When I first started teaching struggling adolescent readers, I wanted to make sure that I was able to find specific areas of weakness for each student, so that I would be able to find the right materials and instruction to help them succeed as readers.

As part of a baseline assessment, I decided to use a phonics mastery test in addition to an informal reading inventory. What I found was that many of the students in my classes were missing basic phonics skills.

Some of the most startling deficits I found were:

  • confusing consonants and vowels
  • inability to identify consonant blends and digraphs
  • no knowledge of syllabication
  • inability to recognize long and short vowel sounds
  • poor rhyming skills

My question was how best to fill the gaps and help students acquire missing phonics skills so that they could use them when decoding unfamiliar words. I had to consider the feelings of my 9th - 12th graders when designing a way to incorporate phonics instruction, because they are not little kids and traditional phonics activities would have insulted them. They would not have accepted traditional phonics instruction; the kind used to teach emergent readers those skills.

So, here's what I did and it helped my students to acquire some of the basic skills and fill the gaps, so that they were better able to decode unfamiliar words.


Word Work

My students were never going to accept "phonics" as part of their curriculum, so, I called it Word Work. Every day we learned about how words work. Lessons lasted about 5 minutes and students spent another 5 - 10 minutes inserting notes into an interactive notebook.

The topics we covered were:

  • Consonants with more than one sound
  • Consonant Combinations
  • Rules for vowel sounds
  • Rules for syllabication
  • Morphemic Analysis
  • Context Clues
  • Main Ideas and Supporting Details
  • Signal Words


Word Work Interactive Notebook

Interactive Notebook with student response to notes.
Interactive Notebook with student response to notes.

Interactive Notebooks

I had my students keep an interactive notebook. Everyday I would give a very short mini-lesson on a phonics skill, but I used technical jargon. For example, I used terms like decode, morphome, phoneme, etc. I wanted them to feel like they were learning college-level information related to reading.

Each notebook had a table of contents and each day's notes were glued into the notebook.

Students responded by giving their own examples, or completing a short assignment on the facing page.

The notebooks were kept throughout the semester and turned in as part of a final project.


Transferring the Skills

Just keeping a notebook full of phonics rules was not going to help my struggling readers transfer those skills, so during vocabulary instruction, we looked for words that had word work features we were learning. For example, following the mini-lesson on sounds of C, where C sounds like S when it is followed by e, i or y, any time we came across a word that incorporated this rule, I would ask my students how I knew what sound the C made and often they would point it out to me as well. When the students struggled over decoding a word during reader's theater, I would ask them about the specific phonics rule they had learned, that might help them to recognize how to pronounce the word. Encouraging the students to apply the rules they were learning to unfamiliar words they encountered was helping them to build a strong foundation for content area reading.


Word Work pocket game to reinforce syllabication rules.
Word Work pocket game to reinforce syllabication rules.

Finding Resources

There are tons of free phonics materials online, so, finding resources for my word work lessons was not difficult. I used elementary material found on the Florida Council of Reading Research website fcrr.org and modified it for my students. I also sought out college remedial reading course texts to help me with scope and sequence for this part of my instruction. My students really liked playing games that reinforced what they had learned.

Making it Work

Although word work (aka phonics) is a very small part of the day's routine, the skills learned have to be constantly reinforced. The key to making word work successful for adolescents is helping them to transfer the skills to their content area classes. It is a work in progress, that requires the instructor to always be looking for those teachable moments to reinforce lessons learned. Word sorts that require students to identify a specific word feature, using words from their content area textbooks, is a powerful activity to help students transfer these skills.

Students sorting words
Students sorting words

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