Eight Great Tricks for Sounding Out Three Letter Words

In November, I posted a blog entry on teaching children to sound out CVC (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) words. And like most Kindergarten classes, we are still working on mastering that skill. While most of my kids are doing fairly well with this, there are still a few little ones that are struggling to figure out how to blend sounds together. These are mostly the younger ones with the fall birthdays, so it is really not their fault at all, poor babies!

But, the Common Core State Standards were written for everybody- no matter when their birthdays fall- and so I am responsible for teaching all of them to sound out CVC words. It doesn’t matter if English is not their first language, or if they only just barely turned five years old at the end of November. It doesn't matter if on top of that they were born prematurely, or may have a learning disability, or have any number of other problems you can imagine. It makes no difference if their parents are uninvolved in their schooling or if their attendance is poor. (Thankfully, this describes very few of my students!)

None of those things matter, except that I am responsible to make sure that everyone meets all of the state standards, to the best of their ability and my ability to teach them. So here are some of the things that we have been doing in our little after school tutoring group to help build up their phonemic awareness and therefore get them closer and closer to being able to sound out CVC words.

We practice sounding out words every day as whole group
on this pocket chart from ReallyGoodStuff.com

Phonemic awareness forms the foundation for language arts in general, but especially for sounding out words. So when I have trouble getting kids to sound out words, I always remind myself to back up and see where they have fallen short on their journey to become readers. All of the bricks (skills) in the foundation must be in place if they are going to be able to sound out words.  If they are having trouble, then there must be something missing. So what is it? I try to identify the gaps and see if I can fill them in.

Phonemic Awareness Skills Progression:

1.  Blending parts of compound words
(play + ground = playground)

2.  Blending initial sound to rest of word in longer words
(/m/ + arshmallow = marshmallow)

3.  Blending initial sound to rimes in shorter words
(/m/ + at = mat)

4.  Blending 3 phonemes/sounds in context
("I like to /r/ + /u/ + /n/" =
"I like to run.")

5.  Blending 3 phonemes
(out of context)
(/b/ + /a/ + /t/ = bat)

The natural progression after this step is that if a child knows the letter sounds, he would then be able to say the letter sounds him or herself and then sound out the words.  The activities below are based on this progression of phonemic awareness skills, and the idea that once they master each of the preliminary skills, they should then be able to sound out words- with a little practice, anyway! The only difference between these activities and any other phonemic awareness activities is that I am doing them with the very same sounds and words that I am trying to teach them to read, rather than any random sounds or words that I might pull out of the air. This is VERY important!  For example, since I might be ultimately trying to teach them to read the word "fat," I would work on blending just the /f/ and the /a/ sound in the first activity below. Then, if I am also working on the word "sat," then I would have them blend the sounds /s/ and /a/ in the first activity below, etc.

1.  Guess My Silly Sound

For this activity, I simply took any two sounds, such as /fffff/ and /aaaaa/ and said them out loud. Then I called on a child to blend them together to make a funny sound, which in this case would be “fa.” For some reason, my students this year find it easier to blend the words together if the vowel comes first and the consonant comes last.

2.  Guess My Secret Word

This is my CVC book. You can also get it on a disc, which gets you
the printable CVC bingo games with it, too!

For this activity, I just took the CVC flash cards from the unit in my CVC book that we are working on at the moment and just read each child the sounds from each card. I simply told each child the sounds of each word without showing them the letters, and asked them to blend the sounds together to make a word. If they didn’t get it, I started giving them contextual clues. For example, if the word was “dig,” then I might say, “This is something a naughty dog does in the garden.” If the word was “pig,” I might say, “This is a farm animal that loves the mud.” I've attached a sample of the "at" word family flashcards from this set for you to try.

3.  Stretch Out the Word

The goal of this activity is to get the children to be aware of every sound in the word; (hence the term “phonemic awareness.”) For this activity, I have the children put their hands up in front of them and show me how they are going to stretch out their words. Then we pretend to stretch out some rubber, stretchy snakes as we pull the sounds of the words apart. I say, “Say ‘fat.”  Sound ‘fat.” Then the children begin to pull on their imaginary rubber snakes until we have isolated all of the sounds in the word.  After we have done this for a few words, then I pass out some REAL stretchy snakes, and let them try it with some real ones! The kids LOVE this, and when we have stretched out our CVC words, I let them play with the rubbery snakes a little bit.

