Category Archives: how to make learning fun

Teaching sounds, not letters, is where reading begins

The basic “code” of written English is sounds represented by letters.  Learning this code begins with learning to recognize the sounds of English.  Combining these sounds into two- or three-sound words is where forming words begins.  And this can be taught to children before they ever see a letter.

Because learning the code of written English is so important, learning to recognize its sounds should not be rushed.  A lifetime of reading, a career, the ability to support a family—so much depends on being able to read.

Kids need plenty of time and various kinds of interactions with sounds to learn to recognize sounds.  The younger the children, the shorter their attention spans and the more need for game-like ways to learn.

But the learning doesn’t begin with letters.  It begins with sounds.

I recommend you use several strategies to help your children identify sounds, working with your child one-on-one using manipulatives.  Why?

Your child wants nothing more than to interact with you. Putting down your cell phone and sitting by her side shows your child you treasure her.  And working with her on reading skills shows her how important you consider that knowledge to be.

Research shows that the more senses we use, the more likely we are to remember. If a child can touch manipulatives, hear you say sounds, say them herself, see objects when she says sounds and feel your warm hug when she learns, the learning will stick. Plus she will be relaxed and happy, in an emotional state which is open to learning.

Some of the strategies I recommend to teach tiny children how sounds form words are these.

  • Work on a few sounds at a time with objects around the house. If your son’s name is Bill, for example, start with the “b” sound. Put a ball in your son’s hand and say “b” (the sound, not the letter) as in ball.  Put a banana in his hands and say “b” as in banana.  Do the same for other consonant sounds and for all the vowel sounds, even sounds we represent by two letters.  You can say “oi” (the sound) as in oink, or “ch” (the sound) as in child.  You can start this activity when a child is two or three without ever showing the child a letter.


  • Find objects in picture books which begin with basic English language sounds. ABC books are good for this, but the goal should not be to say “A is for apple.”  Rather it is to focus on the sounds in words.  At first start with words which begin with a sound, but then move on to small words which include that sound in the middle of CVC words like “cat” and “bag.”


  • When the child recognizes a handful of consonant sounds and a vowel sound such as “a,” say the “a” sound and a consonant sound slowly, one after the other. Make sounds which form a word like “a” and “t” or “a” and “x.”  Repeat the sounds a little faster each time until the child can hear the sounds come together.  Usually the child will say the word, but if not, help her to hear how the sounds come together to form a word.


All these activities can be done prior to ever showing your child a letter.  And they can be done with all 42 sounds in English.  Identifying sounds and understanding how they come together to form words is the basis of reading.  Save the ABCs for a later time.


The younger the student, the shorter the reading lesson

Many four-year-olds can learn to read, but their lessons must be short and involve games and manipulatives to keep them engaged.

That’s what I have learned from many years of teaching little kids to read.  After about ten minutes, many little ones lose interest or become distracted.  Then it is time to stop or to move on to a different approach.

For example, last week I worked with a four-year-old girl who is learning to associate sounds with letters and to form her first CVC words.  The lesson was supposed to last 45 minutes, but after 30 minutes, she could no longer sit still.  Here is what we did in that half hour:

  • We began using letter tiles which she loves to touch. She would pull one of the 26 letters I had presorted and tell me the sound associated with that letter.  She knew all but two, “v” and “y,” so we set aside those two and every few minutes we reviewed them.
  • Next, we reviewed last week’s lesson, making CVC words with tiles the vowel “a,” words like “cat,” “man” and “bad.” For five minutes she participated, moving some of the letters herself, but then she noticed my necklace and wanted to wear it.  I let her, but from her attention was diverted.  After another few minutes we moved on.
  • I had created BINGO cards using CVC words, so her next task was to identify the word I said from among the nine words on her card. This worked for a few minutes, but then she became distracted by the BINGO markers themselves—pieces of plastic I had cut out—and she started making patterns with them.  Enough of that.
  • We returned to making words with the tiles to no avail. I cut the lesson short, grateful that she had worked for a half hour.

With a five-year-old last week, the situation was much the same.

child playing card memory game

  • I corrected the few pages of phonics homework she had done while she dumped a container of letter tiles and put them in ABC order, chatting all the time.
  • She told me the sounds associated with each letter, reminding me that “k” and “c” make the same sound. She gets mixed up with “g” and “j,” so we set them aside to review as the lesson progressed.  I pulled letters to make words with beginning blends, such as “smell” and “stun.”  She said the words but in a few minutes, she lost interest.
  • We moved on to a workbook in which she read tiny sentences using CVC and CCVC words.
  • Finally I dictated a few words with blends in them and she wrote them.
  • A half hour passed, the scheduled time for her lesson.  Now she got her reward:  time to build houses out of the letter tiles.

For all elementary school aged children I plan several parts to each lesson, but for the youngest, I need one activity for each seven to ten minutes to keep them engaged.

How to get children to focus for a reading lesson

Is your child having trouble focusing during his or her reading lesson?  Here are some tips.

