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Struggling with phonics?

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

Some children make limited progress with phonics. Why? Some children receive a diet of phonics intervention after phonics intervention that does not significantly improve outcomes. Why? Could phonological awareness be the missing link?

This is the second blog post, in a series of posts, exploring issues with word reading. This blog is designed to promote discussion about the current practice in school around the following four questions:

There are video clips, commentary, downloads and suggestions to support you.

(Video clips may take a few minutes to load.)

  • About 70-80% of poor word readers have a phonological core deficit.

  • Phonological awareness skills contribute to the processes involved in learning to read and are cited as one of the strongest predictors of early reading achievement (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008).

  • Children experiencing delays in phonological awareness are at a significant risk in developing delays in reading acquisition than those with strong skills (Vloedgraven and Varhoeven 2009).

  • Some researchers have found that pupils from poorer households are at risk of phonological awareness deficits and delays because this group typically has weak general oral language skills.

  • Dyslexic pupils are more likely to need extra support to develop phonological awareness. Providing phonological awareness support reduces the risk of dyslexic pupils having difficulties with later word reading.

  • It has been argued that early identification of those at risk for reading difficulties would enable teachers to limit the development of these problems and put at risk children back on the path toward normal reading development (Hurford & Schauf, 1994; Justice, Invernizzi & Meier, 2002; Lyon et al., 2001; Torgesen, Wagner & Rashotte, 1994).

A proforma to capture your notes, if you wish:

Missing link notes page
Download PDF • 368KB

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is not the same thing as phonics.

It is AUDITORY. It involves no print.

It is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words, and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds.

Phonemic awareness is particularly important. It involves hearing language at the phoneme level. It is relevant in both children and adults, particularly those who are having difficulty with reading due to phonological deficits.

Before pupils can benefit from a phonics program that includes written letters, they must first be able to hear and manipulate oral sounds. Particularly for older pupils, this can be an element that is overlooked and might therefore be the missing link in securing progress! You sometimes have to go back to the beginning to fix the issue.

In order to resolve issues with phonics development, we might need to take focus on developing and addressing gaps in phonological awareness. Skills need to be ACCURATE and AUTOMATIC. Pupils need to be able to manipulate sounds quickly.

Can pupils (orally, no text):

  • break spoken words into syllables;

  • manipulate syllables orally - e.g. syllable deletion from a word, syllable substitution. Say magic, 'magic' now say magic without the /ic/, 'mag', now say magic, 'magic', now say magic without the /mag/, 'ic'.

  • hear the segmentation of onset and rime;

  • onset and rime patterns and manipulations, e.g. pant without the /p/ sound is ant, pant without the ant sound is /p/.

  • hear individual phonemes in a word, e.g. mad is /m/ /a/ /d/.

  • blending words back together, e.g. teacher: /m/ /a/ /d/; pupil - mad.

  • phonemic manipulation, e.g. adding phonemes, subtracting phonemes and substituting phonemes.

This list applies to pupils is at any age, not just young readers. Phonological awareness focuses on playing with sounds and is an auditory process - hearing sounds, segmenting sounds, manipulating sounds. Pupils need strong phonological awareness in order to make progress in phonics programmes. Good readers blend and segment almost without any conscious effort. They only notice the skills they are using when they come across a complex unfamiliar word that doesn’t segment easily and they have to slow down and really look at the parts of a word carefully.

Video: introduction

Download PDF file:

Phonological and phonemic awareness post
Download • 209KB

Step 1: Syllable awareness and pulling words apart

One of the best ways in which we learn new words is by pulling them apart.

Syllables are units of spoken language that humans articulate in normal speech.

Syllable awareness involves activities like counting, tapping, blending, or segmenting words into their syllables.

Every word can be broken down into syllables. Every syllable has at least a nucleus (vowel). Most syllables will also have an onset (consonants before vowel), and coda (consonants after the vowel). When the nucleus and coda are presented together, the unit is called the rime (the part that rhymes, e.g. ‘at in cat (cat, bat, sat), og in dog (log, jog), ump in bump (lump, jump)’.

