Helping teenagers with literacy

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The other day our state Education Minister announced $72.3 million extra dollars will be spent over four years helping struggling secondary students, specifically kids who haven’t met Year 5 NAPLAN benchmarks.

Woo hoo to that, I say. But if it’s spent on doing the same sorts of things that didn’t work in primary school, it will be a waste.

Secondary school students with poor decoding skills and very little ability to spell generally need a good initial blast of synthetic phonics to build their awareness of sounds in words and knowledge of spelling patterns, followed up by work on vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. I’ve been doing this type of work for 14 years, in conjunction with the world’s most fabulous integration teacher and aides. We’re yet to find someone we can’t teach to read, including students with intellectual disability, language disorder and English as a second or third language.

Here’s roughly what I’d do and buy if I were a decision-maker in a secondary school with a number of students who have encoding/decoding difficulties.

1. Assessment:

Many of the targeted students will already have had quite a bit of assessment, indicating that their primary problem is getting words on and off the page (encoding/decoding).

Usually they will have seen a Psychologist for a cognitive and educational assessment, and their report says the student has:

  • Weak Phonemic Awareness (ability to discriminate the identity, order and number of sounds in words), and/or
  • Difficulties reading words and especially pseudowords/nonsense words, and/or
  • Below average Working Memory, and/or
  • Slow and/or inaccurate Rapid Automatic Naming, and/or
  • Messy handwriting and poor spelling,
  • Poor reading comprehension, because they can’t get the words off the page and thus also lack reading experience.
  • Spoken language and other skills in the average range.

Sometimes a student’s spoken language or other nonverbal skills are below average, but to be attending a mainstream secondary school they can almost certainly learn to encode and decode, it will just probably take a bit longer than for other kids.

Reports about the above assessments don’t usually include details about the tin tacks of what kids can and can’t do with sounds and letters. They don’t answer questions like: can they segment a three-sound word? A four or five-sound one? Can they blend sounds, and if so, how many? Are there sounds they get mixed up? Do they know any consonant or vowel digraphs or longer spellings? If so, which ones? Do they know how to break words up into syllables?

This sort of detail is needed to work out where to start teaching, and requires further assessment by someone with expertise and experience in both synthetic phonics and working with demoralised teenagers.

Most teenagers with poor literacy think they CAN’T learn, so persuading them to participate in another round of assessment because you’re pretty sure they CAN is often tricky. If you’re in Victoria and want me to help with this, let me know.

Free tests available from MOTIF can help with both pre-programming assessment as well as getting an updated baseline, if other test results are not recent. A test like the York Assessment of Reading Comprehension (Secondary) can also be useful if you don’t already have enough baseline information, if the student can read a bit. But some kids can’t even attempt the simplest passages on this test, so there’s no point putting them through it.

2. Specialists and aides working together

Speech Pathologists, Special Education Teachers and other professionals with expertise and experience in explicit, systematic synthetic phonics are more expensive than aides, so ideally should be working on assessment, planning intervention, providing work for students and training for aides, checking progress, answering questions and modifying the program accordingly.

Older students need at least an hour/period a day to make fast progress – one or two sessions a week is simply inadequate. Louisa Moats recommends about 90 minutes a day if you’re aiming for catch-up, not just improvement. Remember that peers are also improving their skills all the time.

Many mainstream secondary classes are often a demoralising experience for students who can’t read and write. Teaching them to read and write so they can participate has to be top priority, though wherever possible they shouldn’t be taken out of classes they enjoy and in which they can participate and succeed.

Once the overall literacy goals and direction are set and materials are provided, the bulk of the day-to-day work with students can be done by aides, with a weekly joint session with the professional overseeing the program.

Wherever possible, students should work in pairs or small groups, because it’s more efficient, more fun and because a bit of competition can mean a lot more work gets done.

Having said that, sometimes there’s only one student who needs a particular program, and some students’ anxiety levels or difficult behaviour make it necessary for them to work alone.

3. Teaching materials:

There are some great materials available to teach teenagers phonemic awareness and spelling patterns, as well as targeting their vocabulary, comprehension and fluency.

Here are the ones I’d consider first if I were responsible for setting up a program in a secondary school next year:

Apps are great to offer as an extra activity in a pair or group if one student finishes well ahead of others.

I know some of the names of these apps sound like they’re not suitable for teenagers, but they aren’t full of teddybears, and I provide the above list on the assumption that you will check out materials yourself before making a decision about which student will be offered what.

