Phonics Instruction for Middle and High School ELLs

Author: Ivonne Santiago, Bilingual/ESL Specialist


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Learning to read is a little bit like learning to ride a bike while you are balancing a person on the handle-bars, holding a pole, spinning plates, and focusing on the destination at the same time! (Robertson, 2009).

Reading is a complicated process and yet a critical skill. Many children struggle to become strong readers and it can be particularly challenging for English Language Learners (ELL’s). Reading at an appropriate rate with adequate comprehension is necessary. So what role does phonics play in this goal to acquire fluency and comprehension? In this article, we will explore the challenges ELL’s face with phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, why this has a place in middle and high school classrooms and highlight research-based best practices.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in words – to manipulate them. This is particularly difficult for ELL’s because they may not yet have enough experience with English to be able to distinguish sounds that differ from those of their native language. Also, they may not be able to “hear” or produce a new sound in a second language. If they cannot hear and work with the phonemes of spoken words, they will have difficulties learning how to relate these phonemes to letters when they see them in written words.

Phonics instruction teaches students to understand and learn the relationship between letters of written language (graphemes) and the individual sounds of spoken language (phonemes). It teaches children how to use these relationships to read and write words accurately. Systemic phonics instruction can be very effective in helping newcomer ELL’s, even those at fairly low levels of language proficiency, to learn to decode words. Most ELL’s will need additional time and practice to learn to hear and produce the sounds of English, to learn the meanings of words used in phonics instruction, to learn combinations of letters that make the same sound, and to learn many more sight words than native English speakers. Additional time for phonics instruction should be built into reading programs for ELL’s.

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 learned to read in their native language have a distinct advantage because they were able to learn this concept with familiar sounds and words. Because some students enter the U.S. schools with limited or even no history of schooling, they may lack understanding of basic concepts, content knowledge, and critical thinking skills. They may not even read or write in their home language. These students will struggle to put together the sound/symbol correspondence concept, new words, and new sounds all at once. Nevertheless, they will be expected to develop higher-order thinking skills in English and prepare for high stakes tests while mastering basic literacy in a language other than their own.

Phonics has a place in the classroom for older learners and these skills fit into the “big picture” of learning to read. (Heidi Hyte, 2012) One reason why phonics belongs in middle school and high school classrooms is because fluency is compromised when students get “stuck” on a word. When students come across difficult words, what happens? Their eyes stop on the word. They reread it again and again. They may even reread the sentence to see if they could pick up context clues. If this scenario occurs frequently in a student’s reading, is that fluent reading? No.

Second, if students are using too much “brain power” to decode words, there isn’t enough left to grasp the meaning of the text. They need to learn strategies to decode difficult words they come across in their reading. These strategies need to become automatic so that students are able to decode words quickly and effortlessly. Their lack of fluency will impede their comprehension.

Third, phonics is important to help students pronounce words correctly. How many times have you heard “Teacher, what is this word?” Once you read it to them and they hear the word pronounced, they say, “Oh yeah, I know that word!” Pronouncing words correctly contributes to better fluency and comprehension. At first, the word may look unfamiliar, but once it’s pronounced correctly, they can connect the sound of the word to its meaning.

Lastly, spelling is improved when students learn phonics. As students better understand letter relationships and phonics rules, they can start to recognize and correct their spelling errors. In turn, the development of these skills will help them become more independent learners because they are not dependent on a dictionary or a teacher to tell them how to decode words that are unfamiliar in their reading.

Teaching phonics poses quite a few challenges to middle and high school ELL’s. Phonics becomes a minimal part of the Language Arts curriculum for students in intermediate grades and above. Unfortunately, it is assumed that students have learned the sound/symbol correspondence necessary to read by the upper elementary grades. For those ELL’s who start their education in the U.S. after 4th grade, this can be very problematic because the intensive phonics instruction they need is unlikely to be a part of their daily schedule.

You may ask “What about those students that have limited literacy skills in their native language?” Students who have not learned to read in their native language or whose language does not use a phonetic alphabet may struggle to grasp the concept of phonetic relationships between sounds and letters. Also, these students must master the concept while applying it to a new language.

