Helping Elementary Students Who Are Struggling with Phonics

By Huntington Learning Center

There’s a lot that goes into teaching your child to read, but a term that you’ve probably heard before if you are a parent of a young child is phonics 

What is Phonics Instruction? 

Phonics is a foundational reading skill that helps children learn how to read. Phonics tutoring and instruction teach children the progression of letter-sound correspondences in a methodical way. Put simply, children need to know what sounds different letters make, and later, what sounds different letter combinations make. 

Phonics understanding is essential for children to become strong readers, but it isn’t the only skill they need. The National Reading Panel evaluated more than 100,000 reading studies on how children learn to read and determined that there are five important building block components of reading instruction. Here’s an overview of each:  

  • Phonemic awareness – Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice the smallest units that make up spoken language (phonemes) and understand how they work in words. Think of phonemes as speech sounds. Children need to differentiate them in syllables and words, identify the same phonemes in different words, and isolate individual phonemes in words. For example: 
    • Recognize: Bat is made up of the phonemes b, a and t
    • Identify: Bat, band, and bus all have the same starting phoneme, b.
    • Isolate: The first phoneme in bat is b. The last phoneme is t.
  • Phonics – As discussed above, phonics is the understanding of the relationship between letters (graphemes) and the sounds that they represent (phonemes). Phonics instruction builds upon instruction of phonemic awareness. It’s most effective when taught in a logical sequence starting as early as preschool: 
    • Children first learn the shapes and names of all letters in the alphabet.
    • They learn how every single letter is pronounced. 
    • They learn how combining letters change their sound. 
    • Children apply their understanding of letter-sound relationships to reading and writing actual words (and later, sentences and longer texts). 
  • Fluency – Reading fluency is the ability to read with speed and expression without compromising accuracy. Fluency is what allows students to understand what they read rather than expend effort decoding words. 
  • Vocabulary – Children need to build a “bank” of words they know in order to continue reading more complex text. The more they experience life, talk to peers and adults, read books and go to school, the more they will build their listening, speaking, reading and writing vocabulary. 
  • Comprehension – The purpose of reading is to understand and retain information. Comprehension takes effort, however. Teachers use a variety of comprehension strategies (like self-monitoring, asking questions, summarizing text and using graphic organizers) to help students become active, engaged readers who read with purpose.  

What Happens When Children Struggle with Phonics and Need Phonics Help 

From nearly five decades of experience in phonics tutoring and reading tutoring, Huntington knows that children who do not master phonics early continue to struggle with reading throughout elementary school. Phonics mastery is essential for reading comprehension, spelling and more.  

What does it look like when a child hasn’t mastered phonics? Here are a few signs that parents might notice when their child is reading: 

  • The child guesses how to pronounce words based on the first letter or letter blend.
  • The child often mixes up how similar-looking letters sound (such as b and d).
  • The child has difficulty spelling even simple words.
  • When asked what sound an individual letter makes (or a combination of letters) or when asked to do other phonics activities, the child isn’t certain or guesses.
  • If a picture is provided with a word, the child looks first at the picture to guess the word. 

Phonics is a key part of learning to read, but it isn’t the only component. When a child struggles with reading, it’s not easy for parents to know how best to help. Without understanding the reasons behind a child’s difficulties while reading, any efforts at home will be frustrating for both the parent and the child. That might result in a child who dislikes reading and wants to avoid it altogether.  

If your child is having difficulty with reading, Huntington Learning Center can help. We offer reading tutoring programs for students in elementary school through high school. We begin with a comprehensive academic evaluation that assesses your child's strengths and weaknesses so we can design the best reading tutoring program for them. Call us at 1-800 CAN LEARN to discover our individualized approach and how we can help your elementary school student become a stronger, more confident reader.  


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