Establish a routine for the lessons, so the child knows what to expect. Be consistent with time and place.  Try working on the hardest thing first, such as reading lists of phonics words.  Try ending with a game—something fun but related to the work you are doing.  The younger the child, the more important it is to segment lessons into predictable parts.  If possible, identify all parts of the lesson before you begin so the child has an overview of what he will be working on.

If the child is distracted by sounds, while you work run a low, constant sound in the background—perhaps one of those baby sound machines of a heartbeat or of ocean waves.  Or run the dishwasher or a hair dryer.

If the child is distracted by sights, create a bland space to work in—soft colors, no patterned draperies, no posters. If there is a window, close the blinds or pull the shades to limit distractions.  Keep the surface of the child’s desk or table clear.

Consider whether the child will have trouble putting down electronic equipment. If so, save that part of the lesson to the end.Kneeling young girl is playing a portable video game.

Model the behavior you want from your child. If he is to read a paragraph, then you read a paragraph.  If he is to read a column of words, you read a column of words.

Before your lesson, encourage the child to have physical exercise—to run outside, to take a walk with you, or to bicycle, for example. The exercise will bring oxygen to the child’s brain and it will get rid of the “willies.”

Allow the child time to consider an answer to a question. If she seems to be having trouble, ask her to think out loud.  Perhaps give her hints, but let her struggle a bit to find the answer.

Allow the child to have a say in the “rules” of your lessons. If he wants a five minute break every ten minutes, allow it so long as he pays attention during the lesson.  If he wants to stand on the chair or  twist like a pretzel while he is reading, allow it so long as he is doing the work.  Kids with sensory integration issues need this leeway to hang in there.  Compromise so that you can achieve what you need to during each lesson and so that he feels like he is being heard and respected.

Before one part of the lesson ends, tell the child what will happen next. Let the child mentally prepare for what comes next.  Let the only surprises be good surprises.

Let the child wear comfortable clothes and work on a comfortable chair.  Put a box or a pile of books in front of the chair so the child has a place to rest her feet.

When you talk to the child, wait until she is looking at you, until you have her complete attention. Use small, easy to follow sentences.  Put one idea in each sentence.  If directions are three steps, say one step, allow the student to follow it, and then say the second step.  For some children too much incoming information is distracting.

Try to find game-like ways to teach. Children will be more cooperative if they think they are playing a game.

When and how to teach blends

Blends are two adjacent consonants in a word which maintain the sound each has when pronounced separately.  For example the “s” and “l” in “sled” are blends, but the “t” and “h” in “that” are not blends because the usual sounds of those letters are not maintained when they are used together.

The right time to teach blends is once students master CVC words (words formed by a consonant, vowel, and consonant, such as “cat”).   Make sure students can pronounce CVC words made with every vowel before moving on.

Teach beginning-of-word blends first.   End-of-word blends are much harder for students to learn.

The letter “s” is a good letter to start with since it forms more beginning-of-word blends than any other letter.  Use real CVC words which become real CCVC words when the “s” is added, such as nap/snap, led/sled, kid/skid, top/stop and lug/slug.  Little children are concrete learners, so being able to picture the words helps with the learning.

You can write the CVC word and then put an “s” in front of it.  Or you can use letter tiles, gradually moving the “s” closer and closer to the CVC word, saying the “s” sound and the CVC word separately at first and then more quickly until the child can hear the blend happen.

The child might consider the process a game if you slide the “s” letter tile gradually while you say the “s” sound and the CVC word.  Usually the child will shout out the blended word when he figures it out.  At first this will be after you say the blended word.  But as a child learns the skill of blending, he will shout out the word before you get close to saying the blended letters.  The process needs to be repeated with many consonants and many CVC words.

Some consonant blends are easier to hear than others.  CVC words that begin with “l” and “r” are easy to hear.  

Don’t be concerned if the child adds the blended letter to the end of the word, such as saying “leds” instead of “sled.”  Remind the child that the “s” is going at the beginning of the word, and repeat the process.  This is a common occurrence and will gradually lessen as the child practices blends.

Try to teach every letter that can be blended.  These include “b,” “c” “d,” “f,” “g,” “p,” “s,” and “t.”

Don’t teach three-letter blends at  this point.  They are much harder to hear than two-letter blends.  Wait until the child is farther along in learning to read.

How to teach –ight, -ought, -ind, -ild and word families that don’t follow rules

Words ending with –ight don’t follow the rules of phonetics.  The “g” and “h” are silent, and there is no silent “e” after the “t” to make the vowel “i” long.

Some word families, such as –ought, -ind, -ild, and -ight need to be taught as exceptions to phonics rules.  Essentially, they are a group of sight words which follow the same spelling rule, but they are not pronounced the way they look.

It’s probably better to delay teaching words like these until students learn the basic rules of phonics.  Exceptions to rules are confusing.  Better to get the rules understood before introducing exceptions.

That said, how do you teach such exceptions?

