How to Teach Phonics in Secondary Schools

Infographic of 3 learners holding up phonics cards to the camera.

Phonics are becoming a more and more prevalent issue at secondary level. Due to the pandemic, many learners are moving up to secondary level without essential skills, or, EAL learners are coming into a secondary setting that needs to support their needs. It’s something that secondary teachers need to get comfortable teaching and we’re here to help with ‘How to Teach Phonics at Secondary Level’.

So many of us in the secondary classroom know of phonics instruction, but do we know how it could and should impact on us?

Before we go any further, let’s look at what we mean exactly by the term “phonics instruction”.

Phonics is a method of learning to read and write. Phonics works by breaking each word up into its individual sounds before blending those sounds back together to make the word. The ability to 'decode' words by breaking them down into sounds avoids the need to memorise thousands of words.​

Synthetic phonics is the most widely used approach associated with the teaching of reading in which phonemes (sounds) associated with graphemes (letters) are pronounced in isolation and then blended together (synthesised) for the word.​

We need to think of the English Language as a code; phonics is a way for us to teach that code.

We learn how to match up the spoken sounds to the written letter, or groups of letters.

There are 26 letters in the English language but there are 44 phoneme sounds we must learn, and these 44 phonemes can be represented by different graphemes (letters). For example, the ‘a’ sound in English can be spelt like:








It’s incredibly complex when we look at it. Although there are a few different types of phonics instruction, we’re concentrating on the most widely used, synthetic phonics in which phonemes (sounds) associated with particular graphemes (letters) are pronounced in isolation and blended together (synthesised).

Why phonics in secondary school?

The key to teaching and developing phonics in a secondary school is to remember that not all of us are English teachers, nor do we want to be! You are passionate about your subject, so I’m not advocating that you put that to one side, but we must recognise that language is at the heart of all curriculums. You need to focus on the content whilst considering that the words are your content. If students can’t access the words, they can’t access the content.

It is also important to acknowledge that we gain the vast majority of our knowledge through what we read, so it is imperative that students are confident readers.

The amount of knowledge that students need to consume to be well-equipped by the end of secondary school is vast. It is not possible to cover it all in lessons alone, nor is this desirable – if we think Cognitive Load theory.​ Developing independence in learning has to be one of the major goals of education, and it's obvious that those with access to reading have a much greater chance of success.

Conversely, students’ ability to access knowledge is greatly reduced by weak reading. ​

If we don't have the independence and fluency skills to develop our reading and increase our own exposure to new words, we are limiting our experiences.

Plus, learning to read itself is an exercise in acquiring knowledge.

We tend to think of reading as a skill, or a set of skills, when in fact it is the application of knowledge.​

It's deceptive because of the speed at which able readers are applying this knowledge, but what's actually happening is every letter-sound combination is being quickly and effortlessly decoded by the reader. ​

Knowledge can be taught, therefore reading can be taught. We need to support our learners so they can access text and develop independence.

It’s important to also note that when we think of phonics, we tend to consider its place within tier 1 vocabulary; the social language that is acquired in early years and primary.

At secondary, we focus on tiers 2 and 3, academic language, but phonics is necessary here too and supports all tiers of vocabulary.

To further enhance and support the development and confident use of tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary, we need to couple phonics instruction with morphemic analysis; phonics isn't just d/o/g, it needs to be age and level appropriate, which is what we're going to explore together.

So, let's put ourselves in the shoes of a struggling reader. Let's imagine the bold words are words we can't read.

As Harry squelched along the deserted corridor, he came across somebody who looked just as preoccupied as he was. Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost of Gryffindor Tower, was staring morosely out of a window, muttering under his breath, ". . . don't fulfil their requirements . . . half an inch, if that . . ."​

​This is a fiction text (Extract from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

I am able to read 82% of this passage. In terms of reading percentage, Schmitt et al. (2011) in The Percentage of Words Known in a Text and Reading Comprehension maintained that learners must know at least 98% of all the words within academic texts to comprehend them.

