Home » Phonics at Secondary School and for Older Teens and Adults

Phonics at Secondary School and for Older Teens and Adults

Word level reading difficulties at secondary school (England):

The failure to ensure that all children in early primary education are taught ”a vigorous programme of phonics work” (Rose report 2006), to enable them to use phonics as the sole mechanism for decoding print, rather than alternative word reading strategies*, has had serious, long-term negative consequences for vast numbers of secondary students. This includes many who are articulate and academically able, scoring above the expected standard in the ‘end of primary’ reading comprehension test.
Secondary History teacher Heather Fearn explains: Reading failure? What reading failure? (2015)
”Reading failure is endemic. I would estimate that about a third of my A level students have noticeable issues with word level reading that significantly impact upon their progress in history at A level…At secondary school we should be giving students more complex texts to build their vocabularies and reading stamina. However, the research is pretty clear about when difficulties need to be identified if children are to overcome them – way back in year 1. The research is also pretty clear about what it is that struggling readers lack – a grasp of the alphabetic principle that they are able to apply fluently when reading.” (italics added)

*Alternative word reading strategies (multi-cue word-guessing, whole word memorising, rimes and analogies) are disappearing fast from Reception/Y1 in England’s primary schools due to a series of actions taken by the DfE. Unfortunately, the NLS ‘Searchlight’ strategies still have a firm hold in many upper primary classes as KS2 teachers usually have little or no training in teaching high-quality phonics (Mills. T. 2023). For more on this subject, scroll down to the heading, ‘What’s Still Going Wrong with the Teaching of Reading and Spelling in KS1 and KS2?’ https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/should-i-have-my-child-assessed/

2020: The harmful legacy of multi-cueing and its evolution into look-alike reading in KS3 – a secondary school perspective: ”The sheer extent of guess-reading and the number of students reading aloud at sub 150 wpm was a shock to us when we introduced 1:1 testing in September – for us it’s nearly 30% of our KS3 students. The multi-cueing strategy which may seem to work very nicely, quickly building self-esteem in Year 1 or 2 or even 3, where comparatively little vocabulary is needed to read age-appropriate books, where sentences are largely simple and short, and where pictures abound, creates a harmful legacy for a third of students in our school, and has a devastating impact on their secondary school experience, an experience that is extremely difficult to navigate as a struggling reader.”
(Jacqui Moller-Butcher. italics added)

Research finds the under-reporting of pupils with significant reading difficulties at secondary school:
2011. ”Only 46 per cent of all secondary students with decoding difficulties and 44% of secondary students with reading comprehension difficulties are on the SEN Register.”

”What our data shows us is that the SAT reading level is, in reality, no reliable indicator of reading ability. In other words, transferring to secondary school at the expected level 4b [now a score of 100] does not mean that you are a competent reader”. Furthermore, ”Research demonstrates that less than half of ‘poor readers’ (reading age under 8) are identified on secondary SEN registers – with the result that they fall further behind and leave school functionally illiterate, having received no help.” 
(Mary Meredith. blog 2014)

Every year a significant percentage of children start at one of England’s secondary schools with, at best, the reading skills of an average seven-year-old1. ”At the age of 14, 63% of white working-class boys (a euphemism since most of them are jobless like Bulldog) and more than half of the black Caribbean boys have a reading age of seven or less” (Harriet Sergeant. Fixing Broken Britain). Few will receive anything in the way of a high-quality phonics intervention at this stage of their education even though, ”Ensuring that as many children as possible are able to ‘read to learn’ is not a responsibility that ends when children leave primary school.” (Rose 2009 p108).

WASTED: The betrayal of white working-class and black Caribbean boys.

12010: One in 11 boys in England – one in seven in some areas – starts secondary school with, at best, the reading skills of an average seven-year-old.

”As a secondary teacher, you could be forgiven for assuming that students will be able to read the texts that you put in front of them as part of the wider curriculum. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.” (Naomi Hinton)
Reading…the tsunami.

