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Helping Kids Sound Out Words

When you read, you probably don’t spend much time decoding the individual words. You just read, and as you get to each word, you instantly recognize it. But beginning readers don’t have that kind of instant recall yet, so it is important to teach them how to sound out words.

What Does “Sounding Out Words” Mean?

When you sound out a word, you say each sound in the word slowly (s…i…t), and then say the sounds together more quickly (sit). The technical term for this process is blending because sounds are blended together to form a word. Here’s a quick demo:

Our free Blending Procedure PDF has complete step-by-step instructions for both one-syllable and multisyllabic words.

Blending Procedure Downlaod

Why Is Sounding Out (or Blending) Important?

When a child can say the sounds of the letters in the order in which they appear, and can then blend those sounds into a recognizable word, she is able to read thousands of phonetically regular words.

Because it unlocks so many words, blending is an important step toward the goal of reading comprehension. In fact, research shows that learning to sound out words has a powerful effect on reading comprehension.1

Arrow graphic showing blending as a step toward  the goal of reading comprehension

What Kids Should Know Before Sounding Out Words

Before you attempt to teach your child to sound out words, check to see if he is ready. Here’s a free Reading Readiness Checklist for you to download. If you discover that your child isn’t quite ready for reading instruction, you can use the All About Reading Pre-reading program to prepare.

After you’ve used the checklist to ensure that your child is ready to learn to read, it’s time to teach the letter-sound correspondences of several letters of the alphabet. The letters M, S, P, and A are a good place to start because the sounds are easy to pronounce and several interesting words can be formed right away.

Graphic showing that with the sounds of a few letters kids can read words!

Before we get into the four easy steps for teaching blending, let’s discuss a problem that many beginning readers encounter. Recognizing this problem will help you better understand the steps for blending.

Short-term Memory Issues Can Affect Blending

When kids first learn how to decode three-letter words, they have to juggle several cognitive processes simultaneously:

  • They must recognize the letters.
  • They must retrieve the sounds of those letters.
  • They must hold all three sounds in the memory while they sound out the word.

There is a lot going on in their brains! In fact, it is very common for beginning readers to have difficulty with standard blending procedures. Just about anyone who has taught blending has encountered a situation like this:

Comic strip showing that short-term memory issues can affect blending.

What just happened there? Here’s the problem: by the time the child got to the third letter, he had forgotten the sounds of the first two letters, and then had to resort to guessing. But it’s not that kids can’t remember three things in a row—it’s just that there are too many competing processes going on in their heads at once.

It’s easy to understand the problem. But what can we do to help?

“Cumulative Blending” Solves This Problem

Cumulative blending is quite simple. Start by building a phonetically regular word with the Letter Tiles app or physical letter tiles and then follow the steps below. We’ll demonstrate with the word map.

  1. Touch one letter at a time and say the sound of each letter.
Blending the sounds m-a-p into the word map-Step 1
  1. Go back to the beginning of the word and blend the first two sounds together.
  1. Start over at the beginning of the word. Slide your finger under the letters and blend all three sounds together.
  1. Finally, say the word at a normal pace, as we do when we speak.

This is called cumulative blending because there are successive additions of the letter sounds. First we blend the first two sounds (/mă/). Then we start at the beginning of the word again, this time blending all three sounds (/măp/). If there were more sounds in the word, as in split, we’d start at the beginning of the word for each successive addition:

/sp/

/spl/

/splĭ/

/splĭt/

Cumulative blending provides the extra support, or “scaffolding,” that beginning readers need. When you feel your student is ready, he can try blending all three letters without this additional step, but don’t try to withdraw the support too soon. These steps and the support they provide help memory issues immensely.

Download a Free Blending Lesson

Teaching blending - download a sample lesson

Would you like to see how we teach blending in the All About Reading program? Download this sample lesson!

This is the first lesson in AAR Level 1. The blending activities start on page 4 of the PDF.

The All About Reading program walks you through blending and all the skills your student needs to become a strong reader. The program is multisensory, motivating, and complete. And if you ever need a helping hand, we’re here for you.

All About Reading Product Line

What’s your take on teaching kids to sound out words? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

___________________________________
1 University of Royal Holloway London. (2017, April 20). Phonics works: Sounding out words is best way to teach reading, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 1, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com

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Holly C.

says:

My 8-yr-old grandson hates to be interrupted while he’s reading (don’t we all?) to sound out a word. I give him the word so we can move on, but note either the word or the concept so we can practice it separately during that part of our next lesson (yes AAR!)

