5 Ways to Teach Kids to Sound Out Words
Cracking the reading code takes practice and repetition. Decoding words, or sounding them out, is the ability to apply existing knowledge of letter‑sound relationships to correctly pronounce printed words.
Many children develop the ability to decode words over time with regular reading practice. But children may also benefit from explicit instruction. Phonics instruction is an essential component of learning to read, and involves teaching your child how to decode words by correlating sounds with letters. Here are five helpful ways you can help your child sound out words.
1. Explain the “how” of decoding words
When your child comes across a word they are unfamiliar with, show them how they can sound out the word themselves by breaking it up into smaller parts (e.g. /c/…/a/…/t/). Help your child identify the phonemes – the single units of sound that distinguish one word from another – in words (e.g. /b/…/ur/…/n/). There are 44 phonemes in the English language. Phonemes charts can be found online.
The English language also contains many irregular spelling rules which can make sounding out particular words confusing. For example the letter combination /ch/ in the words ‘chef’, ‘choir’ and ‘cheese’ has three different pronunciations. Take time to help your child learn the pronunciation of every new word along with its meaning, in order to help them identify ‘irregular’ words by sight.
2. Teach blending
Blending is a crucial step in becoming a fluent reader. Put simply, blending is the ability to smoothly combine individual sounds together in words. For example, an early reader may read out each individual sound in the word ‘fast’ like /f/…/a/…/s/…/t/, while smooth blending would be sounding the word out as /faasst/.
3. Write it down
When helping your child sound out words, consider the following:
- Say it slowly – stretch out words so that it's easier to hear the sounds. Vowel sounds are usually the easiest to stretch out.
- Hold the sound – Starting with the first sound, hold it and stop.
- Find the letter – Help your child identify the letter whose sound matches the sound they have identified.
- Write it down – Write that letter down straight away, without waiting until the entire word has been sounded out. Help your child write a letter or letter combination for each sound as soon as the sound is identified.
Writing each sound as you go will help your child remember early sounds in a word by the time they figure out later sounds.
4. Play with rimes and onsets
A rime refers to the string of letters that follow an onset, which is the first phonological unit of any word. You can play with rimes and onsets by cutting out pieces of cards and writing a phoneme on each one, for example, b c f p r s m and h. Write the word at on a separate piece of paper. Ask your child to look at the rime at and decide if they have a phoneme that would correctly complete the word (e.g. b + at = bat).
5. Read aloud
When children hear words read aloud, they begin seeing how printed words are closely connected to spoken words. Reading aloud with your child helps them associate individual sounds with printed letters and letter combinations. Set aside regular reading time with your child and allow them to hear you read aloud slowly while watching your finger identify each sound. Programs like Reading Eggs include read aloud options with e‑books for early readers, highlighting individual sounds as they are being read out.