5. Teenagers

Teenagers who can’t read or spell well

If you’re the parent of a teenager who can’t really read or spell, but doesn’t have a significant intellectual disability, it’s time to move heaven and earth to get their language and literacy properly assessed (if that hasn’t happened already) and get them doing a literacy catch-up program that addresses their identified difficulties.

The assessment should examine at a bare minimum their phonemic awareness and real and pseudoword reading (click here to read a blog post about why nonsense words are useful). Specialist speech pathologists, clinical psychologists, neuropsychologists, teachers and some other professionals can provide such assessment, and a psychologist or neuropsychologist can also examine nonverbal skills, memory, problem-solving and other related skills.

Ask your teenager’s school if their Speech Pathologist and/or Psychologist can provide this assessment at no cost. Sometimes professionals associated with the school only need to be asked, allowing you to conserve your funds for intervention and resources.

If the assessment can’t be done in any reasonable time frame at school, and you’re in Australia, try your local SPELD, or go to your GP and ask for a Medicare referral (under Enhanced Primary Care/Chronic Disease Management) to see a suitably qualified and experienced private Speech Pathologist or Psychologist.

You can find local private Speech Pathologists via the Speech Pathology Australia website, and Psychologists via the Australian Psychological Society. If you’re outside Australia, try this website. Don’t let anyone put you on a waiting list without being clear how long you’ll have to wait, and ask what the assessment involves and what it will cost (including the report) before booking an appointment.

Make sure that the report will include recommendations about how to address problems identified, and when you get it, if you don’t understand exactly what to do to follow the recommendations, just keep asking questions till you do know.

If the report says something like “this student needs an intensive literacy catch-up program”, ask for a more specific recommendation. There are many possible ways to provide this, click here for a list of some catch-up programs/resources.

While you’re waiting for your assessment, if you want to explore for yourself whether your teenager can listen to a word, break it up into sounds and write the correct spellings for each sound, perhaps ask them to try out the free low-frequency word spelling test on this website, then discuss what this suggests they know about spelling, and what they still need to learn.

Teenagers can be very insightful about their own knowledge, and interested in filling knowledge gaps, as long as this can be presented as a finite and do-able activity.

Teenagers who can read OK, but aren’t great at spelling

Spelling is a more exacting skill than reading, because you can use more guesswork in reading than you can in spelling, a bit like it’s easier to do a multiple choice test (where answers are presented to you and you just have to recognise the correct one) than tests that require you to write answers yourself.

If your teenager is struggling with spelling, you might like to spend some time looking through their written work at the errors they make, and see if you can spot which patterns they don’t know. This is not necessarily an easy thing to do, but the spelling lists on this website might help you structure your thinking about patterns that are missing from your teenager’s spelling repertoire.

Look for a misspelt word and then think about which sound in it is misspelt, for example the word “village” spelt “villige” has a problem with the last syllable, which sounds like “idge” but is usually spelt “age”. Try using the search function on this website to find this word and other words spelt like it. I just googled “spelfabet age as in village” and found a page of words with the same spelling, which can be used in spelling practice activities like quizzes and spelling apps. You might also like to try using my Spelfabet workbooks, which teach one pattern at a time, or other phonics activities which target patterns missing from your teenager’s system, and work in a systematic and cumulative way.

Not knowing how to manage spelling the unstressed vowel is the root of a lot of evil in older kids’ spelling. I’ve put a 15-minute video on YouTube about the English spelling system, and if you skip through to minute 7:40, it talks about a strategy for tackling/organising unstressed vowels. Basically, break words into syllables and say each syllable as it is spelt, which some people call using a “Spelling voice”. There are no unstressed syllables in learning to spell, because we work through words syllable by syllable, stressing each one.

Literacy catch-up success stories are everywhere

Years ago, I was working as a consultant with language-impaired teenagers in a local secondary school, and the school nurse told the (world’s best) Integration Teacher that a new 15-year-old had arrived at school whose behaviour was driving the teachers mad. He had had a very disrupted education, seemed to be illiterate, and someone needed to help him quickly or he’d be in a lot of trouble.