Ashley

says:

My youngest still uses the colored tabs to sound out words even though he’s in AAS level 2. Learning how to sound out words has always been a struggle for him but having the right tools to fall back on always makes it achievable even with advancing words.

Ashley M

says:

I used this program with my son with no problems. He picked up on concepts super easily and is quite gifted in reading. However, we recently found out my daughter has dyslexia. I was excited because I already had the best program out there for helping young readers with dyslexia!! We went to do the first lesson and she is doing EXACTLY what the little comic shows in this blog post… I am so thankful I found it. I kind of skipped over the cumulative aspect of blending, so we will continue plugging away at lesson 1 until she has that mastered. Are there places I can find more practice words for her to use in blending? Or just the ones in the book?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this blog post was so helpful for you, Ashley. That comic looks very familiar to many teaching younger learners!

Go ahead with lessons 2 and 3 while still working on lesson 1. That will give you a lot more words to work with, plus some new material to keep things fresh.

If you spend more than a week maybe two on these three lessons (spending about 20 minutes a day on reading) and your daughter is still having difficulties, please email us at [email protected]. We have some additional helps, tips, ideas, and suggestions to get your student over this difficulty.

Consider practicing phonological awareness skills as you work in lessons 1 through 3. Students that struggle with phonological awareness often struggle with blending sounds into words. If the activities on the phonological awareness skills are difficult for her, she may not be ready for Level 1.

Carley

says:

We are on lesson 7 of AAR 1 with my 6 year old. He is still sounding out almost every word. I have been doing fun games with the word cards, but nothing seems to stick. Do you have any suggestions?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Carley,
It sounds like your child is doing well. As long as he can sound out words without difficulty or help, he is doing well and can move forward. Reaching the goal of fluent reading will be a gradual process over many lessons. Some kids really need a lot of extra practice in the decoding stage, so spend as much time as needed and try not to worry if your student isn’t reading fluently just yet.

Students may need to read a word thirty times ore more before they can read it fluently without having to sound it out! So, just know that some beginning readers do need a lot of practice and review. Here’s an article on How to Develop Reading Fluency that can help you understand the overall scope of achieving fluency.

Some ideas that can help your child move to more fluency:

The Change-the-Word activities are especially helpful for working on blending and paying attention to all sounds in a word. Change one letter at a time, starting with simple 3-sound words like: bat-sat-sit-sip-tip-top…and so on. The Teacher’s Manual schedules these occasionally, but you can play this daily if your child doesn’t mind and you find it helpful. This activity is also especially helpful for working on consonant blends when you get to those lessons (Lesson 24 through 27).

The Word Cards allow you to track what has been mastered and what still needs work. Keep word cards in daily review until your student can read them easily, without needing to sound them out. Here are some fun review ideas for word cards. The Word cards will stack up as you go, so just rotate through a portion for 2-3 minutes each day and then pick up in the book wherever you left off previously. Shuffle the cards occasionally so they are not all in order. That way the student truly gets decoding practice and doesn’t just guess or memorize them in order. And here’s a fun little video explaining what to do when the cards stack up.

The fluency practice pages can be re-used as well. You might enjoy our 16 Ways to Make Practice Sheets Fun. (And check out the comments as well–lots of fun suggestions in there!)

Students who struggle with fluency will also benefit from rereading the same story two or three days in a row to gain fluency and confidence. Buddy Reading can be very powerful in helping students who are in this stage of struggling with fluency.

Rereading the stories will help accomplish these goals:

– Increase word rate
– Improve prosody. Prosody is “expressive reading.” It involves phrasing (grouping words into meaningful phrases), emphasis, and intonation (raising pitch at the end of questions, lowering pitch at the end of sentences)
– Improve automaticity (be able to recognize most words automatically without having to sound them out each time)

Here’s more help with Overcoming Obstacles when Reading AAR Stories.

You can also do a variation of buddy reading called “echo reading.” You read a few sentences with full expression, and then your child reads the same sentences, matching your expression as close as possible. Do this for approximately five minutes a day, or whatever is a comfortable length of time for your child. Add in lots of praise when your child shows even a bit of improvement.

