Category Archives: letter sounds

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.

Six questions to test your beginning reader knowledge

What is the best method for learning to read, based on research?

  • primarily using phonics
  • figuring out words from their context or from pictures
  • memorizing words (sight words, whole language)

Two fists with thumbs up and knuckles touching make letter "b" and "d" with a BeD visualized between the two thumbs.What two printed letters are the hardest for children to distinguish?

  • p and q
  • q and g
  • b and d
  • m and n

Which two short vowel sounds are hardest for children to distinguish?

  • a and e
  • e and i
  • o and u
  • a and o

In order to learn to read, do children need to recite and/or recognize the ABC’s in alphabetical order?

  • yes
  • no

Which comes first?

  • recognizing a letter
  • recognizing a sound?

How many letter sounds does a child need to hear and speak in order to speak standard American English?

  • 26
  • 23
  • 42

Answers

Three children with signs around their necks that read: Meniruze words, Phonics, Whole LanguagePrimarily using phonics is the best method for learning to read. The US government did a comprehensive study of hundreds of research studies on how children learn to read and discovered that using a phonics-based approach produces the best results.

Lower case “b” and “d” are the hardest letter shapes for children to distinguish. Most children are confused at first.  Sometimes this confusion lasts into third grade, but with time, all children figure it out.

Short “e” and “i” are the hardest letter sounds to distinguish. Most reading series start by teaching short “a” followed by short “o” because these two sounds are the easiest to distinguish.  Expect lots of errors when “e” and “i” words are learned, and expect learning them will take more time.  Short “u” is harder than “a” and “o,” but since there are far fewer such words, learning “u” is not so hard as learning “e” and “i.

Beginning readers do not need to know their ABC’s in order. Alphabetic order is a second or third grade skill, so it doesn’t need to be learned immediately.

Recognizing a sound is more important than recognizing a letter at first. Beginning readers need to be able to hear sounds and to pronounce them aloud.  They do not need an alphabet in front of them to do that.  Toddlers can learn to recognize sounds long before they are ready to read letters.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.

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American standard English has 42 sounds. Some of the 26 letters duplicate sounds such as “c” and “k,” “c” and “s,” “s” and “z,” and “qu” and “kw.”  Many vowel sounds can be written multiple ways (ugly, Hannah, other).  Some sounds take two letters to make (th, ch, sh).  Regional dialects can add or subtract a sound or two, but in general there are 42 separate sounds in American English.

Worth reading: The Settled Science of Teaching Reading*

I thought the time for discussion was over, that the correct way to teach reading had been established by research almost twenty years ago.

Apparently not.  On social media the discussion continues.  Is it better to focus on teaching phonics and how letter sounds form words or to focus on whole language (memorizing words and discovering meaning).

After a study of hundreds of research reports of how children learn to read, the US government reported in 2000 that the best way to teach English reading is to focus on phonemes and phonics first.  Children need instruction on how sounds correspond to letters, and how combining those letters forms words. New readers also need to memorize high frequency words that don’t necessarily follow the rules of phonics (words like “was, ” “do,” and “the”).

According to the 2000 National Reading Panel, students need to learn five concepts relating to reading:

  • Phonics (combining letters to form words)
  • Phonological awareness (how sounds correspond to letters)
  • Fluency (reading in phrases with appropriate stops and starts and with voice inflection)
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension (understanding what is read)

Decoding the language comes from studying phonics, phonological awareness and fluency.  Combine that with vocabulary and you achieve the desired result of reading comprehension.

Yet research also shows that even today not all reading teachers know, or even if they know, apply the correct approaches to teaching reading.

If your kindergarten child comes home with lists of words to memorize, beware.  If those words are sight words, okay.  But the main focus of his or her learning should be how sounds correspond to letters, and how combining those letters forms words, and how combining those words forms sentences with meaning.

