Letter sounds are the first and most important skill that an early reader learns. Without a strong foundation in letter sounds, also known as alphabet sounds, a reader will struggle. If your reader is just starting out, or if they are struggling shoring up their letter sound knowledge is key.
In this post you will learn …
-What letter sounds are
-How kids should learn them
-How to use letter games
What are Letter Sounds?
This is the most important question. Whether you are teaching your child how to read, or you’re reinforcing what your child is learning at a learning center or daycare, it’s important that you know what the letter sounds are. You can’t help your reader if you don’t know the sounds yourself. I know you know the alphabet and I know you know all of your letters. The key thing here is that you understand which sounds we’re talking about.
Individual letters make different sounds. When we refer to letter sounds or alphabet sounds, we’re talking about those basic 26 letter sounds. It’s important that what I’m talking about is clear, so I’m going to go through all 26 of these alphabet sounds.
The Letter Sounds
A like the a in apple (not like the a in ant or appointment)
B like the b in ball
C like the c in cat
D like the d in dog
E like the e in elephant (short e, it’s not time for long e yet)
F like the f in frog
G like the g in grapes
H like the h in hat
I like the i in insect
J like the j in jug
K like the k in king
L like the l in lion
M like the m in mom
N like the n in no
O like the o in octopus
P like the p in pumpkin
Q like the q in queen
R like the r in rain
S like the s in sit
T like the t in tip
U like the u in umbrella (again short vowels, not long ones)
V like the v in victory
W like the w in west
X like the x in excited (or x-ray, it sounds just like the name of the letter)
Y like the y in yellow
Z like the z in zipper
Since this is the foundation of reading, you want to practice these with your kid over and over again. They need to know these sounds like the back of their hand, and they need to know them that well before they can move on to anything else. However you can’t just practice them the same way all the time, that’s boring. This is where letter games come into play. Letter games can be found on the computer or you can just make them up. We’ll talk about both of these options.
If you’re ready you can play them on this site here
How to Introduce Letter Sounds
There are a lot of different ways that you can start your student off on learning their alphabet sounds. Their first exposure will most likely be the alphabet in some sort of song, or maybe you’ll point to a letter and say that’s “a”. That’s all great, and it’s an excellent first peek into the alphabet. However, just remember that there are the names that the letters have, and then there are the sounds that the letters make. They are not the same. In fact you don’t even need to know the names of the letters in order to read. I don’t cover it at all on this site, and I probably never will, cause like I said it has nothing to do with reading. Your child does need to know the names of the letters so please don’t get me wrong it’s a great first exposure. But when it comes to reading they need to know the sounds that the letters make. I recommend that you teach your child the names of the letters first (cause they’ll probably hear them in a song or with a toy anyway). After they know those I’d move on to letter sounds. Notice that I say I’d teach them the names of the letters first, that’s because you should only teach them one thing at a time. They are either going to learn the names of the alphabet or the alphabet sounds. Asking them to do both is just going to confuse them. I can’t tell you how often I’ll ask a student what sound a letter makes, and they tell me the name of the letter. One thing at a time.
The other thing you want to keep in mind is do you want to teach them uppercase or lowercase letters first. Think about it. Uppercase and lowercase letters look completely different, and if your child is truly a beginner, it would be a lot of information to throw at them at once. If you’re working with a struggling reader and are just reviewing the letter sounds, then this probably matters less. At this point they’ve seen it all.
I like to teach lowercase letters first, simply because they are used more. This doesn’t mean that you should lock uppercase letters in the closet and pretend they don’t exist. If you’re child sees one and asks you about it, tell them what it is. They’ll naturally get exposed to both, and you should let that happen. All I’m saying is that they are going to be using a lot of letters to make words and read words, so those should either be upper or lowercase.
Ok, so let’s get to it. How do you teach your child letter sounds? Technically, you can do it any way you want to, as long as they learn them all. I think people’s instinct is to teach them in alphabetical order. I think there’s a better way. Like I said earlier kids have to know these sounds very very well, and you can’t just keep presenting them in the same way (b-o-r-i-n-g). One way that you can mix it up, and advance their reading cause, is to have them read small words as they learn the alphabet sounds. How do you do this? By breaking the alphabet into small groups of letters, and teaching one group at a time. How you organize the groups is really up to you, but when you do it make sure that you use letters that can make words independently. You probably won’t be able to make a lot of words, only 2-4, but that’s ok, because it is enough for your kid to be able to start reading.
The Letter Sound Groups and Words
Like I said, how you group the letters is up to you and really doesn’t matter as long as you can make words out of them. I would recommend that you have a total of 5 to 6 groups, so that there aren’t too many alphabet sounds for your child to have to learn at once. This is how I choose to group the alphabet. You’ll see this grouping all of over the letter games on this site.
Here are the groups and the words that they make.
msat – mat, sat, a, at, sam
bfox- box, fox, ox
henrd- hen, red, den
cupz- cup, pup, up
wigjl- wig, gig, jig
vqky(et)- vet, yet
Letter Sounds and Letter Games
You can play letter games, that are strictly about the alphabet sounds on this site here. These letter games come in three main parts. First, each alphabet sound is taught (in the groups of course). Once your reader can identify the sound that each letter in the group makes, they can move on to the second part of the letter game. In this section they will make words with these letters. So for example, they will first learn the letter sounds m,s,a,t, then they will be asked to make or spell the word sat for example. They will then hear the sounds /s/ /a/ /t/ and click on each sound that they hear, thus building or spelling the word within the letter game. You can play this letter game on this site here.