Schmitt et al. (2017) later suggested that understanding 95-98% of the words used in a text is an acceptable threshold for reading comprehension. ​

So, if I was able to read 82% of this text, what can I comprehend? ​

  1. I know Harry is in a corridor​
  2. He encounters Nick, the ghost, staring out of a window​
  3. He's muttering something

Now, let's try that again, this time with a non-fiction text.

This is an extract from AQA GCSE Biology. Similarly, I'm going to demonstrate being able to read 82% of this passage.

The abundance and distribution of organisms in an ecosystem is determined by biotic and abiotic factors. Animals and plants have adaptations to allow them to compete for resources.​

What can I comprehend? ​

  • Something about organisms in an ecosystem are down to factors​.
  • There's competition for resources​.

Now, give thought to how I could apply this knowledge?​

​Fiction, in its nature, has more flowery words, so we can fill in the gaps and make sense of the text more easily. As they transition into secondary, students must interact with a greater percentage of informational text.

They're exposed to 3-4 times as much language, just in terms of quantity.

High correlations in GCSE outcomes and reading ages is unsurprising in the arts, but also correlating in maths and sciences highlight the importance of literacy in all subjects.

Where does phonics sit in how humans learn to read?

When learning about phonics and how to teach it within the secondary classroom, it’s important to know where phonics instruction sits when learning to read, and for this we can easily refer to the 5 pillars of reading:

1.Phonemic Awareness​

Identifying and manipulating units of oral sound and language​

2.Phonics Instruction​

Structured synthetic phonics​

Blending sounds in speech​

Sounds, not letter names​

Linking sounds in speech to letters – beginnings of writing (orthographic mapping/grapheme correspondence)​

3.Fluency Instruction​

Speed, accuracy, expression​

4.Vocabulary Instruction​

Morphemic analysis ​

Examination of component parts of words​

5.Comprehension Instruction​

Independent, strategic, metacognitive readers​

We can sometimes be guilty of referring to reading as a basic skill.

It is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a basic right, but basic skill suggests it's easy.

Scarborough’s rope model displayed here illustrates how, in fact, to be a skilled reader requires a set of complex subskills. ​

The orange strands need to be in place for all readers if they are to access the green strands, which are the higher order subskills. These orange strands allow readers to reach automaticity, crucial for reading comprehension and fluency.​

Scarborough uses the analogy of a rope, but you can see the similarities with the 5 pillars.

Scarborough uses the idea of a rope because, like a rope, if any one strand is compromised, it will weaken the rope. It's only when all subskills are woven together that we're truly a rounded, skilled reader.

Scarborough's rope model originated in 2001, but at Lexonik we've put our slant on it and reordered the strands so they appear in order of the development stages. But let's be clear, all threads are important! We're simply suggesting a logical order of how these skills are layered.

Why do we still need phonics instruction at secondary school?

We’re fortunate that the UK is at the forefront of educational research and our schools understand the importance of phonics in early reading development, with all primary schools implementing a systematic teaching of phonics. Despite this though, we still have high levels of illiteracy, and we still have students arriving at secondary unable to access age appropriate texts.

As the demands of GCSE increase, we must be confident that students can interpret and use the content subject specialists are providing them with, ultimately making it so students can decode and comprehend vocabulary and reading material independently and at the point of need.

At this stage, we must ask ourselves what could have gone wrong for an older learner if they are still struggling with phonics and reading.

There are a vast number of reasons why phonics may not have stuck for some learners, and we’re certainly not going through them all today. But some of the reasons could be:

Continued Failure

This results in avoidance strategies which compounds the problem​ in KS3/4

Physical issues – exposure to spoken sound hampered​

Speech and language are intrinsically linked, so anything that inhibits the ability to clearly hear and then replicate pure sound within spoken language will have a detrimental effect on a student’s phonological awareness.

Processing speed

This is the fluency part of reading development. A student knows the sounds, but recall isn’t quick enough​. It’s not sufficient for a student to simply know the letter sounds, in order to develop reading they need to develop automaticity and speed of recall.


ADHD learners can find reading difficult due to their issues with focusing, managing distractions and processing and retaining information. These learners would benefit from short bursts of highly focused, intensive tuition.​

External influence – e.g. family bereavement, lack of support​

There will always be things outside of our control which we need to acknowledge. We must be sympathetic to the individual needs of a student and provide appropriate support, the first of which may be emotional and/or behavioural support in certain cases.​

The English language is tough!

