Category Archives: consonants

Learning to read, one sound at a time

A six-year-old kindergartener learning to read VC and CVC words worked with me yesterday for the first time.  We met the day before via zoom.  He was nervous, sitting on his grandmother’s lap for support.

I started by assessing his phonics skills.  Because he doesn’t know me and has not worked online, his responses to the phonics assessment I did might not be spot on.  After a few lessons, when he is more relaxed, I will have a better idea of his skill level.


But for now he was able to show me he knows letter names, consonant sounds and short vowel sounds.  He can sound VC words easily.  When he reads CVC words, he cannot “slide” all the sounds together to form words.  So that is where my reading instruction will begin.


Yesterday we worked using letter tiles.  I put before him the word “at,” and then I added one onset letter sound at a time, forming words like “fat” and “rat.”  He sounded out words from several word families using short a, o, and u.  After 20 minutes, his squirming became excessive, and we ended the lesson.  Today I will teach him again for another short lesson.


His grandmother showed me a “beginner” picture book the boy has, but as is often true, that book is not a good “beginner” book for students learning phonics.  In that book, advanced reading words are mixed in with sight words and CVC words.  I recommended she set it aside for a few months.


She wondered if she should use flash cards with words printed on them to help her grandson learn.  If the words are sight words which cannot be sounded out phonetically—words like “are” and “the”—then yes.  But if the words are sight words, I said, the boy should learn them by sounding them out.  Otherwise he might think he should memorize the look of a word to pronounce it.


Should he guess at words?  No.  If a child learns to read following the rules of phonics, eventually he will be able to sound out almost any word, even long words like “dinosaur” and “alphabet.”  Teaching a child to guess introduces a habit which will hobble him the rest of his reading life.


This student has learned to read the way phonics experts recommend, sounding out each letter.  With time, almost all CVC words will become sight words for this student and he will no longer need to sound them out  But to reach that stage of reading, he needs practice sounding out words.

How to teach words using ă and ŏ

Suppose you have taught your child the 16 consonant sounds which don’t vary at the beginning of words: b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.  Now you are ready to teach vowel sounds.

Explain what vowels are

Because you will be using the words vowel and consonant with your child as you teach, make sure you take time to explain what these words mean.  Vowel refers to five letters all the time (a, e, i, o, and u) and two letters sometimes (y and w).  Consonant refers to all the other letters and to y and w most of the time.  For now you can leave out the y and w, but when you teach small words like by and now, mention that y and w act as vowels sometimes.

Should you say short / closed vowels?  Or long / open vowels? 

Today many support materials refer to vowels followed by a consonant in the same syllable (cat, hot) as closed vowels.  Years ago these vowels were called short vowels, and they were pictured with a curve over the vowel as in ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ.  Similarly, vowels coming at the end of a syllable (go, hero) are today called open vowels by some reading support workbooks.  Previously they were called long vowels and pictured with a horizontal line over them as in ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū.  I will use the terms short and long since those are the terms most parents recognize.  I will use markings over vowels such as ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ when referring to a particular short vowel sound and ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū when referring to a particular long vowel sound.

Naming vowel sounds as short or long is important because we need a vocabulary to use with children when we refer to vowels pronounced like their letter names and vowels pronounced more softly.  Whichever terms you use, make sure your child understands them.

Teaching words with a ă sound

While you are teaching the 16 consistent consonant-letter sounds, you can begin to teach one short vowel sound.  I recommend starting with the letter ă because almost all phonics support materials start with the vowel ă, and because ă might be the easiest short vowel sound to master.  The support materials I suggest for my students are the Explode the Code series.  That series starts with ă words.

When I am teaching in person, I use flash cards with pictures of words beginning with ă such as alligator, astronaut, and apple.  I recommend you teach your child to say “ă as in apple” to reinforce the letter connected to the sound.

Choose five or six consonant letter sounds your child has mastered.  Using letter tiles, form two and three letter words such as am, an, at, bat, bam, tan, and mat, etc.  Place the letter tiles for one word an inch or so apart and ask your child to say the sounds, keeping the picture of the apple on the table too, for reference.  Repeat saying the sounds as you slowly move the letters closer and closer together until the child says the word.  It might take many tries, but usually there is a Eureka! moment when the child realizes she is reading a word, not just letter sounds.  Reading teachers call these tiny words CVC words, meaning consonant-vowel-consonant words.

