5 simple activities to help kids sound out words
Cracking the reading code takes practise and repetition. Decoding words, or sounding them out, is the ability to apply existing knowledge of lettersound relationships to correctly pronounce printed words.
Many children develop the ability to decode words over time with regular reading practise. However, struggling readers may require a little more repetition to hone this crucial skill. Children also benefit from explicit instruction according to the science of reading. Phonics instruction is an essential component of learning to read and involves teaching your child how to decode words by correlating sounds with letters in a systematic way. 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. Then there are tricky words like said, are and was. 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.
Decoding plays an important role and needs to be taught alongside other skills as you can see in Scarborough's Reading Rope, to help children reach a skilled level of reading.
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/.
Synthetic phonics involves identifying sets of letters and sounds and blending the sounds all the way though the word. The next step is to segment the word into sounds to spell it. For example, children learn that /d/ /o/ /g/ are three individual sounds that can be sounded out and then blended together to make the word 'dog'.
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.
The Reading Eggs phonics approach includes sounding out letters, as well as the next step which is building words using onset‑rime. Get a Free Trial today to access activities and games to help your child master these skills in a fun way!
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
Set aside regular time with your child and watch them pay attention to your tone, pronunciation and the emphasis you put on certain words. Not only is this a great way to show children how fun reading books can be, but it also helps them start to see 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. Let your child hear you read aloud slowly while watching your finger identify each sound. Programmes like Reading Eggs include read aloud options with eBooks for early readers, highlighting individual sounds as they are being read out.
So, as you can see helping kids learn how to sound out is such an important step on the path of helping a child learn to read proficiently. Use the ideas, strategies and links to resources mentioned above to help your child master this skill before moving on to the next step of their reading journey, particularly if they're struggling or have additional needs. Repetition and practise in a systematic way is key.
Also consider positive screen time options like using educational apps or the multi‑award winning Reading Eggs online reading programme. This is a sure fire way to ensure your child reinforces everything they need to know about sounding out words and phonics in a fun, engaging way!