How to Teach Phonics to Older Teens

The relationship between speech sounds and their corresponding letters is known as phonics. An understanding of phonics leads to word recognition and is a fundamental component of the reading process. Explicit phonics instruction is essential for older teens who are struggling readers or are learning English as a second language.

Use explicit instruction to teach phonics to older teens. Some educators and reading programs use implicit rather than explicit instruction to teach phonics, but research findings suggest that explicit instruction is generally a more effective approach. Implicit phonics instruction begins with the whole (complete words) and moves to the smallest part (letters and their sounds). Explicit instruction, on the other hand, involves teaching a learner to start from the smallest part and use those parts to build the whole.

Introduce and drill the short-vowel and consonant sounds. The short-vowel sounds include the /ă/ in “cat,” the /ĕ/ in “set,” the /ĭ/ in “ill,” the /ŏ/ in “mop,” and the /ŭ/ in “run.” The consonant sounds include the /b/ in “bat,” the /d/ in “dog” and the corresponding sound for each of the other consonants. Use flashcards to drill the short-vowel sounds and add several new consonant sounds each day until your teen has memorized and easily recognizes all of the short-vowel and consonant sounds. Do not rush the process; give your teen as much time as he needs to properly memorize all of the short-vowel and consonant sounds, which takes anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks on average.

Practice blending sounds. Start with two-letter sounds like /b/ + /a/ = “ba” and gradually move to more complex blends such as three-letter sounds like /sa/ + /t/ = “sat,” twin consonant endings like “bell” or “well,” and two-consonant blends like “brat” or “help.” Drill until blending becomes automatic for your teen.

Teach the digraphs and three-consonant blends. Once your teen is comfortable with blending, introduce the digraphs (a combination of two consonants that creates a new sound, such as “ch,” “sh,” “th,” “wh,” “ng”, and “nk”) and drill three-consonant blends like “scrap” and “split.” Like every other step in the phonics instruction process, it is imperative to allow your teen ample time to master each step before moving on to the next.

Introduce and drill high-frequency words that are commonly found in most sentences. Some high-frequency words like “or” and “to” are considered regular because learners can easily sound them out. Other high-frequency words like “the” and “who” are considered irregular because learners cannot easily sound them out. Encourage your teen to sound out as many high-frequency words as possible and to memorize the irregular ones.

Introduce and drill the long vowel sounds, diphthongs, and spelling patterns. The long vowel sounds include the /ā/ in “bake,” the /ē/ in “me,” the /ī/ in “hi,” the /ō/ in “go,” and the /ū/ in “fume” and /ōō/ in “blue.” Diphthongs refer to the combination of two vowels to create a special sound such as the /oi/ in “oil” and the /ow/ in “cow.” Teach spelling patterns like when the /s/ sound is spelled like c in words like “cent” and “face.”

Introduce decodable stories. Give your teen opportunities to practice his phonic skills by decoding words in easy-to-read stories. Encourage your teen to practice reading a variety of decodable texts.


Though the process of teaching phonics is the same regardless of the learner’s age, using age-appropriate materials for practicing phonics skills does help to maintain an older learner’s motivation and interest. Choose decodable reading materials that are geared for a teen audience.