Phonics Interventions for Struggling Readers in K-2

Do you have any students who struggle with decoding? They don’t have the phonics knowledge they need to successfully read new words?

If so, this post will address exactly that! And it’s actually part of a complete series on supporting struggling readers.

In this series, I started out with a post about the causes of decoding difficulties in beginning readers, shared how I analyze running records to learn more about readers’ specific challenges, explained how I teach decoding strategies to struggling readers, and provided suggestions for phonological awareness intervention activities.

And in this post, I’ll be focusing on phonics, the relationship between letters and sounds. Learning phonics comes easily for some students, but it can be a real challenge for others.

In this post, I’ll explain how to figure out if phonics is a “problem area” for a reader and make suggestions for integrating phonics instruction into your literacy block. I’ll also provide ideas for specific phonics interventions  to help your struggling decoders with phonics. Finally, I’ll describe how I help students apply their phonics learning to real reading – the ultimate goal!

This post has tons of ideas and freebies for helping your struggling readers with phonics - everything from letter sounds to complex word families! Ideas are relevant for Kindergarten, first, or second grade readers.

How to Know if Phonics Knowledge Is Contributing to Reading Difficulty

Decoding difficulties can be caused by many different factors. Sometimes, a child is struggling for multiple reasons. However, it’s beneficial to figure out whether or not a struggling reader would benefit from more phonics support.

As I describe in my post from a few weeks ago, analyzing a student’s miscues (reading errors) and self-corrections can be very helpful in determining what she needs to work on. When I want to find out if phonics knowledge is a problem, I take a look at a child’s miscues.

I look for patterns in her errors, and ask myself questions like:

  • Does the student use the first letter to decode a new word?
  • Is the student confusing letter sounds and making mistakes for that reason?
  • Does the student attempt to sound out every single word in the book?
  • Does the student take a long time figuring out what sound a letter makes?
  • Is the student misreading digraphs or blends?
  • Does the student have a good handle on short vowels?  Long vowels?
  • Does the student look for patterns and recognize word chunks?
  • How does the student handle multi-syllabic words?

Answering these questions can help me determine what, specifically, a student needs practice with in terms of phonics.

Sometimes you may find that there is no real pattern to a student’s errors. In this case, I ask myself if the child has a large enough “mental bank” of sight words. If a student frequently sounds out or misreads high-frequency words (that are difficult to decode), then it may be a case of lack of sight word knowledge rather than a lack of phonics understanding.

Integrating Phonics Instruction into Daily Instruction

All students benefit from systematic, explicit phonics instruction – regardless of whether or not they are struggling readers.

I highly recommend using the Words Their Way program for your phonics instruction (with all your students). Words Their Way teaches spelling, word patterns, and vocabulary, and it emphasizes the application of phonics to both reading and writing. Teachers who use Words Their Way meet their students’ developmental needs by using small group instruction, rather than whole-group phonics or spelling lessons that are only helpful for some of their students.

If you don’t use Words Their Way, I recommend teaching a spelling pattern to the entire group, and then providing practice and follow-up activities that are differentiated. Here’s an example: You’re working on blends in your first grade classroom. Some of your students need to practice hearing and spelling blends at the beginning of 1-syllable words, so you create opportunities for independent and small group practice. More advanced students, however, need practice with blends at the middle and end of multisyllabic words. You use alternative activities and small group lessons to challenge these students.

Although I think it’s valuable to have a consistent time for phonics instruction each day (about 20 mins), phonics can also be integrated into guided reading.

If I predict that one of my guided reading groups is going to struggle with a particular word in a book, I ask myself if the word contains a spelling pattern that they need to learn. If it does, I have them do a little work with the word before we read the book. I may write the word on a dry erase board or make it with magnetic letters. We can break the word apart, talk about the pattern, and come up with other words that have the same pattern. This will help them read the word when they encounter it in the book.

In an ideal situation, there are multiple words in the book that have the same pattern. We may talk about just one during the pre-read discussion, and then I can see if they apply that knowledge to read the other words in the book with that same pattern.

Alternatively, you can do a little word work after students have read the book. If you noticed that several children struggled with one word, you can break it apart, come up with similar words, and so on.

In general, I try to keep word work in guided reading brief and always relate it back to the text. It’s important for students to understand that learning phonics helps them learn to read and write.

Specific Phonics Intervention Activities for Struggling Students

No matter how awesome your whole-class and small group phonics instruction is, some students may still struggle. Those students will benefit from further practice with phonics concepts, in a one-on-one or small group setting. They also need many opportunities to apply this knowledge to reading real texts.