I’m sure some readers will have additional suggestions of great materials to use with teenagers, or thoughts on some of the above materials, so please if you do, leave a comment.

PS September 2019: There is an interesting document about post-16 phonics teaching here.


10 thoughts on “Helping teenagers with literacy

  1. Time for change

    Hi Allison, This is great! Any thoughts on a teenager (yr8) who isn’t bad but not great either with spelling, an instructional whole language casualty? Can read ok, spell ok – not bad enough for school intervention but needs to fill in the gaps/odd spelling strategies? Are there any suggested workbooks/home program for kids like this who already have some skills? Thanks:-)

    1. alison Post author

      Thanks for the nice feedback. I have just revised my workbooks and am waiting for permission from the US to put them on my website, and they are meant for kids like this who need to mainly work with non-experts like parents or aides, and systematically practice spelling patterns. If you can email me a sample of the student’s writing (with her or his permission of course) I can email you a copy of the workbook that seems to best meet his or her needs to try out. Alison

  2. Bernadette

    Alison – my teenage daughter needs help desperately. We have tried many things but her reading comprehension is very weak. She is in year 9 – just got her NAPLAN results and is in Band 5. Do you live in Sydney? Could you help her?

    1. alison Post author

      Dear Bernadette, I don’t live in Sydney, sorry, I’m in Melbourne. Have you had your daughter’s listening comprehension and her decoding skills assessed? That would be my first suggestion, so that you can narrow down whether this is a language comprehension problem or a decoding problem. Any speech pathologist who works with school-aged students can do a language comprehension test, the usual one is the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals’ receptive language section. Most speech pathologists working with this age group should also be able to do an assessment of decoding e.g. the Castles and Coltheart 2 test, which is available free online from If you look on the Speech Pathology Australia website under “find a speech pathologist”, then use the drop-down menus to specify your postcode, put under “age” that your daughter is an adolescent and under “area of practice” that you want help with literacy, you should get a list of the people nearby who can help you. Hope there’s someone great just round the corner! Alison

  3. Libby

    Great read ….. my daughter’s 14yo and I’ve looked up the Speech Pathology Australia website but where we live there’s no results in literacy. I’m wondering if you could suggest anything online to help her with comprehension of text more deeply.
    Thank you

    1. alison Post author

      Dear Libby, it really depends on whether your daughter is having word-level reading problems, or whether she is struggling with language comprehension itself. If the latter is the case, she will also be having listening comprehension difficulties requiring intervention. But if her listening comprehension is fine and her reading comprehension is poor (i.e. she can understand something if you read it to her, but not if she reads it herself) then she needs help with word-level reading, via phonemic awareness and phonics intervention. Some kids have both problems. You need to establish which type of problem she has before tackling it. Hope that’s helpful. All the best, Alison

  4. Mary Ann

    Hi Alison,
    My daughter is 16 and about to embark on her hsc next year in nsw. She is doing fantastic at school however her spelling and punctuation is really letting her down. Content/comprehension is great. Her teacher has pointed out that the hsc being a written exam and wanting to go on to uni will present extra challenges as she is losing valuable marks across all her subjects within the first paragraph of her writing. Her Dad has the same difficulty and hated school dropping out in year 10 but is very happily working a trade.- both are avid readers. He went back as an adult to try to learn to spell with little success. I don’t know how best to help her (she still manages to get in the top 10 students in her year) but would love it if I could help her with her spelling and punctuation somehow. She is very reliant on grammerly/spell check on her computer which possibly masks the issue for her.
    Thanks for reading,
    Mary Ann.

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Mary Ann, how great that you have such a smart and hardworking daughter, and what a shame her spelling lets her down. I think you should get her phonemic awareness checked out and that you probably need a systematic program that builds her phonemic awareness/proficiency and works through all the main spelling patterns she doesn’t yet know and provides practice to mastery with each one, but I am not sure exactly what to recommend. Can you try my low frequency word spelling test, to get an idea of what patterns she knows and where things start to break down? Once you have an idea of what she can do and where the gaps are, you can look around for ways to fill them. You might try working through all the spellings of each sound systematically and then working on some word-building/morphology, since this is how we create longer words. I’m sorry I don’t know who your good local intervention people are, but perhaps SPELD NSW does? All the best with it, Alison


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