Do older struggling readers still require phonics?

‘Older struggling readers’ are students in Year 4 and above, when reading in school has shifted from learning to read to reading to learn. In these school years, text complexity and reading demands increase and students who have not developed fundamental reading skills fall further and further behind. So what needs to be done? Do these students still require phonics?

Older children who struggle with reading almost always have a deficit in decoding or vocabulary or both (Nation, 2018). It is therefore important to determine through assessment which component of reading underlie their difficulties. In their book Thinking Reading: What every secondary teacher needs to know about reading, James and Dianne Murphy provide practical advice for secondary teachers on identifying the specific reading skill/s that require remediation.

Among students who have poor decoding, there may be problems with any, or a combination of, phonological skills necessary to learn to read, including phonological awareness, rapid automatic naming, phonological short term/working memory and/or phonic decoding.

Some people are critical of phonics because they believe it has failed the older reader and therefore is an ineffective way to teach students. Others criticise phonemic awareness and believe that it is irrelevant for older readers (O’Connor, 2011). What we now know, as demonstrated by a substantial amount of evidence, is that phonemic awareness plays an essential role in developing a sight vocabulary  (Duff & Hulme, 2012; Ehri, 2009; Ehri, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015; Torgesen, 2004; van den Broek & Geudens, 2012). We also know that phonics in itself is not sufficient to teach students to read, however, without phonic knowledge you cannot learn to read an alphabetic code. This means both phonemic awareness and phonics are still important for older readers.

“There appears to be a common assumption among many educators and researchers that phonemic awareness training is not likely to be useful for older readers with the phonological-core deficit. However, intervention studies suggest that advanced phonemic awareness is essential for older struggling readers to make substantial progress in their word-level reading skills.”  

– Kilpatrick (2015)

Importantly, and what is commonly not understood, is that phonemic awareness still develops in typically developing readers until Year 3 or 4 (Kilpatrick, 2015). The phonemic awareness skills that continue to develop are phoneme manipulation, deletion and substitution, and it is these phonemic awareness skills that must continue to be developed in all readers, including readers beyond Year 4 who are experiencing difficulty. These students are often labelled ‘treatment resistors’ and research reviews into these students have concluded that poor phonemic awareness skills is a common underlying problem. (Al Otaiba & Fuchs, 2002, 2006; Dukleth Johnson & Swanson, 2011; Torgerson, 2000).

Many approaches to remediation teach the phonemic awareness skills of segmenting and blending, but do not explicitly teach the advanced phonemic awareness skills of deletion, substitution and manipulation (Kilpatrick, 2015) that are essential for orthographic mapping to occur during the process of self-teaching.


Advanced phonemic awareness skills and phonics

The advanced phonemic awareness skills should not be developed in the absence of phonics, in fact they are best developed with phonics (phoneme grapheme correspondences). According to the body of research examined by Kilpatrick, 2015, the best reading remediation involves three essential elements;

  1. Advanced phonemic awareness training (deletion, substitution and manipulation)
  2. Phonics instruction and reinforcement
  3. Authentic reading opportunities reading connected text

Older struggling readers require multidimensional reading programs that include study in vocabulary, fluency, word study (including word recognition, analysis, morphology and structure), comprehension and motivation (Boardman et al). Boardman acknowledges that secondary students generally do not require instruction in single syllable words, however there may be some students whose reading development is so behind that they will benefit from this type of instruction.


The rich get richer

A student who is struggling to learn to read usually avoids reading. Practicing reading is important for several reasons. Firstly, partially known words become automatic as the reader encounters these words in connected texts. Secondly, the reader is exposed to new words which they have to figure out using their phonic knowledge combined with context. This exposure to new words increases their vocabulary via stems, roots, prefixes and suffixes that make up the morphemes of the English language and they come to understand that these morphemes change the grammatical function of a word.

Furthermore, they begin to see that many words share a common orthography with related meanings despite their differences in pronunciation e.g., sign, signing, signal and signature.  Practice with these ‘chunks’ of language can improve reading fluency and increase their comprehension.

Whilst good readers get better at reading with plenty of practice, the poor readers avoid the task of reading and miss out on countless opportunities to build vocabulary, fluency and comprehension and fall even further behind their peers, this is known as the ‘Matthew Effect’.

Reading researchers (Nagy & Herman, 1987; Anderson Wilson & Fielding, 1988) have estimated that a student whose ability falls in the 50th percentile who reads for 4.6 minutes a day is exposed to 282,000 words per year, a students who is in the 90th percentile for reading ability who reads for just 20 minutes a day will be exposed to 1.8 million words per year. Compare this to a student in the 10th percentile, who avoids reading and reads for less than 1 minute per day, they are exposed to a mere 8,000 words per year.  (See Figure 1)

Older students may wish to choose their own authentic reading material because they are often highly motivated to want to read it, however, there are now a range of texts with story lines that appeal to the older students that do not contain overly complex phoneme grapheme relationships such as the Catch up Readers and TAP phonics books for Ipad. We should not be giving struggling older readers beginner decodable books to read that may be found in a kindergarten or prep level classroom that have illustrations obviously aimed at these younger students.

Helping older struggling readers to keep up with the increasing demands and pace of the classroom

We should also be mindful that students who are in late primary through to high school will require time for additional instruction as described above until they are reading at grade level. Until students receive such instruction they will require accommodations to enable them to keep up with the increasing demands and pace of the classroom. Older struggling readers will benefit from;

  • Hearing stories or novels via use of a reader or through audiobooks (Books can be obtained through Vision Australia if the students are deemed to have a ‘print disability’)
  • They should be given readers and scribes during assessment so that their knowledge on the subject matter is being tested and not their ability to read and write.
  • Additional time to complete reading and/or assessments. Some students have slower processing ability and for those using readers and scribes or e-books we must acknowledge that this is slower way to read material and takes more time than proficient reader.
  • Access to computers with speech to text and text to speech programs
  • Access to E books and text books means that students can have their computers/devices read the text to them.

Older struggling readers are still in need of good quality reading instruction that includes explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness alongside high quality vocabulary, fluency and comprehension instruction – it’s never too late.