Gradually add more consonant sounds and form more words with ă as the vowel sound.  If the child loses interest, one way to extend the lesson is to use her name and write a goofy sentence such as Kim is a pan or Kim is a map.  Another way is to use your name and have her end the sentence.  Mom is a ____.  Teach her that the vowel goes first or in the middle.  Try mispronouncing a word she writes and ask her if you said it correctly.

You can buy magnetic cards which you can cut into small rectangles to attach to the back of letter tiles.  Then you can work in a metal lasagna pan or pizza pan or on the refrigerator.  If your child is four or five, a short lesson (ten minutes) teaching in one mode followed by another short lesson in another mode (writing words on an iPad or laptop, writing in a workbook) might be all she can handle for one session.  I have given one-hour lessons to a four-year-old, but I needed to have six mini-lessons to sustain her interest.

Teaching words with a ŏ sound

When, after several days or weeks, you are sure your child can read ă words, move on to ŏ words.  Create a reference card—an octopus, for example.  Work on two and three letter ŏ words such as on, off, odd, Oz, nod, fob, and Bob, etc.  After several days or weeks—whatever it takes—mix ŏ words with ă words.

To reinforce your work, read together picture books.  When you come to a word she can pronounce, point to it and ask her to say the word.  Two or three times are enough to show her that what she is learning applies to her real world.


Teach 16 consonant sound-letter associations first, not vowels

If you are teaching your child to read, and you wonder what letters to begin with, choose the 16 consonants that almost always make the same sound at the beginning of English words.  Those letters are b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.

Why these 16?  These sound-letter pairings follow one-to-one logic.  A d always sounds like a d when it begins a word.  An r always sounds like an r when it begins a wordLater your child will learn that certain letters can represent more than one sound (all the vowels, for example) and that certain sounds can be represented by more than one letter (the z sound can be represented by z and s, for example).  That can be confusing.

But for now, as your child learns to read, sticking to one-to-one relationships gives your child confidence.  An m always sounds like an m.  A k always sounds like a k.

Start with sounds that have meaning to children.  If your child’s name is Marco, start by teaching the letter sound m, and tape Marco’s photo on an Mm card to hang on the refrigerator.  If your dog’s name is Bandit, tape Bandit’s picture to a Bb card.  However, don’t use pictures of words beginning with blended sounds (br as in Brian) or digraphs (sh as in Shelly).

Defining basic terms used to discuss reading

When you are learning how to teach your child to read, you need to familiarize yourself with a few  words.  If you read widely about reading, you will encounter these words all the time.  But even if you don’t, understanding them will make reading instruction easier to follow.


One such word is “phonemes.”  The smallest sounds we utter are called phonemes.  About 48 such small sounds exist in standard American English. These sounds are not letters; they are sounds to which we pair letters in order to read and pronounce sounds.  Some words such as eye have one phonemes (a long ī), but most words have two or more phonemes.  Snow, for example, has three (s, n, ō).  Putting together phonemes to form words is an important reading skill. 


Another important word is “phonics.”  Phonics means combining phonemes to form words.  For example, the phonemes b, ă, and t combine to form the word bat.  250 letter patterns represent the 42 to 44 phonemes in American English.  Most children cannot figure out phonics on their own. They need instruction to match a phoneme to a letter or to a pair of letters.

systematic phonics instruction

Systematic means that concepts are taught in a particular order.  For example, phonemes which are always represented by a single letter such as b are taught before phonemes which are represented by more than one letter such as th.  Short vowel words such as cat are taught before long vowel words such as bike. 

For more details on the sequencing of learning sounds, go to  While you are there, check out 1) the list of read-aloud books that emphasize sounds, and 2) activities you can do with a child who is learning sounds.


