Older Students Who Are Struggling Readers – Reading Tips and the Incorporation of Visual Phonics
For a variety of reasons, some students who are beyond the primary grades struggle with reading.
Unlike students who are learning to read in the early primary grades, these students have almost always
experienced repeated lack of success in their efforts to achieve this “fundamental” (at least for
everybody else) skill. After years of trying, they have probably been labeled a “non-reader.” Most likely,
by the time you find them, others have given up on them, but most importantly, they have given up on
When working with struggling readers, it is important to find out which parts of the reading process are
causing difficulty. Instruction can then focus on the problem area(s). Be sure to do an analysis of the
student reading of a paragraph of short passage from narrative and expository text. Ask comprehension
and vocabulary questions. Obviously students who can decode easily (read fluently at grade level) do
not need Visual Phonics. Instead, they may need instruction in comprehension strategies, vocabulary
expansion, etc. If, HOWEVER, a diagnostic assessment shows a decoding challenge . . .
• THIS IS WHERE VISUAL PHONICS AND YOU CAN COME TO THE RESCUE
More often than not, in my experience, the students who continue to struggle with reading beyond the
primary grades have a very strong tactile/kinesthetic component in their learning style. Orton and
Gillingham (considered by many LD teachers to be the gurus of reading and spelling) knew this when
they designed their multi-sensory approach to decoding and encoding. One of the basic philosophies
presented by Dr. Orton and Miss Gillingham was that “the individual with a language disability must be
provided with a specific teaching approach which coordinates the simultaneous use of all three
pathways of learning . . . Those with both visual and auditory processing problems will need
tremendous emphasis on kinesthetic reinforcement techniques . . .**These students must become
aware of the “feel” of their hand-arm movements involved as they form sounds produced by single
letters and the sequences of letters used in sound units, such as –edge, -tion, etc. The teacher must be
very aware of training the student to use this third intake and reinforcement pathway. With the
kinesthetic framework there are two important channels to be used: 1. hand-arm movements and 2. lip,
tongue and throat movements (the speech musculature). The teacher must employ techniques using
these two channels in everything she does in introducing new material and reinforcing learning to
**Excerpts taken from Language Tool Kit teacher’s guide – Paula D. Rome and Jean S. Osman
Here are some suggestions on how I might proceed with an older student.
• ATTITUDE is everything. Trust is a must. Approach everything as a partnership between you and
the student. Discuss the reading process to get a “feel” for how much the student is aware of
regarding his or her reading “challenges.”
• Choose an approach to phonics that is direct, explicit, and sequential. In the 90s, Phonogram
Cards from Otter Creek Learning or “The Language Tool Kit” and “The Advanced Language Tool
Kit” from Educator’s Publishing Service are resources I (Katie) used consistently. In response to a
recent email, Katie stated, “I still use both of the resources I listed, as well as using Visual
Phonics with any other phonics instruction going on with whatever basal series is being used at
that specific location.
Regardless of the tool you use . . .
• Visual Phonics allows you to approach the decoding and encoding process in a way that will
most likely be “novel” to the struggling student.
• Explain that many times people who struggle with reading and writing have a particular learning
style – that often they are very good at doing things with their hands – other times they learn by
talking things over to themselves, almost like they have to say the words themselves to get their
brains to understand. Once you’ve said this, students often respond that they love art, or
graphics or cooking, etc.
• Next explain that several years ago, a woman invented a very cool way to help her son (who
happened to be Deaf and couldn’t hear sounds like a typical person) learn to read and write
better. Her invention is like a code and consists of two parts. Go on to explain that “there is a
handshape that accompanies each of the phonemes (sound units) in the English language. The
handshape is actually like your hand is a camera taking a picture of what your mouth is doing
when it makes that sound. The second part of the code is a simple written symbol that looks like
the handshape (that looks like you mouth making the sound). Lots of people have improved
their ability to figure their ability to figure out words or “sounds” out words using this code – it’s
called Visual Phonics, and I think quite possibly it could help you, too.” Try to convince the
student to try VP for a month to see if any improvement takes place. Their success in this
amount of time will almost always insure continued interest in using Visual Phonics.
