Category Archives: letter sounds

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).

Children learn sounds from big to small

children pronouncing elephantLittle children who are learning about sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within words and syllables.  Adults hear “On your mark, get set, go,” but a two-year-old hears “Onyourmark, getset, go.”  Children need to hear distinct sounds within words and to reproduce those sounds properly before they start pairing sounds with letters.

For this reason, most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  In some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

A good example of this is when children learn the ABC song.  Most three-year-olds can start the song with A-B-C-D. . .E-F-G-. . .H-I-J-K .  But when they get to L-M-N-O-P they sing L-um-men-oh-P or M-uh-let-O-P.  They don’t hear L-M-N-O as distinct sounds.

I still remember the day when I was in first grade when  my teacher taught my class the words of and the.  I thought, wow, those are two different words.  I didn’t know that.  I thought ofthe was a single sound.

Most two-year-olds are too young to learn to read.  Even some five-year-olds might not be able to distinguish sounds within words.  For this reason, in some countries, children don’t learn to read until they are seven. 

What can you do to help your child hear sounds more clearly?  Speak distinctly.  Slow down.  Face your child and let her watch your mouth when you talk.  When you hear her slurring sounds together which should be pronounced separately, don’t correct her but instead repeat the sounds properly.

While we’re on the subject of hearing words correctly, children will subconsciously learn the rules of grammar without instruction.  A four-year-old might say, “Mommy goed to the store,” properly making the verb past tense by adding the d sound to the end of the word without realizing go does not follow the rules.  Or he might say, “I amn’t done yet.”  He is learning contractions, not realizing that am can’t be contracted in the negative form.  Or a child might say, “Her said so.”  Objective pronouns are learned before subject pronouns.

To correct these mistakes, repeat what the child says correctly without comment on the error.  When the child hears words said properly enough times, he or she will say words that way too.

 

How to teach a child to read

When my older son neared the end of first grade, his teachers told me he would need to repeat because he could not read.  What!  I couldn’t believe it. I phoned my brother, a special ed teacher, and he said, “Relax. You can bring him up to grade level if you work with him all summer.”  He recommended I buy Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch, a then out-of-favor approach to teaching reading using phonics. My brother said to turn to the word list at the back of the book and start there.  I trusted my brother, bought the book, and worked with my son every day.  He hated the lessons—lists of progressively more difficult words—but in September he started second grade reading on grade level.

Thus began my interest in how to teach reading.  Time and research have proven Flesch and my brother right.  A systematic—not random—phonics-based approach yields the best results in teaching children to read.  Even so, today many teachers do not teach reading using phonics.  And as a result, many children fail to learn to read.

If your child has been left behind, or if you want to be sure that never happens, this blog is for you.  In coming weeks I will advise parents and teachers of beginning readers

1) how to teach reading skills by sounding out letter patterns, and

2) in what order to teach those letter patterns. 

If your child already knows how to read some words, you can assess his or her skills by using the word lists below to know where to begin.

These lessons start with one sound represented by one letter, a simple yet reliable decoding system.  While these lessons introduce the most common letter patterns of English, they do not introduce them all.  That is not necessary.  As children read widely, they encounter new letter patterns which they figure out from context clues, by asking questions, or by using a dictionary.

If you choose to supplement the ideas in coming lessons with lessons from reading sources like Why Johnny Can’t Read or Explode the Code (both good), their lessons might not sequence letter sounds or letter patterns in the same order as I do.  That is because reading experts do not agree upon a single sequence for teaching reading.  The sequence I will use here extends the one-sound, one-letter pattern as long as possible, reinforcing what seems logical to little children.

IMPORTANT: Beware of any reading advice which encourages your child to guess at words, a strategy that can lead to lifelong reading problems.  Instead, ask your child to sound out words based on the rules of phonics.  That leads to reading independence.