”To fulfil the demands of the secondary school curriculum, pupils need to be able to read age-appropriate texts fluently. Pupils who cannot read well are not able to access the curriculum and are disadvantaged for life.” (Ofsted Blog. 2022. https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2022/04/28/supporting-secondary-school-pupils-who-are-behind-with-reading/)

”At secondary level, Ofsted expects that all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) … are able to read to an age-appropriate level and fluency (if not, they will be incapable of accessing the rest of the curriculum, and they will fall rapidly behind their peers).” (DfE. The Reading Framework 2023. p9)

North America:

”As an HS principal, we tested all freshman [England. Y10] to note 30% reading at a 2nd/3rd grade level and one student reading at pre-primary level. I hired an elementary reading specialist who focused on phonics, decoding, word patterns and etc. We witnessed rapid success.” 
(italics added. Veronica Trujillo Kunschik. USA)

”It’s my observation that too many of the top students who ace every benchmark and state test can’t handle multisyllabic words. The issue of illiteracy in secondary school flies so under the radar and that must change” wrote a teacher on Twitter/X. Australian professor Pamela Snow responded, ”I might add too that the same issues are evident in some university students when asked to read aloud in class.”

”Recent research has reported that a significant number of older students (here I mean middle school and high school) still lag in decoding ability to an extent not widely acknowledged in the field…Those adolescents who can read at a third or fourth grade level – and higher – may need targeted phonics instruction despite those reading levels.”
(Prof Shanahan. Jan 2024. Blog ‘Does the science of reading include middle school?’)

Statistics in this paper show the lack of phonics decoding/spelling ability in US pupils, grades 1-10.
”Yet, poor reading achievement in the United States continues to be a persistent problem. Numerous research findings have suggested that too few children are acquiring the decoding and fluent reading skills necessary to become competent readers. We propose that one reason for these poor outcomes is the preponderance of initial reading programs that fail to provide students with adequate phonics knowledge.”


”When students exit primary school with reading, writing, and spelling skills around a mid-primary level, as is unfortunately not uncommon, we are setting them up for a slippery slope of academic failure, behavioural dysregulation, poor school attendance, early school disengagement, possible youth justice involvement, and other emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. Their attitudes to school and learning are jaded at best, actively resentful at worst, and the adults in their world (teachers, school leaders, parents, and grandparents, allied health professionals, and tutors) despair of knowing how to find and afford the increasingly complex supports they end up needing.” (bold in original)
Prof Pamela Snow 2023. https://pamelasnow.blogspot.com/2023/10/school-leaders-and-science-of-reading.html

In Australia, ”At the start of [2019], 17,000 ­­12- and 13-year-olds walked into high school classrooms all across the country unable to read even at a minimal level. They achieved scores below the minimum standard in the Year 7 National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy reading test. A further 35,000 students achieved only the minimum standard, in which they can barely find basic information in simple written text.”
(Dr. Jennifer Buckingham. The Australian. May 23rd 2020)

”The last PISA in 2018 tested 14,000 Australian students and found the percentage of illiterate 15-year-olds had grown to almost 20 per cent. Around 40 per cent of the Australian students were unable to read at a “proficient standard.”

”A teacher trainer in Australia was telling me the other day that his secondary cohort were amazed to go back and find that many of their students couldn’t segment and blend CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC words, such as ‘mist’, ‘stop’ and ‘grand’.” 
(John Walker. Twitter/X 2019)

Why do students leave secondary school unable to read?

