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Phonics Instruction for Middle and High School ELLs

While it may seem the most expedient solution, it is not appropriate to put an older ELL student in a lower grade to receive the appropriate reading instruction. Age-appropriate activities integrated with academic content give older students the opportunity to make progress as readers.

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I recently had the opportunity to teach summer school, and two of my sixth-grade students barely read at a first-grade level. This was very challenging for me, and I struggled to find the right way to address their need for phonics and comprehension instruction. Little by little, however, I began to find some simple strategies that worked for them, such as turning activities into a game. We began to make some progress, and I discovered some new ways to help older students build a stronger foundation of basic reading skills.

Before reviewing those strategies, however, it is helpful to understand where the difficulty lies when teaching phonics to older students.


Teaching phonics to middle and high school English language learners (ELLs) poses the following challenges:

Phonics: Challenges for Older ELLs


Phonics becomes a minimal part of the Language Arts curriculum for students in intermediate grades and above — it is assumed that students have learned the sound/symbol correspondence necessary to read by the upper elementary grades.

For ELLs who start their education in the U.S. after 4th grade, this can be very problematic because the intensive phonetic instruction they need is unlikely to be a part of their daily curriculum.

Limited literacy skills in native language

Many educators believe that students only need to learn to read once. Once the concept of matching a symbol with a sound has been learned, it can be applied to new languages.

Students who have not learned to read in their native language or whose native language does not use a phonetic alphabet may struggle to grasp the concept of phonetic relationships between sound and letters.

In addition, these students must master that concept while applying it to a new language.

Unfamiliar vocabulary words

Phonics instruction may also be tied to vocabulary words that are unfamiliar to ELLs.

Worksheets with “fat, cat, mat, hat” are not always effective with older learners because of the lack of context and meaning.

ELLs may not recognize all of the words listed in these drills, and they will not necessarily apply the sounds learned in the drills when they encounter new words in their reading text if they don’t see a connection from one exercise to the other.

Age-appropriate instructional materials and strategies

Phonics instruction materials and strategies are often targeted towards much younger children.

While some materials can be adapted for use by older students, most are unlikely to be engaging or appealing for middle and high school ELLs. They may feel embarrassed at using “childish” materials, and they will quickly get bored by the drill and repetition that younger students have a need for.

Older students want to engage in activities requiring the use of higher-order thinking skills, which early literacy materials don’t usually offer.

There is good news, however. Despite these challenges, there are a number of strategies which can be effective for older ELLs. Give some of these a try! You can also find more research-based strategies and information for adolescents in Key Literacy Component: Decoding by the National Institute for Literacy.

Basic Strategies: Build a Foundation

Enlist extra support: ELLs in 4th grade and above who need further instruction on phonics will be most helped by intensive intervention. Ideally, they should attend a reading remediation class or receive special support to continue phonics instruction from a reading specialist. If such support is unavailable for your students, ask your school’s reading specialist and principal for help finding a research-based supplemental or intervention program that you can use with the student.

Use hands-on activities to help teach letter-sound relationships: This can include using manipulatives such as counters, sound boxes, magnetic letters, or Scrabble tiles. Students may also be interested in creating their own materials on the computer or through an art project. Month-by-Month Phonics for Upper Grades: A Second Chance for Struggling Readers and Students Learning English also offers a number of ideas for incorporating phonics activities into the curriculum.


Provide targeted support for students whose native language is non-alphabetic: Language skills transfer from one language to another; students literate in their native language will already have background knowledge of how reading works.

If their native language is non-alphabetic, however, students may need extra practice in the following areas:

  • Direction: Students may not be accustomed to reading from left to right and top to bottom.
  • Letter-sound recognition: Students may need extra practice on matching sounds and letters, particularly if they are used to a system of characters that symbolize words rather than sounds.

Use an alphabet chant: If older students need to review their alphabetic skills, look for a jazz or hip-hop alphabet chant that students will find entertaining and engaging. There are many examples online and on YouTube.

Have students write for sound: Say a short sentence that includes one or more words that include the target phonics feature(s). Ask students to listen carefully and then write what they heard. This activity trains students to listen for the individual sounds in words and represent them phonetically in their writing.

Work in small groups: If students are past the age at which phonemic awareness and phonological skill-building have been addressed (typically kindergarten through first or second grade), attend to these skills one-on-one or in small groups with developmentally appropriate and engaging activities. Ask your school’s reading specialist for help finding appropriate activities and materials.

Intermediate Strategies: Make It Relevant and Fun!

Help students make a connection between their first language and English: For students with stronger native language literacy skills (especially in languages related to English like Spanish), help them understand that the process of sounding out words is the same across languages. Explain some letters may make the same or similar sounds in both languages. Knowing this can help Spanish-dominant students, for example, as they learn to decode words in English. Make sure they are aware of cognates as well!

Teach phonics in context: Use authentic text and/or vocabulary words that are known to the ELLs. Using relevant literature and content material you can introduce and reinforce:

  • letter recognition
  • beginning and ending sounds
  • blends
  • rhyming words
  • silent letters
  • homonyms

Integrate phonics and content instruction: When possible, collaborate with the reading specialist and content-area teachers to integrate phonics instruction into content and classroom lessons and texts, as well as into academic vocabulary instruction.

Make it a game: Try activities as simple as looking for a particular sound on the page, or reciting words and having students hold up a sign with the correct sound on it after each word. You may also want to try short games of Scrabble, Hangman, and Memory. These are quick activities but they can effectively reinforce the targeted phonetic concept.

Look for high-low reading materials: “High interest/low readability” texts are books that are written on a first to third grade reading level but treat themes and topics that are of interest to students of middle school or high school age. You can find a number of suggestions in the following resources; many of the books listed may be available in your school’s library or in your local public library.

Use poetry, jazz chants, and songs: Find poems, chants, and songs that relate to students’ interests, or ask them to bring some of their favorites in that can be included in the lesson. Recite the text aloud, and then give students time to practice reading aloud as well.

Integrate phonics instruction with word study: Teach students how to identify word parts, break words down into syllables, and use word families. Use content-area words for this exercise that students are likely to find in their academic work.

Final Thoughts

While it may seem to be the most expedient solution, it is not appropriate to put an older ELL student in a lower grade — for example, 1st grade — in order to get the appropriate reading instruction. This can be very humiliating for the student and cause behaviors that would be detrimental to learning.

By keeping activities age-appropriate and fun, and by tying instruction to the academic content that middle and high school students need to master, you will give your students the opportunity they need to start making progress as readers and writers. It will be challenging, but the extra effort it takes to engage them may be the key that unlocks the door to their future.