There are six different types of syllables. Syllable lists can be found online.

The above website allows you to enter words and check how many syllables are in the word, has lists of different words by syllable count, shows the syllable split for individual words, lists the most common syllables. For later word efficiency, it is useful for pupils to be familiar with the most common syllables.

Counters, blocks and cards can be useful for helping pupils hear and analyse syllables. Equipped for reading success by David Kilpatrick is a useful resource (although does need some adaptation for UK pupils). What strategies and resources do you use for teaching younger and older pupils syllabication?

Video: syllabication

What teaching methods are used to support pupils with phonological awareness - and in particular, syllabication? Is there good practice from EYFS that can be shared with anyone delivering an intervention for older children and visa versa? What have you found that is effective? Do pupils work on hearing and manipulating syllables in older year groups?

The above video has extracts from the following YouTube clips:



Sarah Curran Coleman Level 4 Step 2 Syllable Segmentation


Carla Butorac The Easiest Way to Teach Students How to Count Syllables!


Roslyn Young Working with students on syllabification


Step 2: Onset rime

Our brains like patterns. Learning is usually enhanced when we can see patterns or make patterns. Children who struggle with phonics programmes often have difficulty in being able to appreciate patterns and therefore we should do all we can to help pupils with this aspect of their learning.

We can work on onset rime without printed words. Try to complete lots of oral activities. Use blank counters to help pupils identify which part of the word is changing.

The teacher says the word aloud (perhaps multiple times) and the child pulls down the a counter for the onset and a counter for the rime.

What strategies do you use to help pupils hear and manipulate words using onset and rime?

Video: Onset and Rime

The above video had extracts from:

Ingrid Boydston ( using puppets to support learning.

The time needed for interventions that focus on syllabication and onset and rime will depend on the needs of the pupils involved. Interventions can be delivered 1:1, 1:2 or in small groups. 12-14 hours might be needed to achieve both accuracy and speed. We want this aspect of phonological awareness to be strong, but the most important part of phonological awareness is step 3 -exploring words at the very smallest unit of sound level - phonemes.

Step 3: Phonemic awareness

This is the most important aspect of phonological awareness. Intervention programmes must devote plenty of time to phonemes, particularly substitution of phonemes. As with syllables and onset and rime, there are two core elements: analysis (pulling words apart) and synthesis (blending words). Phonemes - the smallest unit of sound. Being able to manipulate phonemes is really important for making progress in phonics programmes and remembering words.

Invest in some coloured blocks and create your own simple laminated word mat. Remember to have some colours that are the same, e.g. so that the same sound repeated in a word can be represented by the same colour. At this point, alternative ways of spelling these sounds is not important - focus on hearing and manipulating sounds. This will then prepare the way for later learning based around print.

Video: Phonemic awareness

Assessing pupils

There are various commercial products avilable for assessing pupils phonological awareness skills. What method do you use? How effective is it? Are older pupils assessed? How do you ensure any intervention targets areas for development?

phonological awareness grid
Download PDF • 43KB

Video: example PAST assessment

PAST test file
Download PDF • 188KB

Please see David Kilpatrick's Equipped for Reading Success

Check letter knowledge and letter sounds

For children struggling with phonics, it is also important to check their letter knowledge and letter sounds. Children who have not yet gained familiarity with all the letters of the alphabet (both upper and lower case) in terms of shape and sound will struggle to make progress in a the later stages of a phonics programme. Some older pupils might have gaps - address these gaps. Ensure that any intervention programme runs separately from the phonological awareness interventions (to ensure each intervention has integrity).

Although the print that children read is mostly in lowercase letters, research would suggest that young children have a preference for names in uppercase (Treiman, Cohen, et al., 2007). They tend to gain proficiency with uppercase letters before lowercase letters (Mason, 1980; Smythe et al., 1971; Worden & Boettcher, 1990) and that knowledge of uppercase letters is a predictor of their knowledge of lowercase letters.

