Category Archives: sounds of English

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.

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.

Recognizing sounds come first, not recognizing letters

Which comes first, reading or speaking?  Speaking, of course.  A one-year-old can say a few words, but hardly any one-year-old can read.  Most two-year-olds can say hundreds of words and can form tiny sentences, but hardly any two-year-olds can read.

Which comes first, recognizing sounds or recognizing letters? Recognizing sounds, of course.  A one-year-old can recognize and repeat the sounds of many words, but few one-year-olds can recognize letters.  A two-year-old knows hundreds of words, but hardly any two-year-olds recognize more than a handful of letters.

So if sounds and speaking come before recognizing letters and reading, why do some teachers teach the ABC’s first—recognizing visual “pictures” of sounds—rather than teaching the sounds of our language first?

Are we teaching reading backwards?

What if instead of teaching children to read “cat” using ABC’s, we taught children to read “cat” orally, with no ABC’s?  What if we taught children how to recognize the separate sounds that form words like “cat”?  What if we said “c-a-t” slowly, emphasizing the “c,” “a,” and “t” sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?  What if we asked preschoolers to break down little words like “cat” into their beginning, middle and ending sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?

This would be a radically different approach to teaching reading.  But this approach would align with what researchers are learning about how our brains learn to read.

The foundation of reading is not ABC’s.  The foundation of reading is sounds, sounds listened to by a child and sounds repeated aloud by a child.

How would that work in practice?

  • You, the teacher, would say, one-at-a-time, the 40-plus sounds of the English language. Your student would repeat those sounds, one at a time.  If some sounds were hard for the student to say, you would repeat those sounds and ask the child to repeat those sounds until you were sure the child could hear and pronounce those sounds correctly.
  • Next, one-at-a-time, you would say some tiny words and ask the child to say each word and to say the sounds in the word. You would model how to do this with many words until the child knew what was expected.  You would make it a game, looking around and saying the name of an object nearby like “bat.”  You would sound out the word slowly—“b,” “a,” “t”—and ask the child to do the same.  At first this might be hard for the child, but once she figures out what is expected, she would sound out words quickly.
  • With practice, the child would understand that individual sounds, when combined, form words. Only then would you introduce ABC’s.

Pronunciation of words is an important aspect of learning to read.  Our brains store the sounds of words just like they store the meaning and the look of words. In your mind, right now, as you are reading these words, you are saying the words, right?  And you are remembering the meaning of those words, though at this stage of your life, that might be so automatic that you are unaware of it.  Long ago when you were learning to read, it was the sound of the words which came first to you, long before you knew what the words meant or before you could decipher the letter patterns of words.  Sounds come first.

For more information, read the research of Linnea Ehri (2002).

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.

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

But you don’t know where to begin.  Well, you’re in luck, because I do.  And for the next few months I am going to offer a sequenced approach to teaching reading to a beginner.

Reading starts with hearing sounds properly.  Make sure your child can hear the 44 or so sounds of English.  How?  You say a sound and ask the child to repeat the sound.  If the child can repeat the sound properly, he or she can hear it properly.  If not, work on the few sounds which your child cannot pronounce.  Say words with the sound in them.  Ask the child to mimic you.  Show pictures of everyday objects which have the sound in them.  Ask the child to say the word.

The 44 sounds are listed below.  In some parts of the US, 43 or 45 sounds might be used because of regional dialects.  The same holds true of other English speaking countries.

At this point, you needn’t use the word “letter” or teach the ABC’s.  Hearing and speaking sounds comes first.