Please welcome Sarah Rimkunas, a fellow tutor and certified literacy specialist.  Today she shares what she does with older children that struggle with reading.  I hope you enjoy!  – Adrianne

The Phonological Processing System

One of the challenges tutors face when working with struggling readers is that as children get older, getting to the source of their difficulties becomes a more and more complex puzzle. The tutor has to put on their detective hat and use their powers of observation and assessments to find out where the reading process is breaking down. It has been my experience that with older struggling readers, very often that deficit is with the phonological processing system. Students lack the knowledge of phonemes to effectively decode multisyllabic words. However, there is an aspect of this deficit that it is very easy to overlook in older students – Phonemic Awareness.

Phonemic Awareness is a skill that typically begins developing in early childhood, long before Kindergarteners put pencil to paper or start reading little books. Phonemic Awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes. It is a prerequisite for almost everything else in reading and writing. For the child that doesn’t struggle with reading, they learn this skill through nursery rhymes, being read to, speaking and listening. It is explicitly taught in Kindergarten and the beginning of First Grade. But for children with a weak phonological system who didn’t master it early on, these are skills that are rarely taught or assessed beyond 1st grade.  Yet, these skills are very important for reading and writing more complex words.

Fortunately, teaching phonemic awareness doesn’t require special materials or programs, just time, patience and creativity. The more multisensory you are able to make the instruction, the more quickly your student will begin to build their phonological system.


The ability to hear how a word is divided into syllables is a crucial foundational skill. It is also something that older students need to approach in a number of different ways. Remember, this is something the students didn’t get through less explicit teaching methods and it may take multiple practice sessions to become reliably proficient.

Using picture cards for words of varying length, students can clap the syllables, tap the desk or table in front of them, hop up and down, use paper squares or pennies to represent each syllable or mark the syllables on their body by touching their hand to each of the joints on their arm for each syllable (wrist, elbow, shoulder, head). For students having difficulty, it can be helpful to place their hand underneath their chin as they say the word, so they can feel the mouth open for each syllable. Students can sort pictures according to how many syllables there are in each word or play board games (move the number of spaces as there are syllables in the target word). The goal is to develop an ear for how words are broken, the rhythm and meter of our language.


Practice with blending syllables together is also crucial. Can students recognize and blend the syllables together when the tutor separates a word into chunks. For example: “What’s this word? Wah – ter – mell – in?”

Phoneme Segmentation

The second important skill is the ability to break a word into individual sounds. Much like breaking words into syllables, this takes abundant practice. Again, using a variety of techniques and using the child’s body as well as their ears and voice produces the most lasting learning.

Children can be taught to tap their fingers on the desk in front of them, tap their fingers to their thumb or use Elkonin (sound) boxes. Elkonin boxes are a great way to introduce this skill. There is one box for each phoneme (not letter) in a word and students push pennies or counters up as they say the sounds in the word. The combination of the visual support of boxes and the motor activity of pushing pennies provides immediate feedback and reinforcement.


Like syllable blending, the ability to blend sounds together orally is an important prerequisite for being able to “sound out” tricky words. Example: “What’s this word? /d/ /u/ /k/”

Manipulating Phonemes

While it may not seem like productive reading work, playing with language helps to build phonemic awareness also. Rhyming games, limericks, speaking Pig Latin and Tongue Twisters all draw our attention to the sounds of words.

Playing games with words such as deleting syllables, deleting sounds, and changing sounds makes students flexible and able to use their sound knowledge in circumstances similar to coming across a comFillingtheGaps_Phonemic_Awarenesspletely unknown word in their reading.

Deleting Syllables:

Say “Popcorn”. Say it again without “pop”.

Say “planet”. Say it again without “it”.

Deleting Sounds:

Say “goat”. Say it again without /t/.

Say “seat”. Say it again without /s/.

Changing Sounds:

Change the /p/ in hop to /t/.

Change the /a/ in pat to /i/.

A building is only as strong as its foundation; so don’t neglect checking in with your struggling readers and their phonemic awareness. Without these skills in place, phonics instruction is going to be difficult for a struggling reader to utilize effectively. By taking the time to engage in Phonemic Awareness play; you will be giving them a second chance to build their awareness of sounds and having some fun in the process.


SarahRSarah Rimkunas is a Certified Literacy Specialist with more than 13 years of experience in public schools. In 2014, she opened her own tutoring business, Magic Moments Tutoring. She lives in beautiful Southern Maine with her husband and two children, ages 3 and 13. Find her at and on Facebook.

Image sources for feature image:  Reading is fun by Aidan Morgan, Book Lover by Daniel Go, Books by Ryan Hyde


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