Many teachers think students with dyslexia and vision processing issues need specialized instruction to learn to read. In reality, these students just need more phonics instruction than other students to master reading skills.

In addition, the swing to whole language and focused lessons on reading skills such as main idea has left many students with gaps in phonemic awareness and phonics. Students do not have a strong understanding of decoding, which leads them to struggle when they reach harder texts in middle and high school.

Why Middle Grades Teachers Need to Teach Phonics Pinterest

Recent test results support the need for phonics instruction. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2019:

  • 66% of 4th grade students in the US performed at or above NAEP basic proficiency. Only 35% were at or above proficient, and 9% scored at the advanced level.
  • 8th graders scored nearly as poorly, with 73% of students scoring at or above basic, 34% at or above proficient, and just 4% read at an advanced level.

Clearly, what we are currently doing in reading instruction isn’t working.

Classroom Implications

If we want student achievement in all subjects to increase, then we need to meet students where they are. Middle and High School teachers need to assess and help fill in students’ reading skills gaps.

There are different parts to learning to read, and teachers need to be aware that these skills include phonemic awareness, phonics, and, later on, instruction in word roots. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and break words into sounds, while phonics focuses more on how the sounds translate to written language.

In many classrooms, teachers need to support students with below-grade-level reading skills. Ideally, schools would have a reading specialist who could screen these students to know where their skills gaps are and identify how they could be supported. However, if that isn’t possible, teachers could do this in their classroom.

Teachers of subjects that aren’t English may wonder why they should do this. My view is that we want students to achieve in our subject, whether it is math, science, history, art, etc. Granted, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for every teacher to try to do these skill assessments, which is why it would be best to have a reading specialist.

Teachers could divide into teams and work together to make a plan of action. Perhaps the English department provides skill gap support with mini-lessons in phonemic awareness and phonics, while all teachers provide support by:

  • Scaffolding lessons to build skills.
  • Building students’ background knowledge to increase comprehension.
  • Teaching vocab and reading skills explicitly as they naturally flow in a unit.

Even if we begin to shift instruction in primary grades to include more phonics and phonemic awareness, we have an entire generation of students that did not receive adequate instruction. Students will continue to struggle unless we begin addressing these knowledge gaps.

Phonics BalloonPop™

A fun way to review second-grade phonics skills is with BalloonPop™. These interactive games can be played in both PowerPoint™ and Google Slides™. Teachers could use them to play whole group or differentiate instruction by assigning students specific games during individualized instruction. Get your Phonics BalloonPop™ games here.

2nd Grade Phonics BalloonPop


“Assessments – Reading: NAEP.” Assessments – Reading | NAEP, National Assessment of Educational Progress, 7 Sept. 2022,

Therapy, Lumiere Childrens. “See It and Say It: The Difference between Phonics and Phonemic Awareness.” Lumiere Children’s Therapy, Lumiere Children’s Therapy, 30 Aug. 2019,,phonemic%20awareness%20lessons%20are%20oral.

Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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