Help Children Crack the Reading Code (Part 1 of 2)

Here's how to teach any child to sound out words.

Posted Aug 14, 2013

Help Children Crack the Reading Code (Part 1 of 2) 

It’s easy for you to read to, too, and two or eye, I, you and ewe and get right to the meaning. But how do you explain the logic of English spelling to a beginning reader? Should we simply tell them “Spell it like it sounds”? 

Cracking the sound-symbol code of the English language is very hard for most beginning readers and writers. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a psychologist or a neuroscientist studying reading, it’s a problem that needs a solution. 

Steve Peha and I have worked with thousands of beginning readers and writers. In this two-part article, we will describe the most successful techniques we have discovered for showing beginners how to sound out words. We will also provide additional information that shows how these ideas are supported by the latest research in the psychology and neuroscience of reading. 

Sounding Out Words 

By Richard Gentry and Steve Peha 

A Funny Thing Happens When... 

Perhaps the two most common challenges young children face on the road to literacy are encountering an unfamiliar word they want to read and not knowing how to spell an unfamiliar word they want to write. 

Sounding out unfamiliar words is a problem we want to help them with right off the bat. So we ask them: “What do you do when you come to a word you don’t know?” 

In our experience virtually every child knows exactly what to do: “Sound it out!” they gleefully yell in unison. This is a good answer. But a funny thing happens when we ask the next question: “How do you sound out words?” 

Silence. In all our years of classroom work, we rarely hear a child, let alone an entire class, describe the process they use to sound out words. After a few seconds of dead air, one or two kids might say, “You know, like this.” And then they’ll make random letter-like noises as though they were sounding out a word. That’s an answer. But it’s not a process. 

“What” is Good but “How” is Better  

Telling kids what to do when they encounter an unfamiliar word is great. But when we don’t show them how to do it, learning to read and write takes a lot longer than it needs to—and for some kids, especially our most disadvantaged, it never really happens at all. 

It’s great that kids everywhere seem to know what to do when they encounter unfamiliar words, and it’s essential that we tell them and demonstrate the process for them. But it would be much better if we told them how to do it instead of just telling them what to do. 

Write From the Start 

Written language is a sound-symbol system: words are made of sounds that are written with letters. It’s sounds first, letters second. Not the other way around. Speaking came almost 100,000 years before writing. Alphabets were invented as a way of writing down sounds. 

Learning to sound out words in writing, therefore, is more intuitive than learning to sound them out in reading. So that’s where we start with two simple ideas: (1) Introducing letters by sound, not by name; and (2) Teaching kids a simple poem called “How to Sound Out Words” which describes the sounding out process. 

The poem goes like this: 

    Say it slowly.

    Hold the sound.

    Find the letter.

    Write it down. 

This is practiced out of context in a whole class activity and in context when individual children attempt to write words independently. 

When practicing with kids, we let them pick any school-appropriate word they like and then as a class we cycle through the process until we have at least one letter for each sound the kids can identify. 

  • Say it slowly. Stretch the word out so that it’s easy to hear the sounds. Beginning and ending sounds are easiest to hear but vowel sounds are the easiest to stretch out (and, if pronounced appropriately, any sound that is not stopped (like /m/, /n/, /s/, or any of the five traditional vowel sounds) is very easy to stretch out.
  • Hold the sound. Starting with the first sound, hold it and stop. Holding this sound, and sometimes repeating it, helps kids lock it in.
  • Find the letter. Think about the letter whose sound matches the sound identified in the word. Introducing kids to all 26 lowercase letters all at once in simple 1-to-1 matching exercises with their most likely sound takes very little time to learn for most students.
  • Write it down. Write that letter down immediately. Don’t wait until the entire word has been sounded out to write all the letters down. Write a letter for each sound as soon as the sound is identified. 

Writing each sound as we go alleviates a huge problem for young children: it often takes a very long time to sound out even very short words. If kids don’t write the sounds down as soon as they identify them, they often forget early sounds in a word by the time they figure out later sounds. 

Theory in Practice 

Let’s say the kids like soccer and want to spell the word “goalie”. If we all say it slowly, we’ll hear four sounds. If we stop at the first sound, kids will usually recognize it as /g/ and be able to write the letter “g”. We can do this on a blackboard or with magnetic letters, but asking kids to write the letter in their own hand in a spiral notebook accelerates their learning even if their handwriting isn’t very good. Mastering handwriting is largely a process of successive approximation. The more chances kids have to approximate letter shapes, the more handwriting success they are likely to enjoy. 

Then we’re back to the top of the poem. We say the word slowly, but this time we have some of it written out, so we read what we have just written, go one sound further, and hold again. Now we’re on the sound /ō/. Most kids will want to write the letter “o”. Virtually, no child in a pre-K or kindergarten classroom says “oa” (though occasionally there is a very advanced speller in the group or a true soccer fanatic) but at this stage in the process, it doesn’t matter how we spell the word because we’re going to use a second process to make sure the word is spelled correctly. 