”There is often an expectation in secondary schools that if students haven’t learned to read well by the time they begin Year 7, it’s probably indicative of a lack of ability, or a disability.” 
(Dianne Murphy. Thinking Reading p72)

Secondary English teachers are very unlikely to have received training in teaching the essential phonics decoding component of reading. English teacher David Didau observes, ”As long as kids pick [decoding] up in Year 1 or 2, they’ll be fine. Problems arise if they arrive at secondary school without being able to do this with much facility as most of us secondary trained English teachers lack the training or time to do much about it.” (http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/02/29/the-teaching-of-reading/)

Mr Bunker wishes he’d received some positive and practical synthetic phonics training as part of his secondary English PGCE course in 2011: ”Despite being an English teacher, I consider my knowledge of phonics teaching to be incredibly poor. We didn’t actually learn about it at Uni, we were just made aware that teaching reading through phonics completely undermines the nature of ‘meaning’. We read a lot about this as well – a lot of Literature supporting the same point. Yes, we knew a lot about why Synthetic Phonics was wrong, without really being told what it was or how it is used in Primary Schools.” 

”I have spent the past nine months interviewing youngsters who are now on the streets or in and out of prison because no one taught them to read and write between the crucial ages of five and seven. And no one, in seven subsequent years of education (most dropped out of school at around 14) addressed the problem. One young man explained: “For my first two years of secondary school, I was in the top sets for maths and science, but rubbish at everything else because of my lack of literacy. That kills you in every subject. Even in maths you need to read the question.”
(Harriet Sergeant. Sunday Times. 08/02/09)

”The secondary curriculum isn’t made up of high frequency words. A year 8 who can’t decode, even one with a decent sight vocabulary, is likely to flounder.” 
(Tricia Millar)

If a child arrives at secondary school still struggling to decode and spell, it will be more difficult to undo the damage from inadequate phonics instruction. ”Older poor readers have the same basic problems as younger poor readers and need to learn the same skills. Their problems, however, are complicated by years of frustration and failure” (Hall/Moats p213). They suffer from ‘The Matthew Effect’, from the biblical verse in St. Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”, which can be summarized as, “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” Early development of reading skills leads to faster rates of skill improvement with the result that the disparity between more skilled and less skilled readers widens over time.

Stanovich: Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy.

Disregard anyone who suggests that children will have been ”phonicked up to the eyebrows” by the time they enter secondary school and therefore, if they are still struggling to decode and spell, they ”obviously need something completely different; phonics doesn’t work for some children.” In some primary schools direct and systematic phonics teaching remains ‘unloved’ and resented, seen as an unnecessary and politically motivated imposition; the lowest cost and most ubiquitous (Timothy Mills 2021) phonics programme is selected; daily phonics teaching is lacklustre and terminate as soon as possible; usually once the Y1 phonics check has taken place. In addition, many KS2 teachers lack up-to-date phonics training and expect pupils to use a range of multi-cue word-guessing strategies if they enter their classes as still slow or struggling decoders.

Ofsted’s Deputy Director for Schools wrote ”So, it’s important that assessment checks exactly which aspect(s) of reading that pupils are struggling with – whether weaker readers are having difficulty reading words accurately and/or automatically. This makes sure that you can target extra support effectively. For example, pupils who can’t read unfamiliar words accurately will need phonics teaching. Regardless of age, special educational need or background, the same knowledge of the alphabetic code and phonics skills underpins all reading.”
(Ofsted blog ‘Supporting secondary school pupils who are behind with reading’. 2022)

”Struggling readers are poor guessers and after years of failing to gain meaning by guessing, they stop reading for meaning. By secondary school, they read only familiar words in a text and skip the rest. They’re then labelled with a ‘comprehension problem’ when they actually have a decoding problem.”
(Tricia Millar)

How can secondary schools ensure all their students leave able to read?

The majority of poor readers of secondary age have big gaps in their knowledge of the alphabet code, especially the common extended code GPCs, and they struggle with reading and spelling multi-syllable words. Furthermore, struggling readers are prone to guessing whilst reading, using a mixture of inefficient strategies. These strategies need to be replaced, as quickly as possible, by a phonics-only, left-to-right, all-through-the-word decoding reflex. An intensive, high quality phonics intervention programme that rapidly and systematically teaches the elements of the English alphabet code they are missing, along with how to read and spell multi-syllable words, is likely to be necessary.

