Home » Phonics at Secondary and for Older Teens and Adults

Phonics at Secondary and for Older Teens and Adults

Word level reading difficulties at secondary school (England):

The failure to ensure that all children in early primary 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 multi-cue word-guessing, 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 test. Secondary teacher Heather Fearn explains:
”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. Heather Fearn. Reading failure? What reading failure?)

Heather Fearn: Reading failure? What reading failure?

– Part 1. Jacqui Moller-Butcher’s findings regarding ‘look-alike reading’ in KS3:
”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” (italics added)
Part 2. The harmful legacy of multi-cueing and its evolution into look-alike reading – a secondary school perspective:
”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.” (italics added)

”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 30/10/14)

Every year a significant percentage of children start at one of England’s state 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).

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.” (Gill Jones. Ofsted Blog. 2022. https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2022/04/28/supporting-secondary-school-pupils-who-are-behind-with-reading/)

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” 
(Teacher. Twitter)

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”


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)

”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 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” 
(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.” 

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” (https://mrbunkeredu.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/things-i-wish-theyd-told-me/)

”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)

When a secondary school lacks staff with expertise in teaching phonics decoding, students with word decoding and spelling difficulties may be set to work on computers with ‘remedial phonics’ software installed (see Room 101). Using a computer as a phonics tutor is, as Dr. Philip MacMillan explains, unlikely to help them. ”Computers are fine for practice but if your students have still not acquired facility with phonological analysis and synthesis by age 11/12 then you might be better off using a competent adult who can direct attention to the articulatory process and how it relates to reading. It will also help establish connections between letters and sounds if writing (by hand) is a part of the process. The kinaesthetic activity involved in writing integrates visual, oral and aural activities, keyboarding is less effective as it uses a different part of the brain and is less fine grained. In those with significant difficulties learning is best mediated by another more competent human being as a large component of learning involves social processes…We all lip read when listening to speech if the face is visible and in circumstances where there is ambiguity in the incoming speech signal lip reading will assist with extracting the sounds. In those with undeveloped phonological analysis, for whatever reason, there need to be as many sources of input as possible, a disembodied voice will provide less information than a human face visible to the listener.” 
(EP. P. MacMillan. SENCo forum 8/2/13)

If a child arrives at secondary school still struggling to decode, it will be more difficult to undo the damage from faulty or missing 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 (or any organisation2) who suggests that children, ”will have been phonicked up to the eyeballs” by the time they enter secondary school, and therefore if they are still struggling to decode and spell, they ”need something completely different from phonics”. Many primary schools are still teaching children to use a range of multi-cue word-guessing strategies for decoding (NFER 2013) outside their daily phonics lesson and in any intervention.

2For example: the government-funded EEF advises that ”For older readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach”.

”Isn’t it shocking that anyone in the teaching profession has the misguided notion that ‘’phonics doesn’t work for some children’’. What else do they think will ‘work’?” 
(Debbie Hepplewhite)

Gill Jones, 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)

So if phonics doesn’t work…what then?

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

If a pupil in secondary stage education is struggling with decoding and spelling, they need a high-quality phonics intervention.

Assess their ability to accurately decode pseudo-words, their alphabet code knowledge and spelling – use the free tests here (scroll down). The vast majority of poor readers of secondary age have big gaps in their knowledge of the alphabet code, especially the advanced code, and struggle with reading and spelling multi-syllable words. In addition, struggling readers are prone to guessing whilst reading, using a mixture of inefficient strategies. These unhelpful strategies are the result of past teaching approaches and need to be replaced by a phonics only, left to right, all-through-the-word decoding reflex. An intensive, remedial programme that rapidly and systematically teaches the English alphabet code along with decoding and encoding skills, is likely to be necessary. Use a programme suitable for older children/teenagers with secondary stage pupils -see Resources.

”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.” 
(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.”

”Phonics is the only game in town” 
(John Walker)

Phonics for Older Teens and Adults:

Back in 2008, Phil Beadle taught a class of illiterate adults for the Channel 4 TV programme series ‘Can’t Read Can’t Write’ using a self-devised phonics programme, developed with advice from ‘dyslexia’ and primary reading specialists. He was scathing about the government’s adult literacy provision: “At present, the provision for people who can’t read at all is a series of activities for the mentally deficient; they say it’s all about balance. Speaking and listening doesn’t help you decode the building blocks. They don’t need speaking and listening. They need the code. These people have huge barriers to overcome just to get to the class. The Entry 1 materials are designed for people who can only read a tiny bit. In the first module, phonics appears on page 14 and teaches the “sh” sound. It appears 16 times before they reach that point. The materials are illogical and incompetent. A proper Adult Literacy programme3 desperately needs to be written, and made statutory” (RRF newsletter 61)

”Don’t teach adults as if they are babies, with wooden letters. This is dark ages dyslexic teaching” 
(Debbie Hepplewhite)

32019. The Education and Training Foundation https://www.et-foundation.co.uk/ offers a ‘Phonics for Adults’ training course: Post-16 Entry Level Phonics Approaches for improving spelling and basic reading.

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 phonics programme for KS1, was used (see Resources for 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)

”Phonics isn’t just baby stuff” 
(Debbie Hepplewhite)

The Bridge Over the Reading Gap wp.me/p4hKgx-121
Dianne Murphy answers questions on ‘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

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

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