In the following sections, I’ll describe possible intervention activities for students who are struggling with letter sounds, CVC words, digraphs and blends, word families/word patterns, vowels, and infected endings. All of the materials described and pictured are completely FREE – just sign up here:


Letter Sound Interventions

In order for students to move beyond “pretend reading,” they need to master their letter sounds. And they need to recall letter sounds quickly, in order to support fluent decoding.

When a young student is struggling with letter sounds, I first try to figure out if they are actually PERCEIVING the letters the way that they should be. Can they physically see the letters? Can they hear the letter sounds that I’m saying? A quick trip to the nurse for a vision and hearing check helps determine whether or not there are underlying physical causes for a child’s struggles.

I also check to make sure that the child can visually differentiate between alphabet letters. If the letters “o” and “c” look about the same to a student, then she won’t be successful with mastering the sounds they make.

If you find that a student is having trouble telling letters apart, try doing some magnetic letter sorts with her. First, sort by letter shapes. Show her how to put the “round ones” together, the “ones with sticks” together, and so on. When she has learned to do this type of sort independently, have her sort by actual letters. Font sorts can be helpful, too – mix up examples of two letters written in various fonts, and have her sort the two letters into groups. An example of this is included in today’s free download.

Once a student can distinguish between letters, she’s ready to learn the sounds. She doesn’t necessarily need to know the letter names – in some countries, like England, they first teach children the letter sounds and teach the names later (Stahl, 2014). This makes a whole lot of sense to me!

You also don’t have to wait until a child has mastered one letter sound to move onto the next. I like to introduce about 2 letter sounds per week, and then move on to 2 new letter sounds the following week. I’ve found that students sometimes seem to learn a handful of letters at once, regardless of whether I taught them this past week or several weeks ago.

In my opinion, alphabet charts are one of the most helpful tools for teaching letter sounds (and letter names). At the beginning of each guided reading group or small group, you can give students copies of an alphabet chart (included in today’s free download) and have them read it chorally.

There are many different ways to practice. You can have students go through the chart saying each letter name, sound, and picture: “A, /a/, apple.” You can have them say just the letter sound and picture: “/a/, apple.” You can have them do “speed hunts” (“Put your finger on the letter that makes the sound /m/.”). Alphabet charts are so simple and versatile!

Download this FREE alphabet chart and other literacy materials in this post!

I’ve also found that incorporating movement is extremely beneficial when teaching letter sounds. I love the Estrellita program for teaching the Spanish letter sounds, and I’ve heard that the Jolly Phonics program is great for teaching English letter sounds. Search on YouTube for either of these programs, and you should be able to find some demonstration videos for practicing sounds and corresponding movements.

Since teaching letter sounds requires a lot of repetition, here are some additional activities to help keep things fresh and interesting:

  • Trace sandpaper letters while saying the letter sound
  • Use one finger to trace a letter in salt or sand (see my photo below – I use travel soap boxes to hold salt for tracing)
  • Trace letters in shaving cream (bonus – this cleans the tables!)
  • Do “letter hunts” by searching for and cutting letters out of old newspapers and magazines
  • Have students sort small objects by letter sounds (check out these tubs from Lakeshore, or make your own)
  • Have students use Starfall or apps to squeeze in a little extra independent practice
  • Pair students up (one struggling reader with one child who knows her letter sounds) and have them practice flashcards together – or create a timed PowerPoint presentation that automatically goes through all the letters while students practice

Use a travel soap container for salt or sand - instant sensory tracing activity!

Sometimes you may find that students know their letter sounds well but are not applying that knowledge to their reading.

If a child knows her letter sounds but is not using them to decode tricky words, have her read a patterned text (i.e. “I see a bear. I see a lion.”). Then, have her reread the book – but this time, cover up the pictures. This will force her to use the first letter to decode some of the words.

Cut-apart sentences are another great way to force students to attend to the initial letter in words. Have the student come up with a sentence (about a book you just read or a special activity), write it on a sentence strip, and then cut apart the words. The child puts the sentence back together, using the first letter of each word as a guide.

If a child is having a tough time paying attention to letter sounds other than the first letter, teach her to pay attention the last letter of a word. You can have her sort word cards by ending letters (i.e. “Words that end with “d” and words that end with “g”). You can also present similar words (that all start with the same letter) to a child, and have her choose the word that matches the picture. The clip-on cards from today’s freebie are an example of this type of activity:

Use these FREE cards to teach students to pay attention to the last letter in a word!