A vowel is the primary speech phoneme in every syllable (one vowel phoneme for one syllable).  Vowel phonemes are made by the mouth without any blockage by the tongue or lips. Short vowel phonemes are the vowel sounds in Pat, Ben, Jill, Tom, and Bud.  They are sometimes represented by a curve over the vowel.  Long vowel phonemes are the vowel sounds in Kate, Eve, Mike, Joe, and Lou.  They are sometimes represented by a straight horizontal line over the vowel.  Other vowel sounds are also represented by a, e, i, o, and u, and by combinations of these letters.  W and y can also be vowel phonemes in combination with other vowels or alone as in cow and by.

short and long vowels

Short and long are a traditional way to describe certain vowel sounds.  Short vowel sounds can be said quicker while long vowel sounds take a fraction of a second longer to pronounce.  In recent years, the terms closed and open are used the same way to mean, respectively, short and long.


A consonant is a speech sound made by partially blocking the air as you breathe out.  Most phonemes are consonants, but they cannot be pronounced without connecting them to vowels. American English includes the consonant phonemes b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z. 


Syllables are units of sound containing one vowel phoneme and usually one or more consonant phonemes.  Mitten has two syllables:  mit and tenRobotics has three syllables:  ro, bo, and tics.

Knowing these terms gives you a basic vocabulary enabling you to follow instruction about reading.

“How do I teach my grandson to read remotely?”

How do I teach my grandson to read remotely?” asked a grandmother. She plans to use Zoom, Facetime, and ready-to-go reading materials for an hour daily.  After testing the boy informally, she believes she needs to start from scratch to fill in any gaps in basic phonics.

Here is what I advised her:

First, buy two copies of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolph Flesch.  Send one to your grandson and you keep one.  Go to the back where there are lists of words.  Start on page one, asking the boy to pronounce the sound of each letter shown.  When he can do that, move on to the page of short a words.  Have the boy read the short a words, or a portion of them.

Reading lists of words is tiring, so do maybe ten minutes of such work and ask the boy’s parents to do another ten minutes at night.  Or read from the list at the beginning of the lesson, then do something else, and then come back to the list.  Move through the lists at whatever pace indicates that the boy is mastering the words.

Why use “Why Johnny Can’t Read” a 65-year-old resource?  The simple answer is because I know it works.  I have used this phonics-based resource for almost 35 years with native born children and with immigrant children.  All of them hated it, true, but all of them learned to read quickly.  There are other reading primers, but for me this is a tried and true resource.  It’s available in bookstores and online.

Second, buy two copies of “Explode the Code” workbooks 1, 1 ½, 2 and 2 ½.  (Eventually, buy the next sets in this series, but for starts, these workbooks are enough.)  This series teaches reading using a phonics-based approach.  Kids like it because of the silly illustrations.  Have the child start reading while you follow along on your copy, noting and correcting mistakes.  Eventually, the child might do some of the pages for homework or with his parents.

“Explode the Code” reinforces the harder work of reading lists of words.  It does not follow the exact sequencing of skills in “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” but you can adapt one to the other easily.

Why “Explode the Code”?  I have used this series with dozens of children, and all have liked the silliness of the drawings.  For children whose vocabulary is limited, the drawings and distractor words offer opportunities to develop new vocabulary.  There are other workbook series, but because of the humor and sequence of phonics development in “Explode the Code,” I like it.

Seated young boy is playing a portable video game..Third, buy a set of letter tiles.  You can use the tiles from a Scrabble game or from Bananagrams.  Or  use a keyboard.  What you want to do is to introduce, teach and review new concepts. using tiles or computer words.  If you are teaching short a, for example, manipulate the tiles so the child can see them to form “cat” and then “hat” and then “fat,” etc.  Changing the first letter while keeping the ending vowel and consonant is easier for beginning readers to decode.  Using tiles or computer-generated words enables you to go quickly.  Later, you can move from “mat” to “mate” or from “mick” to “mike” and back and forth quickly to show differences in spellings and sounds.

Fourth, recommend to the child’s parents that the child watch the Netflix series “Alphablocks,” an animated series using silly letter characters to teach phonics.  This British series offers tiny segments of  three or four minutes to teach particular phonics skills.  Even three-year-olds will learn to recognize letters from watching this series.  Older children will be able to read words as they pop up on the screen.