A study found some interesting results in which letters in the alphabet were known to children.

This may be useful in targeting letters in the alphabet that children have the greatest difficulty with.

Uppercase: G, I, N, Q, U, V

The number of times pupils see these uppercase letters in print is likely to be a factor in this. We can make sure that we increase exposure to these letters.

Lowercase: b, d, f, g, l, n, p, q, u, v

There are some interesting links between this research and the ability of children to form these letters in handwriting assessments.

(Table 1 above : Research from: Theoretical Explanations for Preschoolers’ Lowercase Alphabet Knowledge, Turnbull et al, 2010.) Similar to other research (Mason,1980; Smytheetal., 1971; Worden & Boettcher, 1990).

Alphabet knowledge is a high predictor of later reading, and is essential for the development of writing. It provides a hook for phonics phases, supports children in accessing visual activities within a phonics session and pupils benefit because some letter names include the sound, e.g. /b/ at the beginning of the letter B. The research suggests that knowing the name of the letter helps with acquisition of the letter sound. Alphabet knowledge (including both letter name and letter sound) is the most durable predictor of later literacy development.

However, unpicking the alphabet knowledge research and its later impact on phonics, reading, writing and spelling is troublesome as studies often include more than one element (e.g. learning the alphabet alongside phonics) or perhaps does not adequately distinguish between alphabetic elements (e.g. separating letter sound interventions from letter name interventions). There are also so many different variables to consider, e.g. which pupils were selected for the study, duration and teaching approach. It can be difficult to decide what to use form research studies in a practical way in the classroom. There is enough evidence to suggest that:

  • In early education, attention should be paid to letter names, the shape of letters, and fluency with the alphabet. Build alphabet knowledge into schemes of work, daily routines and areas of provision and particularly target groups of pupils who enter EYFS significantly behind their peers in this area of learning. Group sessions appear to have more impact than working 1:1 with pupils (certainly to start with).

  • For children experiencing reading or writing difficulties, check their current levels of understanding, accuracy and fluency for deficits. This can be assessed in all year groups. If a child has difficulty writing a word when an adult has sounded it out, check that they have accurate and quick mental recall of what the letters look like. You can not write the letter 'f' you can not visualise it in your mind!

In order to maximise the impact of teaching related to the alphabet, teachers should:

  • Try to ascertain what children already know (as repeating already known elements of the alphabet will lead to slower progress).

  • Vary the number of sessions / length of teaching for particular letters (some are easier for children to learn than others). Consider which letters you might return to often.

  • Try to focus on ‘quick acquisition’ particularly for children who need to catch up. For example, if the focus was only on one letter per week, it would take 26 weeks to learn the alphabet! Increase the pace! This is too slow!

  • Go for brief sessions that combine letter name, letter shape/form, letter sound, uppercase and lowercase. When teaching young students the sound of a vowel letter, teach the short vowel sound as children will find this easier. Children should find the letter in print (e.g. looking at words that start with the letter, spotting the letter amongst a group of letter tiles, finding the letter within a word), write / form the letter (note – it is important that they actually try to physically write the letter e.g. pen and paper, tracing, copying, in sand or other substance). Don’t make the sessions too long as this will unbalance teaching in other areas of literacy development.

  • Follow-up activities and small group work might seek to distinguish between letters and look specifically at shape (e.g. noticing differences between similar letters, letter hunts, use of tactile letters), build the speed (fluency) of identifying letters.

  • Seek ‘quick fire’ times.

  • Suggest home activities.

Video: letter knowledge and letter sounds

Which letters are your pupils confident with? Which would you target?

Some interesting research (Falth, Linda, et al, 2017) found that phonological awareness interventions alongside articulation support was more effective than just phonological awareness interventions. The articulation element involved systematic learning of letter sounds aided by small mouth mirrors, teacher actions to indicate the sound being made and pictures of mouths. The vowel pictures were drawn pictures with the shape of the mouth symbolising the sound and the pictures were red to further enhance the difference between vowel and consonants. The consonants were photographed mouths sometimes drawn with support association, e.g. vertical bar to symbolise the sound that seeps out when you say "s".