It can be frustrating when a child is held back by a lack of letter sound knowledge. However, keep in mind that these students can still participate in guided reading and read simple texts. Letter sound knowledge will develop with time and practice.

CVC Word Interventions

Even when students know their letter sounds, they may struggle to put the sounds together to read words with a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern (CVC words).

When a child is struggling with CVC words, the first thing I ask myself is, “Can the child blend three sounds orally?” Because if a child cannot say the word “cat” after hearing the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ spoken aloud, then she is not going to be able to read the word “cat” when it is presented to her.

For this reason, it’s important to help students practice blending sounds orally before you ask them to read CVC words. A blending sheet is something that’s been helpful for my students in the past:

Get this FREE blending sheet to help your students learn to blend three sounds and eventually read CVC words!

This sheet helps students practice blending sounds AND left-to-right directionality. There are two different ways to use it:

  1. You say three sounds, touching one dot as you say each sound. The child slides her finger on the arrow, saying the complete word.
  2. You say a 3-sound word aloud and slide your finger along the error. The child then segments the word into 3 sounds, touching one dot for each sound.

Once children can do this activity orally, you can transition them to using letters. Laminate this second blending sheet and fill in a three letter word using dry erase marker. The child practices touching once for each sound, and then blending the sounds together to say the word.

Try using this blending sheet to help students read CVC words! Get this sheet (and other intervention materials) for FREE in the post!

Both blending sheets are included in today’s download, and you can read more about other phonological awareness interventions in this post.

Elkonin boxes are another helpful tool for teaching students to blend sounds and read CVC words. To develop oral blending skills, say a CVC word aloud and have students touch each box once, while saying each sound in the word. You can also have them push counters into the boxes as they segment the word:
Try sound boxes for your students who are struggling with phonological awareness or CVC words! Download the free template and get more phonemic awareness interventions in the blog post.

Once students are ready to work on CVC words, write a letter in each box and have them sound out the word. Students can also practice spelling CVC words with the support of sound boxes. In the photo below, you’ll see two types of sound box spelling activities. On the first sheet, students must fill in only two letters. On the second sheet, they have to spell the word entirely on their own:

Use these FREE sheets to give students practice with spelling CVC words!

All of the materials above are included in today’s free download (sign up below if you haven’t yet!)


Digraphs and Blends Interventions

When a student is struggling with digraphs and blends, I try to determine if they are hearing the actual sounds the way that they should be. If, for example, a child cannot correctly pronounce the /sh/ sound, this may make it difficult for her to hear and read this digraph.

I like to start by using lots of picture activities to help students practice hearing and saying words with digraphs and blends – before I ask them to spell or read words with digraphs. In your download, you’ll find a picture sort that helps students distinguish between the sounds “ch” and “th.”

A digraphs and blends chart can also be helpful. Just like with the alphabet chart I mentioned above, there are lots of different ways to have students practice “reading” the chart. The more repetition, the better!

Download this FREE blends and digraphs chart and read a post about phonics interventions!

Word Family and Word Pattern Interventions

As I’m sure you know, reading letter-by-letter is just not efficient! We have to get our students to learn word patterns and to look for them when decoding tricky words.

There are a TON of different word families and word patterns in the English language. And the good news? You don’t have to teach your students all of them in order for them to become successful readers! As Fountas and Pinnell state in When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works (2009), “Young readers do not need to learn every phonogram [spelling pattern] as a separate item” (p. 235).

Thank goodness, right?! Of course, we still do have to give our students experiences working with many different word patterns (to give them a solid base). Here are some suggestions for intervention activities for working on word patterns:

  • Use word sorts – these help students learn to look for patterns and categorize words. Again, Words Their Way is a great resource for this!
  • Have students use magnetic letters to break apart words. For example, if you put up the letters -eet, students can switch out different initial letters to make and read the words meet, greet, sheet, feet, etc. This will help them learn to see -eet as a “chunk” or pattern.
  • Have students highlight word patterns in printable books or poems. If you’re working on the -ight ending, for example, give students a book (that they’ve already read and discussed) and have them highlight examples of that word pattern.

Struggling readers often do not look for word patterns as they read. Check out this blog post for ideas and activities to help them become more efficient readers!

Even if students are successful with these activities, they may still have a hard time applying that knowledge to reading new words in connected text (our ultimate goal). To help these students, make sure to always connect your intervention activities to real reading and writing.

Lots of thinking aloud will help, too (“When I first saw this word, I wasn’t sure what it said. But I did see the pattern -eep, which is a pattern I’ve seen in the word deep. So I said the word beginning, st, and put it with the -eep. And then I knew that the word was steep!)