All of these materials are readily available, allowing you to start teaching immediately.  Young children need variety, so move from one resource to another every 10 or 15 minutes.  The younger or more distractible the child, the more necessary it is to have a variety of approaches—as well as learning materials the child can manipulate, like the tiles.

Reading lists and reading tile-made words or computer-screen words does not require the fine motor coordination some beginning readers lack.  When I use “Explode the Code,” for some children I allow drawing lines from words to drawings rather than writing words.  Keep in mind you are teaching reading, and even though it would be nice for the child to print the letters, or to spell correctly, that is not necessary to read.  For particularly uncoordinated children, I will write or draw or encircle providing they do the reading.  Anything to keep them reading!

Start each lesson with a quick—two or three minute—review of past work, slowing down if the concepts haven’t been learned.  Then introduce new work or repeat old work if that is needed.  At the end of the lesson, review the new work of the lesson.  Review, teach new, review again.

Finally, FYI, I am not being paid to suggest these particular products.  I am suggesting them because I know they work, they are available and they are affordable.

Please share your experiences teaching reading online.  That is the kind of information we are all wanting right now.

Which to teach after CVC words—double syllables, double vowels or silent e’s?

Reading experts agree that CVC words—two consonants sandwiching a short or closed vowel—should be taught first to children who are just beginning to read.  The reason has to do with logic.  Almost all CVC words pronounce sounds in the expected way, that is, with a one-to-one correspondence between the sound and the letter representing the sound.  The few words which are exceptions to the rules—words like “was” and “gym”—are not taught yet.

Experts also agree that one-syllable CVC words containing blends in which each letter is sounded should be taught next.  Words with blends at the beginning, words like “spot” and “drum,” should be taught before words with blends at the end, words like “bend” and “lump,” because beginning sounds are easier to master than ending sounds.

Teaching reading in this order is important because most beginning readers are four to six years old, and their sense of logic does not allow for exceptions.  All red lights mean stop, no exceptions.  Every time Dad says “no,” that means no, no exceptions.  One plus one equals two every time, no exceptions.  Every “z” is pronounced “z,” no exceptions.

The problem for teachers is that after children learn CVC words, what kinds of words should they learn next?

  • Two syllable words containing two CVC segments (CVCCVC) such as “rabbit” and “Justin”?
  • CVCe one-syllable words containing a silent e at the end such as “make” and “kite”?
  • CVVC one-syllable words containing double vowels such as “Jean” and “boat”?

There is no correct approach after teaching CVC words.  Teaching two-syllable CVCCVC words maintains the logic of one sound per letter, but two syllables are harder to learn than one.  All those letters can look intimidating to a tiny child.

child with adult helping to read

CVCe words require that the last letter not be sounded, which breaks the rule of one sound per letter.  If lots of silent letters were not pronounced, this would wreak havoc in a child’s mind.  But since the same letter—“e”—is not sounded, this maintains a one-to-one logical relationship that is easy to remember.

The hard part of CVCe words is that the silent e changes the sound of the vowel to a long or open vowel sound.  Previously children needed to know five vowel sounds; to learn CVCe words they need to know ten.  (Actually, they need to know eleven if both sounds of u are taught.  In “mule” the u sounds like “yu” and in “tune” the “u” sounds like “u.”)

One child I taught could not make the transition from CVC to CVCe words even after several months of work.  She could remember how to pronounce either CVC or CVCe words, but when I mixed them, she could not go back and forth sounding the words correctly.

Learning CVVC words containing double vowels is readily grasped if the double vowels are identical, as they are when the vowels are “ee” as in “seen” and “deed.”  Usually when the vowels are different, as in “mean” and “read,” the second vowel is silent but its presence means the first vowel is pronounced like a long or open vowel.  The new reader needs to remember two ideas:  that the second vowel is not pronounced, and that the first vowel is not pronounced like a CVC vowel.  For some children this is difficult even if exceptions are not mentioned.