The world’s best integration teacher got some money from SOMEWHERE (I think a church), and I was paid to provide this teenager with 12 sessions of intensive synthetic phonics literacy intervention (I was then mostly using Phono-graphix/Reading Reflex, which is still a good program).

That was all he got – 12 synthetic phonics sessions of a bit less than an hour – but it turned out that under his insouciance, he was smart and keen to learn, and worked hard, quickly grasping the key concepts and doing the practice I set for him.

He started out with the phonemic awareness and spelling pattern knowledge of a typical six-year-old. At about week 8 I found him in the school library trying to read the Herald Sun newspaper, and asking me questions about Osama Bin Laden. When I did his post-testing after our 12 sessions, his decoding skills were at around a ten-year-old level.

I wanted to do more post-testing on the day of the final Year 10 English test, so he said he’d do what he could on the test and then come downstairs for my assessments. He never showed up. He stayed in the classroom with his head down for the entire Year 10 English test.

I doubt he got a A for that test, but just the fact that he could attempt so much of it made the whole Student Support team do a little happy-tap-dance.

Quality, not quantity

This story is consistent with the scientific evidence about how to teach learners who lack phonemic awareness and spelling code knowledge. Talk to anyone who runs good synthetic phonics programs with not-very-literate teenagers, and they will have plenty of stories like this.

The interesting question is not how much intervention a student gets, the interesting question is whether it’s the right intervention. There’s no point doing a whole lot of Whole Language stuff with someone if they’ve already tried that, and it didn’t work. They need something that really breaks the task down for them, and makes it digestible and do-able.

2 thoughts on “5. Teenagers

  1. Marianne

    Where to start indeed? I’ve been browsing your site after reading with interest the article you co-authored with Pamela Snow for The Conversation. I haven’t seen anything here (I haven’t looked that hard yet though) about teaching kids with intellectual disabilities, but I suspect that synthetic phonics could prove helpful. My daughter is 14, and reads at quite a low level (prob year 1 or thereabouts). I suspect she uses a combination of initial sounds, memorization, and context. We are a family of readers and she has been surrounded by books all her life, however I don’t think she’d tolerate being taught anything by “mum.” I remember thinking last year that phonics instruction would be helpful but I don’t really know how much of that her school was doing (even though I mentioned it to them). She is at a new school now with a new teacher, and we’re about to have an IEP meeting. I would love this to be the year that her reading fluency increases. I’ve recently heard of Hi-Lo books (high interest-low ability) which could be useful if I could find some she actually liked and was motivated to try, as I suspect most of the books she encounters now are either too hard or too babyish and of little interest (something about One Direction would be perfect!). However I also think explicit phonics instruction could help a lot and I’d like to encourage her teacher to use this method with her and I wonder how best to support and encourage that. I will look through your website more, but if you could make any suggestions I’d greatly appreciate it. Also, she does have a number of learning apps on her IPad, but if there are any you think are particularly good can you please let me know. Thank you very much. Kind regards, Marianne (in Perth).

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Marianne, I’ve replied by email but in case anyone is reading these comments, will reply here too, and perhaps improve on my last answer. Yes, my understanding of the research and my own experience is that only students with severe and profound intellectual disabilities typically aren’t able to learn to read or write much or at all, but as with learning everything, need to do it in very small steps and have a lot more practice. The books I have used the most with older learners like this have been my own workbooks, the Sound Out Chapter Books and workbooks as well as the Phonics books readers and workbooks such as Magic Belt and Alba series, these are available from DSF in Perth, http://dsf.net.au. We have also used a lot of games and phonics activities drawn from many sources, a couple of popular ones have been Versatiles and Trugs. DSF has a great library and bookshop, and I’d be very surprised if they wouldn’t let you browse through it and couldn’t also offer you expert personalised advice, they do a great job. Apps that might suit your daughter include Oz Phonics 2 and 3, Word Wizard Little Stars, ABC Spelling Magic 2-4, ABC Reading Magic 2-4, Reading Doctor Letter Sounds 2, Forest Phonics, Build a Word Phonics, Build a Word Express, Essential Word Sorts, Phonic Phil, School A-Z and Spelling test by tap to learn (these last two let you add your own spelling lists including recording your own voice, she might like to do that). Hope that helps, Alison


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