Tag Archives: vowel sounds

My child is almost four. She wants to learn to read. Where do I begin? Or does it matter?

It matters, according to research. You should start with teaching her “the code,” that is, the connection between the sounds of the English language and the letter symbols we use to mean those sounds. Here’s how. (Look for more information on all these ideas in previously published blogs at comicphonics.com.)

  • children moving letter tilesFirst, make sure she can pronounce all 42 sounds of English. Listen to how she pronounces everyday words and make sure she is saying the sounds correctly. Help her with pronunciation.
  • Then connect sounds with letter symbols, a few at a time. Start with the beginning sounds of a few key words such as the child’s name, m for mom, d for dad, b for baby. Help her to hear those sounds in the beginnings of other words. For example, if you are pouring her milk, ask her what sound milk begins with. Then show her an “m” and explain that is how we show that sound.
  • Beginning sounds are always the easiest to hear, so focus on them.
  • Help her to write the initial of her name and a few other meaningful letters.
  • child on floor reading picture bookSince each vowel has many sounds, teach her to associate each vowel with a word and an image that begins with a “short” vowel sound such as apple, egg, igloo, octopus and umbrella. Later, she can compare the vowel sounds in new words to those vowel sounds.
  • In speaking, start putting letter sounds together to form one-syllable short-vowel (CVC) words she knows, like “cat” and “dog.” When she can hear how words are formed (phonics) by combining sounds, use letter tiles to show her what the combining of sounds in words looks like using letter symbols.
  • When you are reading stories to her, point out words she might be able to decipher, and help her to sound them out.
  • When she knows most of her sound – letter matches, she is ready to start reading books which use one-syllable, short-vowel words. Unfortunately, few good ones exist. We at comicphonics.com have written five humorous books for new readers. (See the links to the right of this blog.) Your librarian can point out where other books are shelved, but many labeled “first” readers contain difficult words. Margaret Hillert has written some good beginning books, and so has Dr. Seuss. Good illustrations can help the child figure out the meanings of difficult words, but she will probably need your help as she begins.

Figuring out the code of written English is how a child begins to learn to read. There are lots of commercial methods to do this, but the best I have found is the Explode the Code series. Children find its combination of goofy pictures and sequenced phonics instruction fun.

Later you can focus on other aspects of reading including fluency and comprehension. But the place to begin is demystifying the code by connecting the sounds of our speech to individual letters and pairs of letters, and then combining them to form words.

Case study: Julie, a seven-year-old, high-achieving reader

Julie had just turned four when I began to tutor her in reading. Her mother, a native of China, had been taking Julie to a tutoring agency since she was barely three. The mother worked with her daughter daily on the reading lessons which Julie brought home.

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


When I met Julie, she could read many one-syllable words and some two syllable words. However, I noticed that when confronted with a new word, she could not figure it out. She had memorized the look of the words she knew but she had not learned phonics skills to sound out new words.

We began by reviewing ABC names and consonant sounds, almost all of which Julie knew. Then we spent many lessons on vowel sounds, focusing on short vowels first, and later mixing both short and long vowel sounds. We did this using pictures (pig, hat, run) which Julie would match with cards labeled ā ē ī ō ū and ă ĕ ĭ ŏ ŭ. We would spend about ten minutes of a lesson on this kind of work. Julie’s attention span was about ten to twelve minutes, so this was one of several activities in a single, hour-long lesson.

Tutor teaching a child.

When she mastered the vowel sounds using pictures, we worked on forming three-letter words using short vowels. At first I moved letter tiles around to form words, and with time, Julie made her own combinations and tested me to see if I knew what words she had formed.

Next, I added blends to short vowel words, first at the beginnings of words, and later at the ends of words. She found the beginning blends easier than the ending blends, as most children do. I made index cards with blend words on them, and when Julie would read a word on a card correctly, she would use a date stamp to mark the card—a way to make the learning fun. After a few weeks she mastered the blend words.

Late in our first year together, Julie began work on long vowel words ending with a silent “e.” She knew many of them by sight but not by sounding a word out. As our first year ended, we were working on long vowel single syllable words with double vowels such as “beat,” “fuel” and “rain.”

We were also building words using roots, prefixes and suffixes whose parts were written on little cards which Julie would push together to form words such as re-mix-ing and un-read-able. In the months which followed, when she encountered a long, unfamiliar word, she sometimes covered the prefix or suffix to figure out the middle part, and then constructed the word bit by bit as I had demonstrated.