What to teach after CVC words?  The choice is yours, but each option comes with its difficulties for children.  I usually teach the silent e words next.  I have tried printing words with a shadowy “e” which helps children to remember not to say the “e.”  But when I take away the shadowy letter “e,” it is like starting over.  What I thought would be a short cut way to learn turns out to be a dead end detour.

One thing I have learned:  Integrating whatever you teach next with CVC words can take a long time.

How to teach tiny, short-vowel (CVC) words to a beginning reader

So you are teaching your four-year-old to read.  She can duplicate the 40+ sounds of the English language.  She can recognize many of those sounds at the beginnings of some words.

Now it is time to pair letter sounds with a handful of letters and to form words.  Your child might not be able to recognize all the sounds yet, but as long as she can recognize some of them, she can begin to learn words.

Most phonics programs start with three letter words using the vowel sound of “short a” and easily recognizable consonant sounds such as “b,” “h,” “m,” “t” and “s.”  You could just as readily start with the vowel sound of “short o” and other consonant sounds.  Choose one short vowel sound and four or five consonant sounds which you think the child knows.

I recommend you use letter tiles.  If you can find lower case letter tiles, great, but if not, use capital letter tiles.

Show the child a letter tile and ask the child to name its sound.  If the child is not sure of that letter sound, don’t use that letter tile yet.  Choose a different one.

Lay out three letter tiles which form a word, such as “h,” “a,” and “t.”  Separate the tiles by an inch or two.  Say the sound represented by each letter as you point to the letter.  Ask the child to do the same.  Now, slowly move the letter tiles closer together while pointing and saying the letter sounds until you are saying “hat.”

Try to make this a game.  Reward the child with a high-five when she is able to say the word as you are moving the letter tiles closer and closer.  Then try another word.  If you keep the vowel and ending consonant the same at first, all the child needs to concentrate on is the first letter.  So after “hat,” you might try “bat,” “mat,” and “sat.”  Review each word several times.

What your child is learning is called phonics, or the forming of words from letter sounds.  Some children will pick it up quickly and others will take many lessons using just those same half dozen letters.  Don’t rush the child.  Keep the learning time as game-like as possible.  Aim for short lessons of ten minutes here and there rather than a half hour at a time, especially if your child is a young four-year-old or is resistant.

When the child knows the handful of words ending with “t,” change the ending letter to one of the other consonants, such as “m.”  Go through the process again, moving the letter tiles closer and closer until the child can hear the words “ham,” Sam,” and “bam.”  When you are sure she knows how to recognize and pronounce the words ending in “m,” alternate words ending in “m” with the already learned words ending in “t.”

These three-letter words are sometimes referred to as CVC for consonant, vowel, consonant.

Resist the urge to move quickly.  You want your child to build confidence about reading.  To reinforce her confidence, you could start a phone or computer document listing all the words she knows.  Or you could hang such a document on the refrigerator.  As she sees the list growing, she will feel proud.

Is it better to teach three-letter or two-letter words first

Most phonics systems begin with three letter words like “dad” and “pat.”  You could just as easily begin with two letter words like “at” and “ab.”  Don’t worry if the word isn’t real.  A four- or five-year-old child won’t recognize that some words are not real.  If the child seems perplexed, explain that “ak” is not a real word.  But if the child doesn’t question a word, as long as he pronounces it correctly, skip the explanations.

I have found that skipping the two-letter short-vowel words is a mistake.   If a child becomes used to always seeing a consonant at the beginning of a word, he might become confused if a word starts with a vowel.  If a child knows his sounds and letter correspondence, then there is no reason why two-letter words should confuse him.  To avoid this problem, I would not wait to teach two-letter words.

When the child has successfully combined most of the first handful of letters into words, add more consonants but keep the same vowel.  “H,” “j” and “l” are good second choices.  You might think that “h” has different sounds when combined with “c” and “s” (“ch” and “sh”).  True.  But as a first letter, “h” always sounds like an “h.”  The sound of “h” has a one-to-one correspondence to the letter “h” at the beginnings of words; it is distinct.  The child won’t be confused because no words end in only “h.”

How long does this take?  Some kids pick up the “code” of reading almost intuitively but for others it’s a long struggle to learn.  Don’t pressure a child to move on if the child isn’t ready.