Phonics assessment

The following words are listed in the same order as the lessons I will share in coming weeks.  If your child can read some words, and you wonder where to begin teaching her phonics, ask her to read these words in order.  When she starts making mistakes, stop her and turn to my corresponding lesson.  Proceed from there.

bad, hem, fit, don, pug, am, if, lass, jazz

lock, Mick, bills, cliffs, mitts, catnip, Batman

grand, stent, frisk, stomp, stuck

chuck, shun, them, branch, brush, tenth

star, fern, birds, fork, purr, actor, doctor, victor

muffin, kitten, collect, pepper, gallon

complex, helmet, falcon, napkin, after

tantrum, muskrat, constant, fulcrum, ostrich

skate, bike, Jude, mole, dare, shore, tire, pure

need, cheer, aim, hair, bay, pie, boat, oar, Joe, low, soul

fruit, few, child, blind, fold, colt, roll, light, high

earn, worm, rook, pool

fault, claw, all, chalk, Walt

boil, so, pound, down

comet, dragon, liver, salad, denim

total, ever, student, basic, demon, vital

apron, elude, Ethan, Owen, ideal, usurp

inside, nearly, absent, unicorn, degrade, tripod

advance, offence, fence

gripped, planned, melted, batted, handed

sweeping, boiling, thinning, flopping, biking, dating

rapper, saddest, finer, bluest, funnier, silliest

easily, busily, massive, active, arrive, wives

keys, monkeys, armies, carried

action, section, musician, racial, crucial, nuptials

brittle, pickle, carbon, dormer

parcel, decent, gem, urge, badge

lose, sugar, nature, sure

graph, Phil, then, moth

bomb, thumb, gnat, gnome, high, sign

whip, whirl, echo, ghoul, knee, knob

could, calf, folk, hustle, listen, wrist

alone, bread, bear, chief, young, squaw, swan, waltz, word

decision, exposure, gigantic, polarize, occupant, quarantine

Four stages in learning to read

The saying goes, in kindergarten through third grade, a child learns to read (think phonics); in third and later grades, a child reads to learn (think comprehension).*

But practically, what does this mean?

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.

By the end of kindergarten:

  • Students can recognize almost all letters, upper and lower case.
  • Some students can state the sound represented by an individual consonant letter, and they can recognize closed (short) vowel sounds.
  • Some students can read consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words.
  • Most students cannot yet read open (long) vowel patterns such as oa and ight.
  • Many students rely on first and last letters in words to sound words out.
  • Students rely on pictures to help figure out words.

By the end of first grade:CVCC twin consonants

  • Students can decode one-syllable CVC words, including those with blends.
  • Students can decode one-syllable words ending in a silent e.
  • Students can read one-syllable open (long) vowel words like he and my.
  • Students can read one-syllable r-controlled words like star and dirt.
  • Students can read some one-syllable words with two-vowels like bee and boot.
  • Many students need to sound out common one-syllable words rather than recognizing them as sight words.
  • Students depend less on pictures and context clues to decipher words.

By the end of second grade:children looking at picture of Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln

  • Increasingly, students are able to decode two- and three-syllable words if those words follow rules of phonics.
  • Students can decode words by separating familiar suffixes and prefixes to find root words and then reassembling the parts.
  • Students recognize common letter patterns.

By the end of third grade:girl reading Junie B. Jones

  • Students have mastered decoding of words using phonics, including many multi-syllabic words.
  • Students recognize most common words by sight.
  • Students recognize word families and can use that knowledge to decipher new words.

This breakdown covers word recognition.  But there is another part of learning to read, namely, language comprehension.  We will discuss that in the next blog.

*Researcher Jeanne Chall (1983) first coined this idea.

See researchers Linnea Ehri (1991, 2005) and Spear-Swerling (2015) for more indepth discussion of reading stages.

Ah ha!

My first grade grandson had an “Ah ha!” moment while reading to me this week.

He was reading a short chapter book especially meant for beginning readers.  Almost all the words were short-vowel, one-syllable words.  Many of them were repeated for reinforcement.  Most pages contained only four or five short sentences.  Every page had line drawings to give extra meaning.

Usually when he reads, he sounds out every word and then says the complete word.  But this time—except for unfamiliar words—he said aloud just the word, not the phonics within the word.

“Gramma,” he said, his eyes bright.  “I read fast!  I didn’t have to say all the letter sounds.  Did you hear?”

“You read great!” I said, and we high-fived.

My grandson didn’t know it, but he made a transition that all good readers eventually make.  Instead of reading individual letters, he read individual words and in a couple of cases, individual phrases.

When children are learning to read, we tell children to sound out words, not to memorize the look of words.  But in fact, when we encounter a word often enough, we no longer need to sound it out.  We recognize it from its appearance.

Elite athletes go through a similar phase.  A great diver doesn’t need to think about which way his palms are facing or which leg to lead his spring with or how to tuck his body or whether his feet are pointed at the same angle.  He has done the individual parts of the dive hundreds—thousands—of times and he has developed muscle memory.

