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How to Teach Phonics to Struggling Readers

How to Teach Phonics to Struggling Readers

Phonics is the pathway to reading success - and for struggling readers, it can also be the biggest obstacle.


If you’re the parent or educator of a struggling reader, you’ve likely done your research. You know that phonics instruction is crucial for early readers, but finding the “right” decodable books and phonics readers can be daunting. To streamline your process, we’ve identified some of the best phonics intervention activities to support and re-energize a struggling reader.

How to Teach Phonics to Struggling Readers

Phonics Intervention Activities


Imagine: your struggling reader just came home from school with a list of phonics intervention activities. Sounds a bit intense, right? While this language may seem intimidating, phonics interventions are actually designed to empower young readers with the skills and confidence they need to read more complicated texts.


So, what exactly is a phonics intervention?


A phonics intervention is any activity that seeks to improve a student’s knowledge and application of phonics: the reading method of connecting letters and their sounds. According to the National Reading Panel, phonics intervention activities should be explicit, systematic, taught in small groups, and focused on specific skills: for example, focusing on one or two types of phoneme manipulations rather than multiple types.

Teach Phonics to Struggling Readers

Some of the best phonics intervention activities include:

  • Phoneme Manipulation Activities. Phoneme manipulation is crucially important when teaching phonics to struggling readers - and for many students, it’s also one of the most difficult skills they’ll practice!
  • Phonics Books & Phonics Readers, and Decodable Books.
  • Hands-on Reading Strategies.


To make these activities easier for readers and their teachers, let’s cover some key questions & their answers.


What is phoneme manipulation?


Phoneme manipulation describes the ability to change individual phonemes (the smallest sound units) in a word. Change /p/ in “top” to /b/, and - like magic - you’ve manipulated a phoneme!


What are the types of phoneme manipulation?


There are three main types of phoneme manipulation:

  • Phoneme Addition: for example, begin with the word “ray” and add /g/ to the front of the word, resulting in “gray”
  • Phoneme Deletion: for example, begin with the word “plant” and take away /l/, resulting in “pant” (this is a bit trickier, as you’re deleting the second phoneme from the consonant blend /pl/!)
  • Phoneme Substitution: for example, changing the /w/ in “wall” to /b/, resulting in “ball”


Teachers and parents can give these challenges orally, which adds variety and excitement to daily reading practice: a huge bonus for struggling readers.

Teach Phonics to Struggling Readers

Phonics Books for Struggling Readers


Whether you’re searching for decodable books or phonics readers, it’s overwhelming to sift through the hundreds of books designed for struggling readers. But just like other phonics interventions, the best phonics books should focus on the following reading skills:

  • Before moving onto more complicated phonics books, students’ earliest books should focus on both short and long vowels. Because every single syllable of every single word includes a vowel sound, this is not a skill to skimp on!
  • CVC and sight words. Sight words are high-frequency words that can’t be sounded out, while CVC words start and end with a consonant and contain a vowel in the middle. When reading phonics books, focus on these word categories before moving onto more difficult phonics patterns.
  • Search for phonics patterns. Get your red pen out: it’s time to mark up your decodable book! Identify a common phonics pattern, then have a struggling reader mark the pattern in their phonics book. They’ll be mentally prepared to read these phonics patterns in-context, which can be difficult when they don’t have a chance to see & mark them beforehand.
    • Because decodable readers focus on a single phonics pattern or word family, they’re an excellent choice for many struggling readers.
Teaching Phonics to Struggling Readers

Hands-On Reading Activities for Struggling Readers


For struggling readers, tuning into all the senses is key. After reading a decodable book, readers can practice new words with some of the following hands-on phonics activities:

  • Bubble Wrap Flash Cards: Place flashcards on bubble wrap on the floor. Reader reads the card - then stomps on it! Educational and satisfying.
  • Word Slide: As readers sound out a word, have them tap their arm going down while segmenting the sounds. When they’ve successfully sounded out the word, they’ll “slide” their hand down their arm again to blend the sounds together. See an example of this strategy here.
  • Letter Tiles: use magnetic or plastic letter tiles to practice phonemic manipulation. Whether they’re on the fridge or the kitchen table, letter tiles are a fun, budget-friendly, and low-pressure reading activity.



  • While finding the best phonics interventions can feel overwhelming, supportive adults are encouraged to use a variety of strategies to support struggling readers.
  • To support struggling readers, we recommend a mix of phoneme manipulation activities, phonics readers and decodable books, and hands-on reading activities.

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