The “Fun with Emojis” article gives an enjoyable way to work on reading with expression too. This can be a great way to make reading fun that also sneaks in some extra practice from the fluency pages or readers. Check out Reading with Expression for this activity and others.

I hope this helps, but please let me know if you have additional concerns or other questions.

eileen morse

says:

Excellent material to share with parents of budding readers! Thank you.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Eileen!

Byron

says:

Do you have online classes teaching children to read?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Byron,
No. All About Learning Press offers Easy to Teach materials for parents and teachers to use with children. We do not offer classes.

Donald Knight

says:

Practical, structured and explicit.

Shelby Cleland

says:

Recently switched to AAR because my daughter and I needed a better more structured approach to learning to read and me teaching her to read. I love that this curriculum focuses sooo much on phonemic awareness and really nails down the concepts that are being taught rather than skimming through them like our last curriculum.
As I was prepping the material, I was saying to myself this looks like so much fun! My daughter is going to love all the “games”!!

Merry

says: Customer Service

I hope she does, Shelby! Let us know if you have any questions along the way. :-)

Beth

says:

Great tips!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thanks, Beth!

Rebecca K

says:

I bought level 1 a year ago and my son was overwhelmed. But a year later we are able to get through half a lesson or the whole thing! I think it’s important to remember a kid may not be ready until they are closer to age 7 to read

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m pleased to hear that your son is doing well with level 1 now, Rebecca.

Marinella

says:

My child loves this program and I can finally see improvements!!So thankful for AAR!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so pleased to hear that your child is enjoying and improving in reading with All About Reading! Thanks for sharing, Marinella!

Missi

says:

Love blending. But the reason behind it is remarkable. I never knew how much is going on in little brains to figure out one word!

steven

says:

love

gayzel

says:

wonderful post. ❤️

Heather

says:

I love the concepts behind these programs. My son is such a successful reader because of them.

Natalie S.

says:

Thank you for this blog post and free resources. I love how you’ve broken down blending strategies into even more simple steps. Looking forward to tomorrow, when I can apply what I‘ve learned in my work with beginning readers!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are so welcome, Natalie! I hope this worked well with your beginning readers.

Katharine Gindin

says:

This is explained so well!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Katharine!

Steph

says:

I used cumulative blending for the first time with a student when I got this program. I was shocked! He was blending CVC words quicker and challenged himself to blend harder CCVC words. Definitely use this with all my students now

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing this, Steph! The cumulative blending technique is a great help for many students.

Amanda

says:

I have loved what all about reading has done for the children I’ve taught!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Amanda!

Lisa Toleno

says:

Phonological awareness is the precursor and foundation of reading. We first learn to read with our ears.

David Kilpatrick has written a few books about the research on this. Equipped for Reading Success is a great resource for understanding this.

It’s not just a working memory issue. Children need to be able to isolate phonemes and blend and even substitute them purely auditorily before ever even seeing the printed symbols for the sounds they represent.

If a child is given the segmented sounds for cat and says top, for example, that is the cue to address the major gaps in auditory discrimination. It might also even be the cue to seek professional hel from a speech and language pathologist.

20% of all people have dyslexia, which is an auditory deficiency. Another 40% of people benefit from structured literacy.

I look forward to seeing All About Reading include phonological awareness exercises in their materials in the next few years.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for the book recommendation, Lisa.

Yes, blending issues often stem from weakness in phonological awareness skills. The placement test for All About Reading level 1 includes a section on phonological awareness skills that children should have before starting level 1. These skills are taught very incrementally through the Pre-reading level.

Then, in Level 1 and higher, more complex phonological awareness skills are practiced, such as phoneme deletion and substitution in the Change-the-Word activities.

Tamara Lowrey

says:

Thank you, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it explained this way before and cumulative blending seems very helpful.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Tamara. I’m glad this seems helpful. Let me know if you have questions or need additional help.

Sarah

says:

This is such a helpful article. We struggle with this with my new reader, I need to come back and reread this often.

Sarah S

says:

Thank you! I love the cumulative blending approach and I’ll definitely be using it with my daughter.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Sarah. Yes, cumulative blending is very helpful for many students!

Danielle

says:

Thank you for this post. We have been having this exact problem with guessing based on the last letter. I needed this today!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Danielle! I hope this is helpful. You may also find our Break the “Word Guessing” Habit blog post helpful as well.

Danielle

says:

Thank you!!