”If students do not leave school reading well, it is not because of their genes, their social and economic background, or the ‘bell curve’; it is because we, the teaching profession, have failed to deliver.” 
(Dianne Murphy. Thinking Reading p30)

Michaela Community School (http://mcsbrent.co.uk/) is a state secondary free school in Wembley (an area of high deprivation), London. In 2017 it received its first Ofsted inspection and was awarded ‘Outstanding’ in every category. About a third of their pupils start in Y7 with reading ages below chronological age, some by 4 or 5 years. By Y9 not a single child reads below their chronological age. This remarkable turnaround is achieved by the combination of a high-quality phonics intervention, lots of reading in class (for example, in each science lesson, pupils encounter over 1,000 words of scientific prose pitched to GCSE, A-Level and beyond), and the least able readers stay for 30 minutes after school every day for Reading Club.

Michaela school’s SENCo describes in detail how the school gets all of its pupils reading at or above chronological age by Y9: https://tabularasaeducation.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/reading/
”Once you have your reading age results, get all the pupils with a reading age below their chronological age to do a decoding test.”

2022. Ofsted carried out a research project on supporting struggling readers in secondary schools. This report sets out their findings and recommendations: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/now-the-whole-school-is-reading-supporting-struggling-readers-in-secondary-school

The Bridge Over the Reading Gap wp.me/p4hKgx-121
Secondary-age reading specialist Dianne Murphy answers questions about ‘dyslexia’ & other labels; phonics & decoding; training for secondary teachers, and Reading Recovery.

”If a student leaves secondary school unable to read it is the school’s fault.”

5 things every new (secondary) teacher should know about reading.

On Reading: ”The great scandal continues, and our multi-billion pound education system continues to churn out tens of thousands of students every year who cannot read or write adequately. What the educators and the sponsors, by and large, do not seem to understand is what it is like to be fourteen and unable to read.”

Why can’t children read… Dickens?

Phonics at secondary school is not just for intervention: How to help secondary pupils with reading and writing complex words.

7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read.

Phonics for Older Teens and Adults:

The almost universal assumption that older teenagers and adults would find phonics-based literacy classes ‘infantile’ and boring, was tested back in 2008. A small project, using synthetic phonics with adults, was set up by the ‘National Research and Development Council for Adult Literacy and Numeracy’ because, as they acknowledged, ”The research base for knowing how to improve the teaching of adult literacy is markedly deficient.” (Burton et al intro.) Despite the fact that the project was done with small groups, rather than one-to-one, and the DfE’s then phonics programme for KS1 (L&S 2007 now discontinued) was used (see Resources for phonics programmes, resources and training suitable for adults), synthetic phonics proved to be a huge success with teachers and learners alike. ”The learners (mainly Entry 1-3) made significant progress in reading comprehension and spelling”, and ”This progress was achieved in a very short time (on average..between five and six sessions).” (Burton et al p9)

I haven’t got my glasses: the adult literacy challenge

Why phonics for older teens and adults?

Phonics for adult functional skills. Six pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Why the Adult Education World Is Overdue In Embracing the Science of Reading (USA)
”It is long past time for the adult ed world to embrace the evidence and catch up to the Science of Reading. There are obstacles, of course. Adults are not only less cute than children; fewer education dollars are allotted to them, fewer teachers and schools are concerned with them, and absolutely nobody is making bank writing books to entice them to read.”

Ten years into my college teaching career, students stopped being able to read effectively.
Adam Kotsko (USA) 2024:
”…fads coming out of schools of education. In the latter category is the widely discussed decline in phonics education…I started to see the results of this ill-advised change several years ago, when students abruptly stopped attempting to sound out unfamiliar words and instead paused until they recognized the whole word as a unit…Even aside from the impact of smartphones, their experience of reading is constantly interrupted by their intentionally cultivated inability to process unfamiliar words.”