At a glance
Struggling readers in middle school may need to build phonological awareness skills.
Middle-schoolers with reading issues may need to be tested. Extra instruction in phonological awareness might be helpful.
Parents and caregivers can help by advocating at school and practicing skills at home.
Kids with reading issues like may still struggle with in their middle school years. Very often, they need formal instruction to recognize and work with sounds in spoken language. This includes phonemic awareness, which is the ability to notice, think about, and break down the individual sounds in spoken words.
Even if your child is already getting extra support with reading at school, you still play an important role. Here are some ways to help with phonological and phonemic awareness.
1. Get the facts.
If your child is a slow reader, decoding might still be a struggle.
If you’re having your child evaluated for the first time, ask for a phonological awareness skills test. Not all reading tests measure them. But experts believe that weakness in this area is a core problem for kids with dyslexia.
If your child has already been evaluated, see if these tests were included. If they were not, check in with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. Ask them about testing for phonological awareness.
2. Partner with the reading specialist.
It’s important to know what the specialist is working on with your child. Keep in touch about which specific skills are being targeted, and ask how you can practice with your child at home. Be sure you are using the same terms the teacher is using so your child knows exactly what you’re talking about.
3. Check the IEP.
If testing has shown your child has phonological awareness issues, be sure those skills are in the IEP goals. Also, keep current on how those skills are being taught. By middle school, special education teachers may not specifically teach those skills. So you may have to advocate for this support.
4. Sneak in some fun and games.
Your middle-schooler might give you an eye roll when you reveal your idea of fun, but don’t give up. Try getting your child interested in activities that ask for words that start or end with a certain letter or that rhyme with a given word. Look for ways to use these kinds of phonological games to build on the areas your child is focusing on in school.
5. In conversation, treat your child like a young adult.
Your middle-schooler may feel embarrassed to still be working on something so “babyish.” Explain in a direct, honest way the reasons your child needs this kind of support. Make sure the reasons for why it’s important to keep working on these skills are clear. At the same time, be sure you’re listening to your child’s concerns.
6. Use social media as a tool.
Kids who spend time on social media may ask for your help with spelling or typing a word so they don’t make a mistake in front of their peers. Help your child break down the sounds in the word before you type or spell it. Some kids find it helps if they can tap out the sounds on a table, or count them off on their fingers.
7. Use your child's favorite device.
Your child’s cell phone gives you another way to slip some phonological practice into each day. Text your child a daily challenge based on what going on. For example, if your child is going to a bakery with friends to get brownies after school, you might send a text or leave a voicemail saying, “Bring me something that rhymes with ‘puffin.’”
8. Make reading fun.
While you’re focused on phonological awareness, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Make time to read as a family. Read aloud if your middle-schooler will still let you.
Keep looking for ways to encourage your middle-schooler to read. This includes being open to your child’s choice of reading materials — whether it’s comics, magazines, or audiobooks. Getting this kind of support from you will help your child stay motivated to become a better reader.
Phonological awareness instruction can have a big impact. This even applies to middle school.
Families can help middle-schoolers practice phonological awareness at home. This can happen while kids work on grade-level skills.
Making the activities fun can help motivate middle-schoolers to keep working on these skills.
About the author
About the author
Kelli Johnson, MA is an educational speech-language pathologist, working with students from early childhood through 12th grade.