Saying Words Slowly
When teaching children how to sound out words, it is beneficial to first teach them how to say words slowly, so they can hear each sound. You may hear this referred to as “stretching out” words. For example, you could have children say the word “cat” slowly, so they hear all three sounds. CVC words (i.e., consonant-vowel-consonant words) lend themselves well to learning this technique.
When teaching children how to say words slowly, it is important that they don’t bark out each sound, adding in additional sounds. For example, the sounds in “cat” are not “cu-a-tu,” with the addition of the short ‘u’ letter sound at the end of the ‘c’ and ‘t.’ Instead, you want to model how to say the word slowly, but fluidly.
Barking out sounds can make solving unfamiliar words challenging. Have children regularly practice saying words slowly to avoid this pitfall.
A great tool to reinforce how to say words slowly is sound boxes. You may also see them referred to as “elkonin boxes.” They help children break words into sounds. A word like “cat” is represented by three boxes, one for each sound we hear. As children say the word slowly, they push three chips up into the boxes, moving from left to right. This can be done using counters and boxes printed on paper.
Sound boxes help children learn how to segment and decode words by their sounds. They also help them blend sounds together. Both of these skills support children when sounding out unfamiliar words.
When sounding words out, it is beneficial for children to know the sounds that each vowel makes. This includes both their short and long sound. When children are sounding a word out, we want them to identify if one sound isn’t working and to try the second sound. You may see this referred to as “flipping the vowel.”
For example, when solving the word “home,” we want children to recognize that saying the short ‘o” sound will not give them the correct word. But if they flip the vowel, using the long ‘o’ sound will help them solve the word. As children are learning to read, don’t forget to include some practice recalling vowel sounds!
Children can learn how to rhyme using nursery rhymes, poems, songs, and books. Rhyming is then a great strategy to use when they are sounding out words in their reading. It helps them identify words that have a common spelling pattern. For example, if they are stuck on the word “ran,” we can prompt them with, “What other word do you know that looks like “ran?” This is a great prompt if we know they are already familiar with the high-frequency word, “can.”
When children become proficient with rhyming, it unlocks many new words in their reading skills and writing vocabulary. For example, if they know the sight word “look,” they can use that knowledge to identify and read the words like “took,” “book,” “hook,” and “shook.”
Teaching children how to recognize root words provides them with another strategy when they are sounding words out. If they can remove prefixes like “un” or “re” from a word, and suffixes like “ing” and “ed,” they can then focus on sounding out the root word first. A word that may have initially looked overwhelming becomes much more simple.
Teaching root words will require direct instruction, modeling, and opportunities for independent practice. Anchor charts that show common prefixes and suffixes are helpful tools for children to refer to.
Another strategy to help children sound out words is looking for smaller words inside big ones. For example, show them how they can find a little word they know, like “an” or “can,” to solve the word “candy.” This is much more efficient than having them sound out each individual letter.
To teach this strategy, give students practice identifying smaller, familiar words inside larger words. Consider words like “sand,” “wind,” and “that.” Once they identify the smaller word, they can use sounding out to add in the additional sounds. (e.g., Identify “and” in “sand” then add an ‘s’ sound to the beginning.)
To support sounding out words, introduce children to blending. Blends are letters that go together to make one sound, like “st” or “cr.” It is also important for children to recognize digraphs, like “ch” and “th.” Imagine trying to sound out the word “chat” if you said the ‘c’ and ‘h’ sounds individually. It would be very difficult to arrive at the word “chat!”
Blending can be supported using sound boxes. A word like “chat” would be represented by three boxes, since we hear three sounds. Just like CVC words can be used to say words slowly, words with blends also lend themselves to this strategy, once children are ready to progress to this next level.