As adults, that’s what you and I do whenever we read.  Unless we encounter an unfamiliar word, we recognize words and phrases and no longer need to read individual letters or even individual words.  We read chunks.

Test this idea on yourself.  As you are reading these words, are you pausing over each word?  Or are you reading chunks of words?  For example, in the second sentence, didn’t you read, “As you are reading—these words—are you pausing—over each word?”

I am so proud of my grandson’s progress in reading.  From the day kindergarten ended abruptly in March, he has continued to learn to read using a phonics approach.  How wonderful for him to recognize his own progress.  And how lucky for me to be sitting by his side when he did.

“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.

Learning through phonics is the best way to learn to read

If a child is having trouble reading, what is the most likely cause?

  • Reliance on pictures for meaning?
  • Guessing?
  • Weak word recognition skills?
  • Reliance on context word clues?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter LWeak word recognition skills is the mostly likely cause, and because of that, students guess at words or search for clues from pictures and other words.

Weak word recognition skills means an inability to sound out the letters which form words.  If a child comes upon a new word—for example, “trek”—and the child cannot sound out the individual letters, the child cannot read the word.

Since 2000 we have known that the most effective way to teach reading is through a system of associating sounds with letters and combining those letters to form words—in other words, a phonics-based approach.  A National Reading Panel authorized and funded by Congress assessed scientific research on reading.  The Panel’s goal was to determine the most efficient way children learn to read.  The Panel concluded in 2000 that to read well, children should associate sounds of English (phonemes) with letters or letter pairs and to combine the letter-sounds into words.

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.The word “it,” for example, has two sounds, each of which is associated with a letter.  The word “shop” has three sounds with “sh” corresponding to a single sound.

By deconstructing words into their basic sounds, children learn to sound out words.  Without guessing, without context clues, without pictures, children can figure out how to read words.  Even though there are some words which defy this sounding-out system (words like “one” and “two”), the vast majority of words in English can be sounded out.

The problem is, even though we know what works best, teachers are still asking children to guess at words, to look at pictures to figure out what words mean, to read other words nearby and use those context clues to figure out words, and to memorize the look of a word.  In other words, some teachers are not teaching phonics as the primary way to learn to read.  They are relying on methods which research shows do not work as well as phonics.

When I went to first grade, I was taught to read using a memorization approach.  The first page of my first reader had the word ”look” under a picture.  The next page had the words “Oh, look” with a different picture.  The next page had “See, see, see” with another picture.  It wasn’t until fourth grade that my teacher, Sister James Bernard, CSJ, offered lesson after lesson on phonics.  What a revelation!

If your child hasn’t learned phonics, teach him or her.  If your child is guessing at words, make him sound out each letter or each syllable.  No guessing allowed!  This is the surest way to create a strong reader.

5 ways to keep beginning readers engaged

The younger the reading student, the more activities a teacher needs to keep the student engaged during a lesson.  For four- and five-year-olds, I come prepared with a bagful of reading activities such as

  • A stack of pictures showing CVC words (flag, map, dog, cat, and pen) which the student sorts into two piles: those that have the desired vowel or consonant sound, and those that don’t.
  • Letter tiles which I use to form words, phrases and sentences for the student to read. Sentences using the student’s own name attract the youngest readers.  Letting the student create some of the words. also keeps the student engaged.
  • Stories written with the simplest CVC vocabulary which the student and I read together, and then which she reads independently.
  • Twelve pictures of rhyming words on index cards .

Another kind of reading assignment that my youngest reading students like is reading and answering silly questions like the following:

  1. Can an ant wink to a cat? Yes   No
  2. Can a bug land on a lip? Yes   No
  3. Will a duck swim in a mug? Yes   No
  4. Can a big cat fit in a bag? Yes   No
  5. Will a dog dig with a pen? Yes   No

The questions consist of whatever examples of the reading concept we are studying at the time such as CVC words, blends, or two-syllable short-vowel words.  Almost all the questions are ridiculous and the more ridiculous the better.  Having colored pencils or markers to use intensifies the fun.

I find that the more hands-on the activity, the better.  Early readers sometimes cannot print letters, but they can make ovals around words or draw matching lines.  They can hold a small stack of pictures and sort them into piles.  They can move around letter tiles.

The more busy their bodies are, the more likely they are to stay engaged.