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Steps to Success » Comprehension Skills

Advanced Phonics for Older Students

Phonics is a tool we focus on when first teaching students to read, but that shouldn’t be where its use stops. Phonics isn’t just for kindergarten. It remains crucial to reading and spelling. Often, we know the sounds of words but don’t recognise them because we can’t pronounce them on reading and therefore don’t associate them with a word we already know. Encouraging older students to focus on phonics is an excellent way to improve reading and writing.

Let’s start by looking at how we can tackle challenging words using phonics:

Step 1 – Break the word down into syllables.
Step 2 – Check if the word is a compound word (e.g. firefighter) or contains common prefixes/suffixes.
Step 3 – Analyse which vowels are likely to be long or short.
Step 4 – Check whether the word flows well.

This method is particularly effective with place names, for which we typically have no clear point of reference.

Example: Abergavenny

Step 1: A-ber-ga-ve-nny

Step 2: There are no recognisable words within this – there are in many place names (e.g. Hollywood or Jamestown), but not this one.

Step 3: There are a LOT of vowels to figure out in this word, and it helps to notice the patterns from similar words. Five-syllable words are usually pronounced with the first three vowels short and the last two long unless otherwise indicated. Here the second e is pronounced as short due to the double n.

Step 4: When seeing how well the word flows (listening to the lyrical flow), we have the pronunciation short a-b-er-g-short a-v-short e-n-long e.

When we’re going the other way with unfamiliar words and trying to work out the spelling of a word we’ve heard, a useful trick is to write down all the phonetically correct spellings then use intuition to guess which is the correct spelling. This often works because our intuition has been conditioned by multiple exposures to common spelling patterns.

Example: Take the sound ‘f-long A-t.’

There are these main possible spellings:


Then, we use intuition to guess which is the correct spelling and we are likely to be correct as we have seen the correct spelling many times.

For longer words (3+ syllables), we should break them down into syllables before writing out the spelling options.

Example: belittle

syllables: be/litt/el

Analysis: This looks like a compound word of be + little so we will treat them as separate words from a phonics point of view.

Syllable 1: Be – e at the end of the word we know often takes the long vowel sound so our best guess is b-long e.

Syllable 2: Litt – a double consonant after the vowel indicates a short vowel sound irrespective of whether it’s followed by the magic e or not. So, our best guess is l-short i-t

Syllable 3: El – the magic e here has no sound and doesn’t impact the sound of the preceding ‘i’ because of the preceding ‘tt.’ We finish with a l sound, pronounced short ‘oo’ + l. We could guess the spellings ‘littel’ and ‘little’, but we have only seen one of those spellings often, so we can follow our intuition to know which is correct.

There are many tricks to decoding difficult words, many of which rely on the ever-useful tool of phonics. Be patient and take your time to analyse words, drawing on all the phonics rules you know.