Kids will probably want to write the third sound with the letter “l” and the fourth with the letter “e”. And that will give us “gole” as a possible spelling for “goalie.” 

Quick and Easy Clean Up 

Linguists estimate the speaking and listening vocabulary of kindergarteners at roughly 10,000 words. But how large is a kindergarteners spelling vocabulary? That is, how many of those 10,000 words can most kids spell correctly and with certainty on the first day of kindergarten? While many kids can write their name with confidence, few can spell even one word correctly, so rarely have we traditionally asked them to attempt the task. This means that unless a word is spelled phonetically in such a way that each sound in a word matches the one sound kids know for each of the 26 symbols, virtually every word kindergarten children attempt to write will be wrong. 

Many kids, using the “How to Sound Out Words” poem and process can correctly spell words like “mom”, “dad”, “cat”, and “dog”. But “goalie”? Not very likely. So we need a quick and easy clean-up process as well, something kids can initiate themselves so that we can all be sure they aren’t memorizing the incorrect spellings of words. 

This process is also simple: as soon as kids have done their best to account for each sound they hear and write a letter—any letter—for it, we can ask them, “Are you sure this is the correct way to spell this word?” The only “rule” kids need to know is that a given word has only one correct spelling. Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for kids to figure out that most of the words they write are likely to be spelled incorrectly. 

Whenever kids write a word and are not completely certain it is correct, they underline it. This tells the teacher or other adult that they have tried everything they know to figure it out but that they know it isn’t correct. When practicing with a class as a group, we simply underline the word, spell the word correctly in its place, and reread the word with the corrected spelling. When kids are writing individually, it’s very easy to take a post-it note, sit down beside the kid to look at their work and ask them a question about it, and while we’re talking, simply write down the correct spellings of all the underlined words. Kids can then go back and correct their own spelling. 

The beauty of this for classroom teachers with 20+ individual writers to assist is that the entire process of sounding out words and getting them corrected can become a procedure kids can learn as easily as they can learn to move from their desks to a particular spot on the rug. This means that after a day or two of introduction, a teacher need never hear “How do you spell...?” and kids need never stop writing until an adult has time to run around the classroom correcting everything. 

The Finishing Touch 

As a final step in the writing process, kids can “publish” their writing. This often involves one or both of the following activities: (1) Redrawing a more detailed or colored picture they might have begun their piece with; and/or (2) Copying out on a new piece of paper the sentence or two they may have written from an adult’s correct version. 

One thing you’ll notice is that even though everything is happening in the context of writing, kids are reading all the time, too. That’s because writing requires all the skills of reading, some of the logical skills of math or science, and small motor skills as well. 

Read and Succeed 

A “write first, lowercase, sounds only” approach (beginning with writing, using the lowercase letter shapes, and introducing letters only by sound) is a fast and easy way to get kids started. With a solid process for sounding out words they want to spell, and a quick clean up strategy for arriving at correct spellings, kids learn to both write and read at the same time. 

The process of reading words is the inverse of writing them. So instead of stretching out sounds, we begin by pulling out letters. Kids then attempt to produce a sound for each symbol they identify. Because they’ve already done quite a bit of this in writing, and because they’ve learned all 26 symbols and their most likely sounds, they can at least attempt to sound out any word whose letters they can identify. 

Often, in texts written for beginning readers, they will find many words then can truly read simply by sounding them out. Some words, like “said”, for example, are easily learned by identifying the beginning and ending sounds and realizing that the word often follows something that a character in a story has spoken. 

Nothing Succeeds Like Success 

Some of us actually remember the moment we learned to read, so momentous is the occasion. Many parents and teachers get to see this magical moment, too, in the children whose literate lives they care for. 

Whether it’s true or not, it feels to most of us that the “Aha!” moment in literacy learning comes when children demonstrate the ability to sound out a word and read or write it with the awareness that they have, in fact, cracked the code that is written language. 

With simple strategies that set kids up for success from the start, kids feel the rush of being able to read and write—a feeling that propels them forward with the confidence, curiosity, and courage required to learn more. 

In Part 2 of “Helping Your Children Crack the Reading Code”, Richard Gentry and Steve Peha will describe a scaffolding technique known as “Sounding Out Words with Finger Spelling,” along with information on the neuroscience of reading.   

Steve Peha is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., an education consultancy in Carrboro, NC specializing in literacy and instructional leadership. In addition to providing teacher training for schools and districts throughout the US and Canada, he writes regularly on education practice and policy. His work has been featured on The Washington Post, The National Journal, Edutopia, and many others. 

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.