Young girl reading a book

Julie could read many picture books. She enjoyed short paragraphs with colorful pictures on each page, but she would not try a chapter book. “Too many words,” she would say. She continued to go to the tutoring agency and do the reading homework with her mother, and to work with me once a week. When Julie was five, we began adding spelling and sentence writing to her lessons.

Julie is 7 now and has finished first grade. She is in the gifted program at her school. She reads voraciously, everything from Ranger Rick magazines to hundred-page chapter books. She has exhausted the phonics-like reading materials I have. She can read fourth or fifth grade materials as fluently as I can. She is working on expanding her vocabulary and on using more details in writing.

Julie is an example of the progress a child can make with a tutor or tutoring center augmenting school instruction. She is also an example of what studying during school breaks can do. She goes to school year round—nine months in her public school, and 12 months with tutors and her mother. Julie has a mother committed to Julie’s education, a mother who scours the library for appropriate books for Julie, subscribes to Ranger Rick, and oversees Julie’s homework and her piano practicing. She also teaches Julie how to write using Chinese pictographs.

For Julie, education is a way of life.

Julie—mischievous, hardworking and accomplished—could be your child’s classmate.

Kids learn sounds from big to small

Little children who are learning about the sounds in words move from larger units of sound—phrases and words—to smaller units of sound—sounds within syllables.

Take the word “elephant,” for example.

Word: elephant
Syllables: el-e-phant
Onsets/rhymes e-l e f-int
Phonemes e l e f i n t

children pronouncing elephant

First, children learn that sentences are composed of words. (I can remember being in first grade and learning that “of the” is two words, a revelation at the time).

Next, children learn the sound of the whole word. They might mispronounce “elephant,” saying it as a two-syllable word (el-phint) as they grow accustomed to it. Eventually they say it right.

Children then learn to break the word into parts (syllables), pronouncing each syllable distinctly.

With a teacher’s or parent’s help, they learn to identify sounds within the word.

Later, they learn to match those sounds to letters.

This sequence—from a phrase to whole words to syllables to the smallest distinct sounds—provides a useful guide for adults teaching reading to preschoolers. We should make sure a child can hear the sounds of a word and can reproduce them properly before we begin to break a word into parts and associate letters with those parts.

What are some activities that help a child to master the phonological awareness sequence?

• Say a two or three-syllable word, leaving pauses of a second or two between syllables. Ask the child to combine the syllable sounds into a word.

• Ask the child to break a two or three-syllable word into its parts. This is a harder skill than combining.

• Ask the child to say (not spell) the sound before the vowel sound in a word (the onset sound). For example, in the word “dog,” the onset sound is the sound a “d” makes.

• Say tongue-twisters and ask the child to identify the alliterated sound. For example, in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” the onset sound is the sound a letter “p” makes.

• Sing songs with rhymes. Ask the child to identify the rhyming sounds.

• Ask the child to say the rhyme part of a word or syllable. The rhyme part is all the sounds beginning with the vowel. So in “dog,” the rhyme is “og.”

• The hardest activity is for the child to break down a syllable into every sound (phoneme). American English has 42 phonemes, or sometimes more depending on regional pronunciations. (Sounds made by “th,” “sh” and other digraphs are considered distinct sounds, which is why English has more phonemes than alphabet letters.)

While learning the ABC’s is a skill most preschools stress, the other skills explained need to be learned first. Some kids are ready to break a syllable into phenomes at four years old, but many more are not ready until part way through first grade. Don’t rush them. Instead, spend time on all the preliminary steps.

For more details on this sequencing of learning sounds, go to http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200901/BTJPhonologicalAwareness.pdf. While you are there, check out the list of read-aloud books that emphasize sounds, and the additional activities you can do with a child who is learning sounds.

Cn U rd ths? Iz ths nvntid spln?

Yes, this is invented spelling. Invented spelling (a term that goes back to the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget) is a kind of spelling that little children use as they learn to write. It is not the same thing as phonetic spelling; it is bigger than that. Phonetic spelling is one of the stages of invented spelling for most children.

Invented spelling goes through stages. Dr. Richard Gentry, a researcher in spelling, says that children go through five stages in learning to spell.

Girl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister.