Phonics is our foundation in reading but, because of the complexities of the English language, it can only take us so far. So, when relying on phonics alone to read a new, unfamiliar word, we can make mistakes with our pronunciation.

Some words are mispronounced because we can use a combination of phonics knowledge and lexicon (your stored bank of words if you like).

Here's a real-life example:

When LinkedIn was newly launched, an able adult reader asked what 'link-ed-in' was all about. She had no knowledge of the word; she'd never heard it before. She was forced to use only her phonics knowledge and existing lexicon. ​

Able decoders will use phonics but will be able to self-correct errors if they have some prior exposure to the spoken word.

Take ‘comic’ as an example. If I had to decode the word, I would decode it as:


Encountering the same letter structure within the word ‘humid’, unless I'd heard the word before, I would decode it as:


applying the same phonic formula.

Importantly, I would self-correct if I'd heard it before, which is why exposure and vocabulary role models are so important for the emergent reader. ​

You may need to do this for your learners. Once phonics has been applied, you may need to support them in their correction. Be confident. The corrections will often be down to how they're segmenting the word.

What should you look out for in an older learner who is struggling with their phonics?

This is not an exhaustive list, but weak spellers will display some of these:​

  • Bizarre spellings – letters or syllables in completely the wrong order or incorrectly spelling the same word in different ways in the same passage. ​
  • Can't distinguish sounds within words (orally) - EAL learners for example, might have difficulty discriminating between similar sounding English phonemes like /c/ /g/ or /i/ /e/​.
  • Can't manipulate sounds within polysyllabic words to aid reading and spelling – difficulty segmenting words into syllables​.
  • Can't recall or select accurately the common patterns to aid spelling – can't recall high frequency patterns such as “igh”, “tion” or vowel digraphs.

Telltale signs that a student has reading difficulties is not always immediately apparent. Students are adept at masking vulnerability and, therefore, sometimes it's behaviour patterns that are noticed first. Some of these behaviours could indicate there's a problem:​

  • Difficulty articulating new vocabulary – verbally trips up when being introduced to new technical language​.
  • Reluctance to read aloud​.
  • Guessing at words – substituting similar looking words​.
  • Choppy reading – lacking fluency, intonation and expression and ignores punctuation.
  • Frequently loses place when reading​.
  • Can't automatically recognise common letter patterns or strings to aid reading - may mean there's a delay when reading aloud as they're still trying to decode​.

Phonics intervention and the older learner

You may have heard of, or have experience of, an SSP, which is a programme of systematic phonics instruction, usually delivered in the early stages of primary schooling, which clearly identifies a carefully selected and useful set of letter-sound relationships and then organises the introduction of these relationships into a logical instructional sequence.​

Lexonik emphatically endorses following a systematic synthetic phonics programme, or SSP, at primary. However, at secondary level, we’re in a catch-up situation so we need to teach a strong literacy skeleton covering the common letter patterns and spotlight the exceptions when encountered.

Fire break intervention

Regardless of the strength of teacher instruction, there will always be some students who need reading intervention. It’s therefore supremely important that we remember that intervention at secondary school should act as a fire break. It needs to be targeted, specific, data-driven and for a short amount of time in order to impact on student ratio gains and get them back into the curriculum asap.

Identifying gaps and then working to cover those gaps will mean that students are withdrawn from the classroom for the shortest amount of time possible. There is little point in repeating something that has already failed, and the curriculum is not waiting for these students!

Older learners also do not want to be patronised or feel as if they are on a continued cycle of repetition and failure. Therefore, all interventions for an older learner must be in short, specific bursts, with the whole premise being to get them beyond pillar 2 as quickly as possible.

Our phonics intervention, Lexonik Leap, is designed with this in mind, providing fast acting, quickly delivered and unpatronising phonics instruction to learners. We have also designed a dedicated professional development course to improve phonics instruction at secondary level. Phonics for Secondary is available to Lexonik Vocabulary Plus customers.

Get in touch with us to talk about either programme or you can see more of our programmes here.