*https://www.collaborativeclassroom.org/blog/the-settled-science-of-teaching-reading-part-1/?_hsmi=76082821

What to do when a child says “It hurts” as he reads

I was talking to my friend about her summer visit with her grandson who is about to start first grade.  Together the two of them were reading a beginner reader.  The boy was reading the three- and four-letter words well.

But when he came to a longer word, he would look up with sad, sad eyes  and say, “It hurts!”

“What hurts?” his grandmother would ask.

“That word hurts.  It’s too big,” he would say.

It would be a funny story if the pain the boy felt were not real.  I have seen this with other children too.

In particular I have seen children squirm when we first attempt  CVCe words after mastering CVC words.  That silent e at the end of words seems like an impossible hurdle:  so intimidating that children would rather stop learning than face it.

I’ve seen the fear, too, when children are learning how to read two-syllable words.  When there are twin consonants, as in “little” or “yellow,” and I tell them to split the word between the identical consonants, there is no problem.  But when we attempt to read syllables in words with different consonants between two vowels such as “Wilson” or “random,” the children freak.

Their fear is real.

One time I moved from CVC to CVCe words with a girl who had had no previous phonics learning.  She could read most CVC words easily, so I spent only a few lessons reviewing them before moving on to CVCe words.  She looked at those words as if they were spitting fire.  She stopped speaking, shook her head, crossed her arms in front of her and pushed back her chair.  We had reached the limit of her understanding, and she feared what lay ahead.

If this happens to you, I suggest

Figure out where the student’s learning boundary is. What has the student learned fairly confidently, and what next step brings on fear.

Begin each lesson with a review of what the student already knows. Compliment the student.  Make students believe in their abilities.

Introduce the next concept slowly, incrementally. For example, if you are introducing CVCe words, start with only one vowel such as a.  Don’t try to teach all five vowels in the same lesson.

Show the child similar words with and without the silent e, such as “cap” and “cape,” and “tap” and “tape.” Or “mit” and “mitten,” and “kit” and “kitten.”  Since replacing first consonants is easier than replacing second consonants, stick to the same second consonant for the first lesson.  Keep as much of the words the same as you can so there are fewer variables.

If at the next lesson the student seems to have forgotten the previous lesson, accept that and start again. Some children move quickly through phonics, and others move slowly, or stall at learning certain skills.

If the child learns slowly, advance slowly. There is no right or wrong length of time to learn phonics skills.  What you are teaching the child is a life-long skill, so if it takes five months to conquer CVCe, so what?  Over a lifetime of 80-plus years, isn’t it better to learn to read well than to forever “hurt” when you see hard words?

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.

Eight ways you can become a better reading teacher

Here are eight ways you can become a better reading teacher.

One.  Evaluate four- and five-year-olds to see if they are ready to learn to read.  If a student is not ready, delay.

Two.  Teach your beginning readers to encode more and to decode less. Offer daily time to orally create words from sounds that the students already know.  Show a picture of a pig.  Ask students to sound out pig, not using letters, but using the sounds in the word.

Three.  Start with words whose sounds have a one-to-one correspondence to consonant and short vowel letter sounds—no digraphs, no silent letters, no exceptions to the rules.

Four.  Refer to letters by their sounds for beginning readers. Explain that letters are pictures of sounds, and that it is the sounds which are important for reading.

Five.  Teach children to pay attention to their lips and mouths when they sound out words. Each time their mouth opens or closes, or their lips change shape, their mouth is saying a different sound.  When we join together the sounds, we form words.When you introduce the ABC’s, start with a one-to-one correspondence between the sounds of English and a letter or letter pair. This is easy if a consonant makes only one sound, such as “b.”  But when a sound can be represented multiple ways (for example, “oi” and “oy”) pick one “default” way for starts and stick to it.  Avoid words which are not spelled with the default letters.  You might teach boy, toy and coy, but for now avoid teaching boil, toil, and coil.  On the other hand, if a child writes, “Mom spoyls me,” ignore the misspelling.  But when children repeatedly write a word wrong (“wuz,” for example), tell them the correct spelling so the phonetic spelling does not become embedded in their brains.