  • Precommunicative stage–At this first stage of spelling, children use alphabet letters but they seem unaware that a letter stands for a sound. Children are often still learning the alphabet, both upper and lower case letters. They might also be learning that English is written from left to right and from top to bottom. Dr. Gentry compares this stage to babbling.
  • Semiphonetic stage–At the second stage, children begin to learn that a sound can be represented by a letter. One or two letters might stand for a sound, syllable or whole word (U for you, or CT for cat). Dr. Gentry calls this stage abbreviated spelling.
  • Phonetic stage–At the third stage, logic takes over. Children use a single letter or a group of letters for every sound. They repeat the same letter patterns in different words, such as kwik and kwen (quick and queen). Spelling is not yet conventional, yet adults can readily understand the meaning of the children’s writing. At this stage children depend on their hearing for spelling.
  • Transitional stage–At the fourth stage, children begin to use traditional spelling patterns, depending less on the sounds they are trying to write and more on how the words look on paper. So instead of writing “feet,” the child might write “fete.”
  • Correct stage–At the fifth and final stage, children have learned basic spelling rules. They know about silent letters, homophones and homographs, and alternative spellings (to, too and two). Children might write a word to see if it looks right, not if it sounds right. Children have formed many rules which they can turn to for spelling, even if these rules have not been formally taught to them. At this stage, children depend on sight (how letters look, how words look) more than sound for spelling.

Moving from one invented spelling stage to another happens gradually for most children, but they rarely slip back to a previous stage once they have experience with the next stage. Some children fly through the stages in a year or two; others can get stuck at one stage for more than a year.

Research has led to this change of thinking about spelling. Until the 1970’s, most children were taught to memorize standard spelling words. Spelling was a separate part of language arts courses. But now studies have shown that spelling, like speaking and reading, happens in stages.

Invented spelling has certain benefits.

  • Children can write meaningful sentences before they can spell or even read.
  • Children can use a more advanced vocabulary if not constrained by spelling.
  • Children don’t need to concern themselves with the standard way of spelling.
  • If children compose in a “flow” way of thinking, they can write long passages without stopping for spelling and thus losing their concentration.
  • Children can encounter spelling in an experimental way—the way they learn to speak, for example. They can try something, see if it works, figure out why and build on their own knowledge base.

For more information, check out Dr. Gentry’s book:  Gentry, J. Richard. (1987). Spel . . . is a four-letter word. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Is it necessary to teach “r” words like “car” and “or” separately or should I include them with short vowel, CVC words?

Although children will pick up r-controlled words as they learn to read, it is a good idea to have a separate lesson on them since they are neither short nor long vowel words, and since “ir,” “er” and “ur” sound the same.

Just like it helps to have a reference word for short vowel words, it is a good idea to teach reference words for r-controlled words. I suggest you use nouns whose image is obvious to a child, such as

ar car, jar or star
or fork, stork or sword
er Bert (from Sesame Street) or fern
ir bird or skirt
ur church or turtle

pictures of R-controlled words to use for memory

When you begin to teach r-controlled words, choose words whose spelling follows the rules, such as

far bar fir her
purr slur stir for
nor sir sort start

Don’t choose “store,” “floor” or “boar,” or other words whose spelling varies. Start with one syllable words, and then move on to two syllable CVC-CVR words with twin consonants such as

better bitter butter differ
hammer dinner ladder matter
offer pepper rubber zipper

Continue with two syllable CVC-CVR words whose middle consonants are not identical such as

timber under lantern fender
lobster master silver winter
lumber member butler monster

Then put the r-controlled syllable at the beginning of the word, using words such as

carpet organ carbon hermit
perfect serpent verdict perhaps
perfume person Vermont artist

At this point the student should be able to add consonants after the r-controlled syllable to create flirt, squirted and discard.

If your child has already learned CVC-CVC words, adding r-controlled words should be easy for the child. Even so, take small steps, and when he is ready, move on. As for “store,” “floor” and “boar,” you can tell your child that there are some variations in the spelling of r-controlled words. Rather than confuse the child at this point, when you are reading together, point out alternate spellings as you come upon them. –Mrs. K

Is there any way to know ahead of time if my child will do well in reading?

Yes. According to Prof. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, the two best predictors of later reading achievement are

  • an awareness of separate sounds (42 in English) and
  • the ability to rapidly name objects.

Today we’ll discuss sound awareness.

When I was a high school student studying French, I used to lie in bed listening to a Montreal radio station. I would try to figure out where one word ended and the next word began.  This same skill is what babies do when they listen to adults talk to them although they don’t realize it. Luckily for most babies, their mothers or caretakers speak slowly and distinctly and repeat words over and over.