This is really great because this gives them an opportunity to both practice their alphabet sounds again and in a different way, but it also allows them to start reading. Starting to actually read may be more important than you realize. If students just learn sounds (lots and lots of sounds…consonant blends…phonograms…sounds, sounds, sounds), then they’ll know a bunch of sounds. However they won’t necessarily know how to put them together or recognize them as words. They will have all the tools and they’ll know a lot, but they won’t necessarily recognize the word right away. They can break down the sounds in a heartbeat, but if you ask them what the word is they may get intimidated and say I don’t know, even though they know every single one of the sounds. That’s why letter games like this are so helpful.
The third part of the letter game is kind of like the test (but don’t tell your kid that). This is when they actually read words. It’s still only the letter sounds within the given group. The letter game will present 4 or 5 words to them and ask them to choose one. Your child will then click on the correct one, thus reading perhaps for the first time. The benefit of this sequence is twofold. As I’ve already stated it’s an extra way to practice. It also allows you to see if there are any holes in their skills.
I like to spend day one on one group of letters and if that goes well, spend day two on the second group…..but add in the first group about halfway through. See how that goes, and on day three maybe just stick with the two groups before adding in the third. Then add in the next group. Keep going like that; adding in a new group, reviewing the old, having a review day. In about two weeks or so you’ll have gone through the whole alphabet and read quit a few words. It’s ok if it takes longer than that. At the same time, don’t beat the dead horse, if they get it, then they get it, and you should move on. Otherwise they’ll start to memorize the words, instead of the letter sounds.
I’d really give them the full two weeks on this. You can use the online letter games, as well as using letter blocks or sandpaper letters, or even pieces of paper that you have at home. You can also just look around the room pick something up and have your child say the sound that the object starts with.
You: This is an apple. What sound does apple start with.
Child: Apple start with /a/
If you read them a bedtime story and it contains one of the words that they’ve learned have them read it. If you’re towards the end of the two weeks, you can be adventurous and let them try to read other words (that only contain the basic 26 phonics sounds). If they get it wrong, leave it alone. At most just go over the letter sounds with them, but don’t make it a big deal, and let them know you’re really proud of them for trying.
Simple enough. Mix it up. Make it fun. Everything can be a letter game.
More Words with Letter Sounds
At this point your reader knows all 26 alphabet sounds. They have also used online or offline letter games to spell and read words to reinforce their knowledge of those sounds. However they’ve only done this with 10-20 words, and they need to know how to do this with a lot more. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that they know those 26 alphabet sounds before they move on. Every kid is different, they move at their own pace. Don’t push them or hold them back.
The next thing we’re going to do is make three letter words. These are also called cvc words. You can play letter games with these words too.
Cvc stands for consonant vowel consonant. Sometimes they are also called pink box words. These are short words that have three letters, a consonant followed by a vowel and another consonant. Cat and dog are two examples. All you’re going to do is take the knowledge that your student has already learned and mix things up a little bit. I’d start with going over the same words that you’ve been going over, but at the end add in 5-10 words that they haven’t read before. I’d ask them to spell (build) them first. You can say spell cat, and see what they do or you can say spell cat /c/ – /a/- /t/ and give them each sound as they go. If they can’t spell cat right away without any help, then I’d recommend giving them the sounds.
After they’ve spelled or made the words. I’d have them read each of the words. This is just like what they did with the letter sounds and alphabet groups. The letter games on this site are the same too. You can also sit on the couch or in the car and ask them, which sounds are in the word cat, and see what they say. Give them some time to think. Don’t jump in with the answer right away, but if they clearly don’t know then give them the answer one sound at a time.
If they struggle with this then you can take two of the alphabet groups and combine them, and make words just from them. This way you are limiting the sounds that they have to know, and this also reinforces the sounds that they’ve learned. It also feels a little less intimidating.
m,s,a,t and b,f,o,x – fat, bat, box, sam, bam, bob, tom, max, mom. Mob, bam, mat, sat.
M,s,a,t,w,i,g,l- sil, gas, tis, lag, tag, sag
B,f,o,x, w,i,g,l,j – lox, lob, big, lab, bag, wag, lag, sag, wig
C,u,p,z,h,e,n,r,d- pen, run, zen, hen, den
Here’s a list of cvc words that you can make together. All of these reinforce letter sounds and by the time they are done they should be experts! You can play letter games with cvc words here.
At this point it’s a little early for them to read books, because they don’t know any sight words.But if you teach them the words “a”and “the” I have a few sentences and super short stories that they can read to practice. If you add a few more sight words this opens up a few more stories to them. From this point on it’s really important that your child reads a story after they learn a new sound. Even if they story is three sentences long and doesn’t make sense. They’ve done the work and they’re reward is getting to read.
Hopefully after reading this, you have the steps that you need to teach your child letter sounds. Remember break the alphabet into groups that you contain letters your child can make words with. Spend about two weeks teaching them the entire alphabet this way. Then combine the groups together to make more words, or be bold and have them start to make cvc words (just a few at a time). Save some days just for review.
Once they are comfortable with cvc words, have them read some sentences or very short stories. I’ll post some that have just a few sight words soon. From here I’d start teaching them a few sight words (so that they can read more), and I’d also start to have them read short stories, and move on to word endings.
I’d love your feedback. How did this work for you and your reader?