There is perhaps some link here to visual phonics which is a system used with deaf and hard of hearing pupils.

And you can see a pupil using the system here

Can you guess these sounds from the mouth shapes?

I would recommend that you speak to the speech and language expert attached to your school for the best system to use with pupils. It is important to have a consistent approach across school. For children who have difficulty with articulation in phonics interventions, make sure this is built into their programme of support.

Phonological and phonemic awareness post
Download • 209KB

When all the above elements are strong, pupils will be well placed to undertake systematic phonics programmes and interventions.

Auditory processing issues - implications for phonics delivery

One of the reasons why pupils may have had gaps in phonological awareness might be related to difficulties in processing sounds. Children with an auditory processing weakness often have perfect hearing and pass hearing tests with flying colours. Pupils with this weakness may also have speech production difficulties. They may have had some ear issues in the past, e.g. glue ear.

You may find that these pupils can decode words but then cannot blend the words.

These pupils may also have difficulties in listening to different accents (as they are already struggling to separate sounds).

Auditory memory: involves being able to:

· take in information that is presented orally;

· process information that is presented orally;

· store information that is presented orally;

· recall what one has heard.

Auditory processing difficulties also impact on pupils’ ability to remember what they have read. Even when reading silently, we are in fact listening to the voice in our own heads. If we are not tuned in and listening to that voice, we cannot process or recall the information.

As phonics is an auditory learning system, good auditory short-term memory is of benefit. Children with a poor auditory short-term memory will face more difficulties in learning, utilising and understanding reading using phonics methods.

Possible ways to test memory length:

· Say each number in a monotone voice with a one second gap between each number, e.g. 3, 6, 7, 4.

· The child repeats back the number. The child must be able to accurately recall the number 75% of the time to have a span of that number of digits, e.g. 75% of the time can recall 4 digits would give a span of 4 digits.

· The teacher can increase / decrease the number of digits to ascertain the child’s span.

“When given a short list of digits, or letters, or words, or even nameable pictures to recall, poor readers recall fewer items than good readers.” Brady, S. 1991.

There are also electronic systems to test recall. For example, blocks may be lit up on a screen in a sequence and then disappear. Children have to then click on the same blocks in the same order. A bit like ‘Simon says’.

If you have children who are not making progress in phonics, consider if hearing or auditory processing may be a problem. Pupils do not need to be hard of hearing to have auditory memory issues.

Some children with auditory processing issues may learn to compensate by using other approaches, e.g. visualisation of common words. However, this can lead to its own set of problems (see later section on sight-word-recognition reading).

Hearing / Auditory processing – strategies to support pupils

One of the most effective ways of supporting children with auditory processing weakness is visual phonics. It is primarily used with hard of hearing and deaf children, but works really well for pupils with auditory processing issues. For example, the visual system for teaching phonics - based on Visual Phonics by Hand developed by Babs Day (Longwill School, Birmingham). This systems uses visual cues based on BSL fingerspelling alphabet and focuses on discriminating between letter names vs lip-patterns/sounds, phonemes (the lip-pattern/sound), graphemes (letters or combination of letters). It aims to develop knowledge/skills in blending and segmenting words and develops skills in using lip-patterns to “sound out” letter/words with a visual cue for support.

Children with auditory processing issues , they may not be able to hear clearly the modelled words and sounds by the teacher in whole class phonics sessions. They may find it difficult to discriminate between the sounds the class make in choral response activities, e.g. being shown a word and asked to say the word. When shown a flash card of a word, they will take longer to process the image into sounds - by which time the class have already said the word. This makes it difficult for children to self-asses - can they independently read the word or are they in fact repeating / supported by the whole class response? They may find it hard to ‘hear their own voice’ amongst the noise of the class to check that they are saying the sound accurately. 1:1 testing may be needed for these children to accurately assess their level of development with phonics. As well as considering the basics, such as sitting children closer to the teacher to closely monitor their input, seek ways of supplementing the normal phonics sessions.