With time toddlers begin to hear parts of words and realize that some words have one part (for example, Mom) while other words have more than one part (for example, Grandma).

Still later, usually around age four, children learn their ABC’s, not understanding what they are all about. But with instruction, they learn that each sound in English corresponds to a letter or a pair of letters in the ABC’s.

How can you enhance your child’s success in reading?

Make your child aware of words, syllables and individual sounds.

  • Encourage prereaders to write using invented spelling, advises Dr. Wolf. When the child writes, he sounds out a word and uses the letter symbols which seem appropriate. The “words” might not conform to proper spelling, but that is not the point. The child is working to figure out sounds, a skill he will need in order to read.Girl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister.
  • Encourage the child to listen to someone reading nursery rhymes. Then encourage the child to say the rhymes herself, advises Dr. Wolf.  Take “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” for example.

The itsy bitsy spider
Climbed up the waterspout.

Down came the rain
And washed the spider out.

Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain.

So the itsy-bitsy spider
Climbed up the spout again!

  • Notice how “itsy bitsy,” “waterspout” and “out,” and “rain” and “again” rhyme. Notice the repetition of the word “rain” and the emphasis on the words “down” and “out.” Other nursery rhymes show alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds). When children listen to these sounds they learn to discriminate among similar sounds, figuring out what sounds the same and what sounds different.
  • Research shows that exposure to rhymes and alliteration helps children to figure out sounds and later, to read.

In our next blog we will discuss the other predictor of reading achievement, the ability to name.

One example of how to teach a four-year-old to read

For several weeks I have been tutoring a four-year-old, teaching her to read.

  • I started with letter tiles, placing one before her at a time and asking her what sound each letter represented. She knew many of them, but not all of them.  As I expected, she couldn’t sound out “e” and “i” and was vague on “u” too.  The consonants “d,” “j,” “q,” “x,” “y” and “z” also were mysteries.
  • On a paper I had written all the sounds associated with individual letters, and as she said them properly, I crossed them out, to know which letters we needed to focus on.
  • Reading tutor with 4-year-oldSince she was confident about “o” and “a,” I used those letters to form CVC words, real and imaginary, spelling them phonetically. With the letter “a” I sandwiched two consonants, one on either side, separating the tiles and then moving them closer and closer until they looked like a word.  All the time I was pronouncing the sounds, such as “c” “a” and “t.”
  • Since the hardest letter sounds for beginning readers to hear are the middle sounds in CVC words, I kept using the same vowel sound, the letter “a,” for one half-hour lesson. I put a “t” after the “a” and kept it there for several minutes, exchanging one beginning consonant for another as she read the words.
  • My little student caught on quickly that the sound in the middle and at the end of the word didn’t change, so all she had to focus on was the beginning sound. When we encountered one of her difficult letter sounds, I would say it and then she would.
  • At our next lesson, I repeated much of the first lesson, asking her to pronounce the sound for each letter tile. This time she sounded the “q” consistently correct, so I crossed out that letter sound on my list.
  • I made CVC words using the letter “o.” Some words were real; some were nonsense words or real words spelled phonetically.  What she showed me was that she knows the sounds of various letters.
  • The next week I used both “a” and “o” words. This was more difficult because my student needed to keep track of two sounds in CVC words.
  • This past week I used “u” as the vowel. At first, my student would forget the sound “u” represents, but by the end of the lesson, she was remembering it.

Because the lesson lasts just 30 minutes, this student hangs in there, but by the end of a half hour she is losing interest.  I compliment her work often, telling her, “You didn’t know that letter last week, and now you do!” or “You figured out that word all by yourself.”  Sometimes she acts out a word or tells me what it means, and I compliment her on that too.

These early lessons focus on letter sounds and how combining sounds gives us words.  It might seem boring to an adult, but brain research shows that there are no built-in pathways in our brains for reading, the way there are for movement and speech.  A novice reader, like my student, must activate much more of her brain to read “cat” than an experienced reader like me.  Over years of reading, my brain has built shortcuts to figuring out words that this child’s brain hasn’t done yet.

At our next lesson, we will do more CVC words using “u” as the vowel, and then exchange the “u” for “a” and “o.”  We will focus on letter sounds my student is still learning.  Her progress may seem slow, but it is steady.