  • Teach one exception family of words at a time, giving several days for the student to get used to that family.
  • Post a list of the family of exception words so students can see them on and off many times a day.
  • Ask the children to read short paragraphs containing such words.
  • Ask the children to compose a silly verse using a familiar song for rhythm. For example, to “Old McDonald Had a Farm” students could write, “My brother Dwight did pick a fight, EE I EE I Oh.  He picked a fight with a mighty knight, EE I EE I Oh.”  The sillier the better.  Write down the song, show the words to the students, and sing it daily to reinforce the family pronunciation and spelling.
  • Play games using the exception word families. Students could write the 15 –ight words plus 10 –ite words on a blank BINGO board. You could call off a definition of each word which students would need to identify on their boards.
  • Have a spelling bee using the words.
  • Students could write a paragraph using as many of the words as they can. This could be a group project the first time and later an individual project.

Students should be reminded about words with the same sound as the exception but which follow the rules of phonics.   Students need to remember which words go with which rule.

English has many words which don’t follow the rules, but it helps when there are a whole group of them which follow their own strange rule.  They can be taught in groups rather than singly.

Board books meet babies’ literacy needs

baby reading a bookBoard books, those small-sized, thick cardboard books with brightly colored pictures and rounded corners, are celebrating their 70th birthday (more or less).  They were born with the baby boom in the late 1940’s, came in various shapes and sometimes included tactile surfaces for babies to touch.

By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, board books became a recognized “genre” of children’s literature.  Illustrator Helen Oxenbury was an early pioneer of these books meant for one- and two-year-old children.  Some of her books have become classics.

They have caught on for many reasons.  Board books are small in size, some just two inches square, perfect for tiny hands.  Their pictures are simple illustrations of babies and little children.  The illustrations use primary colors to attract toddler eyes.  The round edges of the books can be chewed by teething babies.  Board books can be flung, chewed and slapped without ripping.

Some board books have become classics, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.  Others teach ABC’s and counting.  Many focus on babies—animal babies and human babies.  Some have words—just a few and often in rhyme—but many are wordless.

Babies can learn quite a bit about literacy from “reading” board books.  They learn that books start on the left-hand side and move to the right.  They learn that book pages flip right to left in English.  They learn that there is a right-side-up to books.  They learn that the pictures and words have meaning.  They learn that reading is a fun experience and often a special time with someone they cherish.

For most children today, board books are their introduction to reading.

Work with kenesthetic learners’ strengths–their bodies

Most preschoolers and many school-aged children are kenesthetic learners, that is learners who learn best when they are physically active.

Should my child sit still when she learns to read?

Ask such a child what “humongous” means, and she will spread her arms as far as she can reach.  Ask a one-year-old what the dog in the picture is doing, and the child will get down on all fours and sniff.  Ask a child the difference between up and down, the child will stand on a chair and say, “up,” and then jump to the floor and say, “down.”

These children use as much of their bodies as possible not only to learn but to demonstrate that they have learned.

How do you know if a child is a kenesthetic learner?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

  • The child loves sports—running, jumping, dancing, and tumbling.
  • The child seems more active than other children of the same age.
  • The child gestures while talking.
  • When the child sees a demonstration, the child wants to try it herself.
  • The child ends the day dirty—dirt under his fingernails, peanut butter in his hair, shoes scuffed—and he is oblivious.
  • When reading or writing, the child kneels on a chair, stands, sits on the desk, stands on the chair and leans over, and does all of these in the span of five minutes.
  • The child fidgets while learning—tapping her fingers, puffing up her cheeks, wriggling her shoulders—yet she pays attention.
  • The child loves Legos, puzzles, and toys that can be put together or taken apart.
  • The child has great hand-eye coordination, and can learn to control pencils, paint brushes, screw drivers and tools with ease.

dhild running with book in hands

How does such a learning style affect reading?  What can you do?

  • Since a kenesthetic learner often reads later than his peers, you might panic that he is lagging his classmates. It helps if you can accept that for this child, reading is a low interest activity.  You can reinforce what he is learning by connecting it to activities he loves.  “A is for arrow.  B is for basketball.  C is for coach.”
  • Because the child needs to move, let him swing his legs, stand, lie on the floor, or move a rubber ball from hand to hand as he listens to instruction.children moving letter tiles
  • Break up reading lessons into mini-lessons with in-between times when the child is free to move around. Use this time for the child to act out what he has learned.
  • Since the child likes to use his hands, teach using manipulatives such as letter tiles, pictures to sort by sound, parts of sentences cut into phrases, flashcards, and online work which includes using a mouse. Vary the writing instruments the child uses since the feel of some will attract the child to work.
  • Suggest that the child draw what he is learning. Have her fill in boxes and use arrows to show relationships.
  • Use repetitive physical activity to deepen learning. Throw a ball back and forth while spelling new words.  Take a walk while discussing subjects and predicates.  Move magnetized words into sentences on the refrigerator while shifting weight in a dancing rhythm.  Draw mind webs while reading to show comprehension.
  • Teach a hard concept after physical activity.