• Proceed to teach any phonemes for which the student has shown a weakness. MANY times with
older students the “common consonants” are in place. ALMOST ALWAYS the vowels are not!
Therefore, I often find myself beginning with short and long vowel sounds accompanied at first
by the handshapes, but quickly moving to the written symbols. Extensive vowel work continues
to include vowel teams, vowel digraphs, and vowel diphthongs. Encourage students to write the
Visual Phonics written symbols below traditional print, after circling the letters making the
sound. This reinforces what they are being taught about letters and sounds in a much more
concrete way to mark sounds than the common macron and breve that are used to mark long
and short vowels, for example. REMEMBER the printed VP symbol corresponds to the way their
mouths form the sound and the handshape they make to correspond to that sound.
• Often, older struggling readers are also unable to handle “r-controlled vowels” and they may not
know about things like hard and soft C and G. Introduce and explain these as appropriate based
on your reading diagnosis. Depending on the situation, try to explain them in a “fun” way and
create a unique memory trigger using a visual image that is meaningful to them.
• When it comes to blending . . . if you blend a simple word, such as /bat/, be sure to explain that
although this particular word is easy, it appears in harder words – for example, /bat/tle or
/bat/ter/y or ac/ro/bat.
• If the student is hesitant to practice “baby/simple/boring/easy words”, try to explain that
practicing these easier words is like practicing the fundamentals on a sports team, or practicing
the scales on a piano, or chords on a guitar. Consider it a “warm-up.”
• As soon as possible, begin the study of the six syllable types and how they affect which sound
the vowel will make. Again, try to approach this in a “fun” way, not like some dryly-stated rule
from a word study book. Use the mnemonic CLOVER (from VoWac Publishing) to help them
remember the syllable types – Closed, consonant Le, Open, Vowel team, silent or magic E and Rcontrolled.
• On a daily basis, combine syllables of varying types. Continue to discuss why the vowel makes
the sound it does. Mark the vowel, using the Visual Phonics written symbol below the
letter/letters making the sound.
• Introduce common prefixes and practice them daily. Next introduce common suffixes and
practice them daily. Often times, prefixes are phonetic, but suffixes are not, so the practice of
recognizing suffixes automatically usually takes longer. I often use post-it tape on suffix cards to
show the sounds the suffix makes. The post-it tape visual supports sometime stay on a while.
• Practice words containing affixes – encourage the student to see the prefix(es) as a chunk, the
suffix(es) as a chunk, and then to examine the remaining letters to see if they can figure out
what type of syllable(s) remain and therefore what vowel sound(s) will apply.
• My favorite word identification strategy comes from the Kansas Learning Strategies. It is called
the Word Identification Strategy. It’s mnemonic is DISSECT, and it teaches the rules of two’s and
three’s for examining the “stem” of a word (that which is left after taking off the prefix(es) and
Miscellaneous Tips and Suggestions
1. Regardless of the age of the reader, model good reading everyday: read for FUN at least 10
minutes from a novel, a poetry book, a magazine or newspaper article. As you read, model
how and when your brain uses comprehension strategies, such as those used by “Soar to
Success” (predict . . . question . . . summarize . . . clarify phonics and/or clarify idea).
2. Use graphic organizers such as story maps, story frames, KWL charts, two-column
notetaking, etc. to help students achieve better understanding of the reading process.
3. Take words from the daily read-aloud to reinforce whatever word structure lesson you are
currently working on – for example, words with /ai/ or /ay/ in them. Show that the words
follow the rules they have learned – /ai/ comes in the middle of a word or syllable and /ay/
comes at the end of a word or syllable. If you’re working on common prefixes or suffixes, list
the words that contain them. Circle of box out the affixes. See if the rule of two’s and
three’s applies to the “stem” or “root”.
4. Be sure to help students understand that the way they read narrative text versus the way
the read expository text is very DIFFERENT. Teach strategies for each. Use appropriate
graphic organizers for each. Practice each. BUT remind them that the decoding procedures
they are learning (with Visual Phonics) apply to each.
This article was graciously shared by Katie Ulwelling, a passionate teacher and advocate for students
who experience learning challenges. Katie was my inspiration to become a Visual Phonics Trainer and
served as my mentor. To her, I owe much. Thank you Katie!