4.  Build the Word with "CVC Pockets"

For this activity, I have the children take one of our new CVC pockets and pull the letters out of the envelope. Then they have to try to put them in the correct order that they go in. So for the word “lip,” we would not want to see the p coming first, etc. They have to think about each sound and where it should go when putting it back together. Then they have to try to read the word to me!

5.  Write the Word and Sound It Out By Pushing Up Chips

I learned this gem of a trick from my new friend, Janice Lawson, who is a retired Kindergarten teacher that has come to volunteer in my room one day a week! I asked her if she would work with a couple of my students that were struggling with sounding out words, and she pulled out this activity from her bag of tricks that she used when she taught Kindergarten in Baldwin Park, CA.

This is Janice's board for sounding out CVC words!

She said that she felt that it was important for the children to write the words that they were going to practice reading themselves, to help them better focus on the letters. Then she asked me for some blocks or chips to use as markers, and had the children push them up as they said the sounds, one block at a time. Then they pushed the blocks together and tried to blend the sounds together as they did it.  For my two lowest little ones, this really unlocked the secret of sounding out words! She said that they needed the kinesthetic element to help them remember and focus on the sounds. She also mentioned that the chips had to be something very boring, or the children (especially the boys!) would just play with them.  She usually used poker chips.

This is my paper and the blocks that I used to sound out words with the kids.

I was so excited to see that something was actually working for these two little students, because I had been trying absolutely everything I could think of, and getting practically no where! So during after school tutoring, we tried it again! I handed out white boards to the group and had them all write a word.  Then we put the blocks on the boards and pushed one block up on each letter for each sound as we said it. Then we pushed the blocks together to sound out the word. All of the children responded very well to this! The only problem was that it resulted in an erased word on the white board! So we put away the white boards and switched to paper and pencil and started over. We did one word together, and then did a second word.  After our first word, we went back and read the first one again, using the blocks as before. Then we did a third word, and went back and reread the first two words again with the blocks, etc. We did several words, but each time we finished a word, we went back and reviewed the previous words.

This is what one of my student's paper's looked like. You can see how difficult it was for them to get the words spaced out correctly and the letters written legibly.

At the end of the session, I asked the children to read the words to me individually, without the blocks.  All of them could do it, except for my two lowest children that I had my friend Janice work with. So I got out the blocks and let them try it again with the blocks. Guess what? THEY DID IT! I was THRILLED! They have sounded out a few words for me before, but they have been mostly words that they have memorized- not truly sounded out. So this is wonderful news! Hats off to Janice and her great ideas!  I can’t wait to learn more from her!

I decided that to make this a little easier next time, I’m going to make up a printable with some blank boxes for the children to write their letters in. I’m also going to number them, so that when I ask the children to read the first or second word, we all know which one to read! The children were writing their words all over their papers and it was hard to keep them all on the same word at the same time. Some of them also were making their letters too small and too close together for the blocks, and I think that putting one letter in each box will solve a lot of these problems. If you would like a copy of this printable, click here.

Of course, the idea of pushing chips into boxes for each sound is not a new one; these boxes are known as Elkonin boxes. But I have never thought of using them with letters inside of them; I have only thought of using them as blank place holders to represent a sound in a word. In this case, the letters are written down, and the child moves the chip on top of the letter while saying the sound, so it is slightly different than the original idea of Elkonin boxes as I understand them.

6.  Read the Word and Match It to the Picture

Finally, I have the children try to read me the CVC word by sounding it out. No guessing allowed-they MUST sound it out! Then they come up to the pocket chart and find the picture that matches their word.

The pocket chart with flash cards from my CVC book.

7.  Reading CVC Nonsense Words

When the children get more proficient at this, I am definitely going to introduce them to the concept of reading nonsense words! I know that, at the moment, they are trying to make sense of what they are reading, and that is good. But I do think that in order to develop some good, solid phonics skills, they will need to be able to decode nonsense words. This is because when a child attempts to decode a longer, multisyllabic word, each syllable inside of it is essentially a nonsense word- and that’s why nonsense words are important. I use the Word Blending Pocket Chart pictured below from ReallyGoodStuff.com.


(This last idea was added on an update to this blog on July 20, 2013).

8.  Sing and Move to Sound Blending Songs to Help the Musical and Kinesthetic Learner

Our Sound Blending Songs for Word Families videos, available on DVD or on our HeidiSongs Video Streaming Site, are a great teaching tool for my class and has made an incredible difference! As the children sing the songs, they take themselves through the process of saying the letter sounds, stretching them out, and then blending them together to read the word. They enjoy practicing this process because the songs are fun and active! These songs really made a difference to some of my students that were struggling the most!

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