Phonics instruction may also be tied to vocabulary words that are unfamiliar to ELL’s. Basic worksheets with CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words are not always effective with older learners because of the lack of context and meaning. They may not recognize all the words in the these basic drills and will not necessarily apply these sounds when they encounter new words in their reading text if they don’t see a connection from one exercise to the other.

Because phonics instruction primarily occurs prior to the 4th grade, instructional materials are often targeted towards much younger children. This poses a problem for our older students because most materials are unlikely to be engaging or appealing to them. They may feel embarrassed at using “childish” materials, and they will quickly get bored by the drill and repetition. Our older students want to engage in activities that will require them to use higher-order thinking skills, which early literacy materials don’t usually have.

Despite these challenges, there are a number of strategies which can be effective for older ELL’s. Begin by building a foundation. Older ELL’s that need further instruction will be most assisted by intensive intervention, so enlist extra support. Ideally students should receive special support to continue phonics instruction from a specialist, preferably an ESL specialist.

Use hands-on activities to help teach letter-sound relationships. This can include using manipulatives such as counters, sound boxes, and magnetic letters or Scrabble tiles. Students may even be interested in making their own materials on the computer, which can then be incorporated into an art project. Students will feel more like they are taking ownership of their learning.

Students literate in their native language will already have background knowledge of how reading works. For those students whose native language is non-alphabetic, targeted support will be needed in directionality and letter-sound recognition. They may not be accustomed to reading from left to right or they are used to a system of characters that symbolize words rather than sounds, such as Japanese and Chinese.

If older students need to review their alphabetic skills, look for jazz or hip-hop alphabet chants that students will find entertaining and engaging. There are quite a few free apps such as AutoRap, Rap to Beats and Rap-A-Long that can be downloaded on mobile devices as well as iPads. Such apps can be used to create these chants; they are very user friendly and students will thoroughly enjoy using them.

Students can also write for sound. The teacher can dictate a sentence that includes one or more words that include the target phonics feature and have them write what they hear. This activity trains students to listen for the individual sounds in words and represent them phonetically in their writing.

Most importantly, incorporate strategies that make learning phonics 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 that some letters may make the same or similar sounds in both languages. Knowing this can help Spanish-dominant students especially if they are aware of the Spanish-English cognates.

Use authentic text and/or vocabulary words that are known to the ELL’s. You can introduce and reinforce letter recognition, beginning and ending sounds, blends, rhyming words, silent letters and homonyms using relevant literature and content materials. When possible, collaborate with the content area teachers to integrate phonics instruction into the classrooms lessons, as well as academic vocabulary instruction.

Create games like a short game of Scrabble to reinforce word building skills. An online board game from Lanternfish, an ESL website, can be used to review beginning, middle and end. Have the students play a Time Game in which they use a stopwatch to answer as many questions as possible. These are quick and easy activities that can effectively reinforce the targeted phonetic concept.

Look for high-low reading material. These texts are written on a first to third grade level but treat themes and topics that are of interest to students of middle school or high school age. These readers are available in the following genres: traditional literature, realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, biography and informational texts.

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 as much as possible for this exercise because students are more likely to encounter them in their academic work.

In conclusion, phonics does indeed have a role in the older students’ classroom. Even older students need to be taken back to the basics. Some teachers are concerned that taking these learners back to the sounds and letters of the alphabet and teaching decoding strategies will cause the students to feel that the instruction is too “elementary.” I disagree. If the instruction is delivered in non-condescending way, older students are appreciative of the fact that someone took the time to cover the foundational skills that no one else dared to.





“All About Adolescent Literacy.” Phonics Instruction for Middle and High School ELLs. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Effective Programs for English Language Learners (ELL) with Interrupted Formal Education.” Office of English Language Learning and Migrant Education-Indiana Department of Education, n.d. Web.

“English Language Learners: Literacy and Language Development.” Indiana Department of Education, 13 Mar. 2010. Web.

Hyte, Heidi. ESL Trail: Phonics for Middle School and High School Classrooms. N.p., 12 Feb. 2012. Web.

Hyte, Heidi. Four Reasons Phonics Has a Place in Middle School and High School Classrooms – Reading Horizons. N.p., 20 Sept. 2012. Web.

Robertson, Kristina. “All About Adolescent Literacy.” Phonics Instruction for Middle and High School ELLs. Colorin Colorado, 2009. Web.

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