Six.  Don’t teach concepts such as digraphs, blends, and diphthongs to beginning readers. Teach sounds.  If there are fancy academic words to call these sounds, don’t use them.  You will only confuse beginning readers.

Seven.  Don’t become a speller for your students. Once they are writing and using ABC’s, write difficult words on the board.  Otherwise, tell students to sound words out.  Also don’t mark misspelled words wrong.

Eight.  When you introduce ABC’s, use typefaces which show the versions of letters which children will use when they handwrite. For example, use this type of “a” and “g.” Also, typefaces which slightly enlarge half-space letters like “a,” “c” and “e” are easier for kids to read.  (The typeface you are reading is such a typeface.)

Decoding or encoding to learn to read?

So often when people talk about reading instruction, they talk about “decoding.”  By “decoding” they mean looking at a written word, such as “cat,” pronouncing each letter sound or digraph, and putting those letter sounds together to pronounce the whole word, with or without meaning.  I teach many children who can decode words correctly, but who have no idea what those words mean.

This decoding process starts with a visual image of a word.  But as brain research teaches us, a better way to start the process of reading is with sounds.  To start with sounds, though, means to start not with decoding but with encoding.  “Encoding” means starting with sounds and joining them together to form words.

How would we teach reading by encoding?  We might show a picture of a cat.  Children would say, “cat.”  They would think about what a cat is. Then students would sound out the word “cat,” listening for and then saying the separate sounds in the word–“c,” “a,” “t.”

With decoding, students break apart an already written word.  With encoding, students construct a word orally from a spoken or pictured word.  With decoding, students start the reading process by using the visual center of the brain, the right hemisphere.  With encoding, students start the reading process with the listening and speaking parts of the brain, the left hemisphere.

What difference does it make?  Students who encode start the reading process with sounds.  As toddlers, we learn words—their pronunciation and their meaning—through listening and repeating the sounds we hear.  If those words are nouns, we usually see an image of the word as well.  Later, when we see a cat or talk about a cat, we remember the image, how the word was pronounced and how we pronounced the word.  We don’t remember letters because we didn’t learn “cat” using an alphabet.  “Cat” was not originally stored in our brains in alphabetic form but rather in sound-picture associations.

With encoding, after the student has practiced weeks or months of oral sounding out of words, a teacher would introduce the alphabet a few letters at a time, and immediately help students construct words they know using sounds they already know.  With encoding, the child creates meaningful words.

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.

So you’ve decided to teach your four-year-old to read–part 2

Once you are sure your child can hear and say the sounds of the English language, the next step is to make your child understand that we use letters to represent those sounds.child making letter T with his body

One good way is to explain that people a long time ago figured out how to make pictures of sounds.  Those pictures of sounds are called letters.  In English those pictures are called ABC’s.

Say the child’s name.  Emphasize the sound at the beginning of the name.  Then show or draw the letter which the child’s name begins with.  You don’t need to call the letter by its name yet; rather, call the letter by the sound it represents.

For example, if your child’s name is Teddy, say his name emphasizing the “t” sound at the beginning of the name.  Show or draw the letter “t” but when you point to it, say the “t” sound.  Collect or point out objects which begin with the same sound.  Help the child to see that the “t” sound is in many words.  Kids will hear the sound more readily at the beginnings of words.

Some kids catch on fast and you can add another letter sound almost immediately.  For others you should focus on one sound at a time for several days.  Start with names of family members.  Focus on the first sound of the name, not middle sounds or ending sounds.  Move on to objects the child sees or uses daily.  Keep reviewing the letter sounds the child has already learned.

Stick to sounds which follow a one-to-one sound-to-letter correspondence.  For now, avoid names like Yvonne or Celine in which the first sound of the name is not represented by the letter usually associated with that sound.  Names which begin with digraphs like Shelly or Thad should also be avoided for now.  Four-year-olds can understand one-to-one logic.  Save words in which one sound is represented by two letters until later.