Vowel Interventions

I teach in Spanish right now, and one advantage of this is that the vowels in Spanish have only one sound. Just one! There really aren’t complex vowel spelling patterns like there are in English. English vowels are terrible!!!

All ranting aside, vowel sounds can really trip up some students. When a child is struggling with short vowels, I tell him to look at my mouth while I pronounce them. We practice saying each sound, paying attention to how our mouths look. This helps students learn to differentiate between short vowel sounds.

When we move onto long vowel sounds, I anticipate a lot of confusion. It takes time to learn all the different long vowel spelling patterns! Anchor charts and vowel “cheat sheets” can be helpful, particularly for students who struggle with vowels or have memory issues.

Grab this vowel anchor chart for FREE and get lots of ideas for phonics interventions in the post!

Many of the strategies I applied for word families also apply for teaching vowel sounds (after all, vowels are a type of spelling pattern). Word sorts, work with magnetic letters, and highlighting vowel patterns in texts are all useful activities for interventions. The nice thing about these activities is that you can adjust the difficulty level (short vowels? silent e? diphthongs?) while still using an activity structure with which students are familiar.

Elkonin boxes are another awesome way to visually demonstrate that more than one letter makes up a vowel sound, some vowels are silent, etc.:

Elkonin boxes can be used to teach vowel spelling patterns and show students that more than one letter can make up a single sound!

(I picked those three words randomly, but apparently I am subconsciously dreaming of being on the lake in a boat!)

Learning vowel spelling patterns takes time and lots of practice. And again, all the intervention activities in the world will not be beneficial if a student doesn’t have opportunities to apply that knowledge to real reading and writing tasks.

Inflected Ending Interventions

Inflected or inflectional endings include -s, -es, -ing, and -ed. I’ve seen a lot of kids struggle to consistently pay attention to word endings, so specific inflectional endings activities can be beneficial.

I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, but word sorts, magnetic letters, and highlighting inflected endings in texts are all useful activities for teaching inflected endings.

And here’s a discovery activity (best for a small group) included in your free download:

  1. Tell students that you are going to show them one word card at a time. Their job is to read the word aloud.
  2. Show students just one card at a time, laying them on the table or placing them on the board so they can be seen after they read each card.
  3. Once you’ve read all the cards, have students state what they notice (in the example below, students should point out that the words all have the -ing ending, sometimes a single final consonant is doubled, sometimes a silent e is dropped, etc.). Students may notice many different things – your goal is not to teach them all of these rules, just to help them notice and discover patterns at this point.
  4. After your discussion, have students look for (and either write down or highlight) words with the same inflected ending in a text they’ve already read.

To get students thinking about inflected endings (like -ing), have them read a set of word cards that all have this ending. Place them on the table and have kids talk about what they notice. You can also have them highlight the endings and then go find words in a book that have the same ending! Read the post for more free phonics ideas and activities!

This activity could be followed by more detailed lessons about how a word can change when the -ing ending is added.

Conclusions

Beyond these skills, students may struggle with multisyllabic words, prefixes, suffixes, and so on. However, many of the same activities I’ve described are useful for teaching multisyllabic words (like word sorts, highlighting, and find-it-in-a-book activities). When it comes down to it, we just need to help kids learn many word parts and teach them to apply those parts to read and write new words.

And above all, we need to remember to give students lots of phonics practice through real reading and writing activities. Make it a point to talk about how word activities can help students read and spell words. It’s also helpful to monitor the amount of time students spend working on phonics activities vs. the amount of time they spend reading and writing.

If you haven’t yet signed up to receive all these free materials, what are you waiting for?! Sign up here and everything will be sent to you right away:


Next week will be the final post in this intervention series, and we’ll be talking about how to help kids improve by reading a LOT! See you then!

Update: The series is now complete! You can read the rest of the posts here:

What Causes Decoding Difficulties in Beginning Readers, and What Can Teachers Do About It?

How To Analyze Running Records (And Get a Ton of Valuable Information About Your Beginning Readers!)

How to Teach Decoding Strategies to Struggling Readers

Phonological Awareness Interventions for Struggling Readers

How To Give Struggling Readers More Practice Time Through Volume Reading

Resources:

Dougherty Stahl, K. A. (2014). New Insights About Letter Learning. The Reading Teacher, 68(4), 261-265.

Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2009). When readers struggle: Teaching that works. Heinemann.

Disclosure: An Amazon affiliate link is included in this post.