Diane Mansfield Hickman

says:

I love the idea of cumulative blending. It makes sense that they start to memorise the start of the word and then combine to lengthen along the whole word. I will try this approach with my students this week.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Cumulative blending often makes the difference for young readers between successfully sounding out a word or not, Diane. It’s a very helpful technique.

Amy

says:

We are finally grasping the blending, it took until lesson 2 to get my munchkin to really grasp that he was learning to read the words. The stories help a lot with his confidence.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m pleased to hear your child is grasping blending now, Amy! But if you have questions or concerns as you move forward, about blending or anything else, just ask. I’m here to help!

Carol

says:

I work for in an afterschool academic enrichment program for K – 5 kids. Assisting families in learning how to help their own child learn to read is important to their success. This article and information is an easy way to show them how to help kids learn to first break up the sounds then “smoosh” them back into meaningful words.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so glad this will be helpful for you as you help families, Carol!

Anna Cerreta

says:

Hello!
I recently started AAR Level 1 with my 5 year old. We are on Lesson #2, and he is able to blend the first two CV sounds (m-a, s-a) in a 3-letter word. However, he can’t do a VC combination (a-t, a-m, etc.), or add the last C sound to a 3-letter word. It is obviously very frustrating for him, and for me (!) Do I just keep modeling, until it clicks? Any other suggestions? We have been on lesson 2 for 3 days now and I’m afraid we are going to be stuck here for a while. Maybe that’s ok? I just don’t know if to keep moving through or camp out here until he “gets it”.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Anna,
You are correct that you need to not move forward with All About Reading level 1 until your child can sound out the words in lessons 1, 2, and 3 without difficulties or help. (Lesson 3 has no new teaching but has a story and review of lessons 1 and 2, so it would be fine to work in it as well while trying to help her understand blending.) It is fine to hang out on this skill for as long as your child needs!

(Note, spending 2 to 4 days per lesson is pretty much average, so 3 days on lesson 2 is still within what we would expect. Of course, “average” means some kids and some lessons will take fewer days, and some will take more. It’s all about moving through the lessons at each child’s unique pace.)

Just so you know, blending is a development skill. Many preschool- and some kindergarten-aged children will have all the reading readiness skills mastered and will still struggle with blending simply because they are not yet ready developmentally.

I think the first thing I would do is double-check that this is the right level for him. Here’s a link to the Level 1 placement test. Look especially at the phonological awareness section, as that is an important indicator for reading readiness.

If he’s struggling with phonological awareness skills, then the Pre-reading level is probably the best place to start, even if some of the skills will be review for him. Skills like blending words orally and identifying first and last sounds in a word are fundamental to reading. Blending written words is dependent on these skills. You might want to read this article on Fun Ways to Develop Phonological Awareness for more help in understanding these skills. It also has some free downloads that you can use. If he improves with those, try lessons 1 and 2 of All About Reading Level 1 again. If he’s still struggling though, then I recommend the Pre-reading level.

____
Assuming your child did well with the All About Reading Level 1 placement test, here are some ideas to help him become ready for blending.

Play oral blending games. You say the sounds of a word you are thinking of, and then your child blends the sounds into a word. Can he guess a word that you mean if you just say the sounds? Do easy 2- and 3-sound words first, like /k/-/ī/-/t/ (kite). This is a game that can help develop his blending skills. If he can blend orally, he is well on his way to blending written words. You can make it easier to begin with by making it part of an “I-Spy” game. Choose a word based on what he can see and say, “I spy with my little eye something that sounds like /t/-/oi/.”

Let him say sounds for you to blend too, even if they make nonsense words. Laugh and have fun with it! Hearing you blend sounds can help him hear how individual sounds change slightly when blended. If you are on our Facebook Support Group, here’s a great video that another mom shared about teaching her daughter oral blending.

You can also play oral segmenting games. Say a word with 2 or 3 sounds, and see if your child can say the sounds in that word. Here’s a video that demonstrates how to segment sounds. (This post also talks about spelling, but I wouldn’t work on that yet. Just segment words orally.)

Another game would be to pull down 3 letter tiles such as C, T, and A. Draw 3 blanks on the whiteboard and say, “I want to make the word ‘cat.’ What’s the first sound in cat?” (/k/) “Right! Which letter should I put first?” (see if she puts the C in the blank, or help her do that.). “Good! What’s the second sound in cat? /kăăăt/” (/ăăă/) and so on. See if he can help you make the 3-sound word, and then model how to sound it out and read it using the complete blending procedure.