  • Record yourself delivering sections of a phonics session (without the class), e.g. using an iPad. The child can then be directed to recordings of the phonics lessons they need to work on via iPad / computer and headphones. The recordings can be accessed multiple times. Recordings should include for example:

  1. A reminder / story about the phonic sound.

  2. Repeated modelling of the sound by the teacher.

  3. Seeing the sound and saying the sound by the teacher.

  4. Pauses for the child to repeat back the sounds.

  5. Lots of opportunities to hear, see and say the sound (make sure there are lots of words that fit the sound pattern in order to increase the amount of practice the child completes. More than would normally be needed).

  • Use talking tins, talking postcards and talking albums to record sounds, so that a pupil can listen repeatedly to the model sounds (and preferably match to letter / words / pictures) and record themselves.

  • Ensure there are opportunities for the child to listen to audio stories (alongside the print version) and work 1:1 with an adult. Ensure you teach the child how to control the volume for headphones.

  • Ensure all adults engage in clear modelling.

  • Try to make sure any adults are directly facing the child when talking / modelling and draw the child’s attention to the lips of the adult.

  • Test the child regularly 1:1 in order to provide feedback.

  • Target specific sounds they have difficulty with. Check that they can also say the sound back – e.g. correct lip, tongue, mouth action – as children may have difficulty replicating the speech.

Children with auditory processing issues might find it difficult to retain information. Make sequences short. Offer lots of repetition and return often to recap sounds.

Targeting at risk pupils

Double deficit pupils

Researchers have sometimes categorised pupils as 'double deficit' pupils. These are pupils for whom phonological awareness is weak and pupils are slower than the norm in the automatic naming of items. This second element Rapid Automatized Naming (RAN) is the ability to name familiar symbols - digits, letters, objects, colours. Items are presented repeatedly in random order in left to right serial fashion. Pupils say the name as quickly as possible. The key dependent variable is the total time needed to name the items. If teachers can identify as early as possible those pupils who may have a double deficit, then extra support for phonological awareness may be particularly important in avoiding reading difficulties in the future.

Dyslexic pupils and phonological awareness

Dyslexia is often defined as a learning disorder which is characterised by deficits in phonological recording and/or automatized word recognition as well as impaired orthographic skills (mapping sounds to letters which helps to automate whole word reading). It can result from deficits in phonological processing as a consequence of abnormal neurobiological development and often goes hand-in-hand with language impairment. Dyslexia occurs irrespective of cognitive abilities. (Lynn, Shaywitz, and Shaywitz, 2003; Turner and Greaney 2010). Several studies suggest that support for phonological awareness, particularly early in the child's school career, can be beneficial in later word reading for dyslexic pupils.

There are a variety of commercial programs that can help support schools in developing classroom and intervention sessions that focus on the development of phonological awareness.


Eissa, Mourad Ali, The Effect of a Phonological Awareness Intervention Program on Phonological Memory, Phonological Sensitivity, and Metaphonological Abilities of Preschool Children At-Risk for Reading Disabilities, International Journal of Psycho-Educational Sciences v3 n2 p68-80, 2014.

Ehri,, et al., Phonemic Awareness instruction helps children learn to read: evidence from the National Reading Panel's meta analysis, Reading Research Quarterly, 2001.

Falth, Linda Dr, et al., Phonological awareness training with articulation promotes early reading development, Education volume 137, Spring 2017.

Hayward, Denyse V, et al., Beyond the total score: A preliminary investigation into types of Phonological Awareness errors made by first graders, 2016.

Kilpatrick, D et al., Reading Development and Difficulties: Bridging the gap between research and practice, 2019.

McNamara J K et al, An exploratory study of the associations between speech and language difficulties and phonological awareness in preschool children, Journal of Applied Research on Learning, 2010.

Vloedgraven J & Verhoeven L, The nature of phonological awareness throughout the elementary grade: An item response theory perspective, Learning and Individual Difference, p161-169.

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