How To Help Older Students Build Phonemic Awareness Skills


You may think of phonemic and phonological awareness as something for the primary grades, for early readers or non-readers. If you teach older struggling readers or language arts classes for upper elementary or middle school, you may not find phonemic awareness tasks among the materials at your disposal. However, for a lot of readers that struggle or are reluctant readers, difficulties with phonemic awareness may underlie many of their struggles.

Why it matters?

Phonemic and phonological awareness are key to the development of fluency and automaticity as words that are instantly recognized become part of a reader’s repertoire. It is important not only to continue to teach these skills for students that struggle, but to ensure that we are teaching to mastery and automaticity for all students.

What does a student with phonemic awareness struggles look like?


If an older student has a phonological deficit, you may observe certain characteristics. The older reader may struggle with fluency. This reader may appear to read at approximately grade level, but they avoid reading. You often see them referred to as a reluctant reader. You are likely to see spelling struggles with these students as well. You may see them referred to as primarily “sight word readers”.

Where do we start?

Your assessment of older struggling readers is one of your most important tools. Often, these learners are complex and have a tangled web of understandings. Careful assessment can help you untangle this web and find the missing connections. The PAST is an excellent starting place for looking at phonemic awareness. Kilpatrick’s PAST is particularly valuable because it analyzes a student’s automaticity and fluency with these tasks, not just their accuracy. Older students can sometimes complete phonemic awareness tasks backwards by using their knowledge of spelling patterns and written words. You may see this in students who are highly accurate with these tasks, but slow. They are likely struggling far more with phonological awareness than you may realize, but they have adapted. Those skills are still very important.


Using an assessment of sounds and words in isolation, particularly one that also assesses nonsense words can be a good way to uncover decoding and encoding difficulties. I like the Gallistel-Ellis test of encoding and decoding. I have assessed many upper elementary reluctant readers who can read and comprehend grade level material; but are unable to read cvc nonsense words in isolation. They either know a word, or don’t know it. They lack the skills to take apart and solve an unknown word.


Next Steps

  • If you have older students who  didn’t master phonemic awareness at younger ages still benefit from phoneme manipulation. The window for learning is not closed.
  • The PAST will identify specific areas of weakness. You can use this assessment to laser focus on those skills most needing practice.


  • Take a systematic, structured, and sequenced approach to developing phonemic awareness skills. Don’t cherry-pick. Follow your assessments and teach in the order that phonemic awareness skills develop. See Equipped for Reading Success for more information.


  • Brief, ideally daily, practice is ideal. Quick drills and games done frequently build skills effectively. These are all auditory activities, so no special materials are necessary.


  • As you introduce new phonemic awareness concepts, make sure to use manipulatives. Even older students love games and benefit from hands-on learning.  If  your  students who are older have struggled with phonemic awareness skills for a long time, you may need to use letters initially to introduce a new concept before moving into using only auditory cueing and manipulatives. Letters should only be a temporary scaffolding step.


  • Make a goal of moving into advanced phonemic awareness tasks. These more advanced skills translate to increased fluency and more efficient orthographic mapping.


  • blending longer words – Segmenting and blending words of 4 or 5 phonemes is a logical extension of blending shorter words. Practice blending with words such as /s//p//l//i//t/ or /p//l//u//m//p/. There is value in using multisyllabic words to strengthen student blending abilities as well. /f//ī//r//t//r//u//k/.


  • sound chaining – You can use this activity both as a phonemic awareness task with sounds only and manipulatives or as a spelling/phonics activity with letters. For our purposes here, we are focusing on sounds only. Use blocks to show the word cat, change sound to make it say mat, change sound to make it say met, let, leg, beg, bed, bid, did, kid, Kim, Tim, tom, top, pop.


  • words with blends at the beginning or end – This would include segmenting, blending, adding and deleting phonemes using words with blends. For example, blending the word /c//l//a//p/, or say /lap/ but add /k/ to the beginning, or say /clap/ but without the /l/, or saying /clap/ but say /f/ instead of /k/.


  • practice with minimal pairs – When we are working with students developing skills, we typically use words that are very distinct from each other. Gradually as their skills improve, we want to include work with minimal pairs. These are words that differ by only one phonemic element such as “cat” and “cap”. This allows us to concentrate on specific phonemes or locations within a word to provide students with targeted practice.


  • sound deletion – Deleting sounds is easiest at the beginning of a word such as saying mat without /m/, more challenging at the end of a word such as saying lamp without /p/. Deleting the first or second sound in a blend is more challenging still.


  • sound reversal – This is an advanced phonemic awareness task that may prove difficult for even some adults. This task asks students to hold a series of sounds in their memory and rearrange them such as to say cat backwards which would be tack or map which would be Pam.


  • substitute or delete with syllables and/or affixes – Substituting or deleting syllables is an easier task. Substituting and deleting individual phonemes in longer words such as those that contain multiple syllables or affixes can be more challenging. For example, saying sunshine without sun, is an easier task. Saying sunshine but instead of shine saying bathe is harder. But saying floating, but instead of /fl/ saying /b/ to get boating, would be more challenging still.


  • the trickiest of all, but super fun, pig Latin – The primary purpose of this activity is to build adeptness with sound play and manipulation. Obviously, pig Latin has limited direct utility for reading and spelling, but it builds flexibility. Words in Pig Latin are formed by removing the onset, saying the rhyme followed by the onset + ay. So the phrase Pig Latin would become igpay atinlay.


Invaluable Resources

So where can you turn for more information about phonemic awareness and older students?

Helping older children build phonemic awareness skills


Did you happen to see the post on helping younger students with phonemic awareness? You’ll find lots of helpful tips if you work with younger kids.

phonemic awareness skills

Thank you for stopping by today!

The Literacy Nest


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