Modeling blending for him is a great teaching approach! Build a word with tiles, such as “pat.” Then, using the complete blending procedure as outlined in lesson 1 of All About Reading level 1 and in this blog post, blend it with your son watching.
– Touch each letter and say each sound as you touch it. “/p/-/ă/-/t/”
– Draw your finger under the first two letters. Blend those and then touch and say the last sound. This cumulative blending step is vital for kids who tend to forget the sounds or mix them up if they try to jump from the first step to the fourth. “/pă/-/t/”
– Draw the finger slowly under all three letters and blend those. “/păt/”
– Say it fast or “say it like a word.” “pat”

Then, have your child blend the exact same word, going through all the steps of the blending procedure just as he saw you do. Praise him for reading the word!

(Note, since he can blend the first two sounds but has trouble adding the third, focus on the second and third steps of the procedure. Once he gets “/pă/,” praise him. Then, have him blend the final letter by saying “/pă/” while running his finger under the first two letters and then say “/t/” while touching the last letter. Work on the “/păăăăă/-/t/” to help him get “pat.”)

After he has done well blending a word after seeing you blend it, try changing just one letter. Make “pat” become “mat” and see if he can blend the new word by himself. Or make “pat” become “pam.” If he has trouble, model blending it for him and then have him do it, so you can allow him to be successful.

He may need you to model blending every word before he does for a while before doing it himself, which is fine.

Another thing that you can do that’s fun: (First, the parent demonstrates this, and then the child mimics.) Lay three sheets of colored paper on the floor. Write one letter on each sheet of paper, like M – A – P. Jump on the first paper and say /mmmm/. Jump on the second paper and say /ăăăă/. Jump on the third paper and say /p/. Then start over, and do it quicker: /mmmmăăăă/-/p/, and then /mmmmmmăăăăp/. Finally, run across the papers and say, “MAP!” You can do a similar activity on the table with a race car and letters written on index cards.

I hope this helps. He will get it in time. Just keep working on oral blending and modeling, but most of all, keep it lighthearted and no pressure. It would be better to stop reading altogether at this age than to have him learn to dislike reading lessons.

Let me know if you have questions or need more ideas. I’d love to hear how things go over the next few weeks!

Just play around with the tiles and other activities and games for a few weeks and see if she starts to catch on to blending. I hope this helps! Please let me know if you have additional questions.

Anna Cerreta

says:

Wow thank you for so much practical advice and encouragement! After today’s struggles he said “I don’t like reading anymore” :( we will take a break from “reading” and work on some of these games instead. I’ll let you know how we do!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Oh, poor little guy! Yes, breaking from reading to play with oral blending and such is definitely in order for now. Do try out the activities on the Fun Ways to Develop Phonological Awareness blog post as well.

Holly

says:

We sort of do this but not perfect. This made the process more clear and I have be Stricker (for lack of a better word) that my struggling reader does all the steps laid out here. Hope it helps.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Holly,
All the steps in this blending procedure were developed with struggling readers in mind. However, if you find your student is still struggling when applying the full blending procedure, please let us know. We love to help!

Monique Thompson

says:

Because of covid, I am homeschooling my grandson. We will start the pre reading program today.
I read something in the teacher’s guide that was very helpful. We were asking his a question he didn’t understand. What I had read in the teacher’s guide helped me to understand why he was confused. Based on that info, I was able to explain on his level. He went back to the question and figured out the answer very easily. That alone made the price of your program worth it!

The information you send in the e-mails and videos is very helpful. I’ve never taught pre reading.

My grandson went to public school kindergarten last year after not having gone to kindergarten.
They were throwing four letters a week at him, and doing sight words.

This summer I started teaching him one letter at a time. I was covering both upper case and lower case letters, and doing introduction to letter sounds. ( Not being aware of a better. I used a variety of activities similar to the ones suggested in the teacher’s guide).

My plan now is to back track and work on writing letters A-L. I will do things from the lessons that go with those letters. Once we get to M, we will move forward with using the full lesson plans.

Thanks so much for your help!
Monique Thompson

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so pleased to hear the Teacher’s Manual helped your help your grandson so easily, Monique! It sounds like he and you are doing very well with the Pre-reading level. Wonderful!

Ava

says:

This was helpful for me.