Sounding Out Letters


Wondering how to help your child with sounding out the letters? This blog post is a parent-friendly guide to understanding letter sounds.

Your child lights up when they see the McDonalds Golden Arch: “It’s letter M!”

So now your child knows the alphabet. And now you’re wondering, “what is the next step to teach my child to read?”

The next thing is to teach your child about sounding out the letters of the alphabet. This simple post defines all the teacher terms so you can help your child read.

What is Sounding Out Letters?

Sounding out letters is the first step in phonetic reading. This means your child uses phonics to read.

But what is phonics? It means your child uses what they know about sounds and letters to read words.

Written language is a code. Those squiggles on the paper are called letters. They are symbols that represent speech sounds.

But before your child is sounding out words phonetically, they need to sound out the letters.  This is letter-sound identification.

When sounding out letters,  your child uses their understanding of the speech sounds in language. Then they apply those sounds to specific letters.

Learning to sound out letters is critical because 84% of words in English are completely phonetic. That means most words you can sound out.

a black girl with curly hair holding a book with text reading "Children learn to sound out letters in kindergarten."

At what age should a child start sounding out letters?

Researchers found the best time for a child to know letter names and know letter sounds for reading success!

In prekindergarten or by the fifth birthday, a child should be sounding out a few letters. They don’t need to know all the letter sounds – just some!

But if a child knows the sounds of a few letters, that is fantastic. It lowers the chance that they will struggle with reading in first grade.

There is a myth that all children will learn letters and sounds when they are ready. A lot of children struggle with reading and need a lot of help.

Many need more help than a first-grade teacher with 25 students can provide. So do not feel bad if you want or need to help your child with sounding out the letters.

an alphabet chart printable to sound out the letters on a brown table with the magnet letters a, b, and c

Sounding Out Letters in Kindergarten

In kindergarten, your child will spend much of the year learning the letter sounds. These are the most common sounds associated with each letter.

As a kindergarten reading specialist, I started with the most basic letter sounds of the alphabet letters. For example, I started with the short a vowel sound like in apple or cat.

I do not worry about teaching all the sounds the letter A can spell in kindergarten. The goal is to get your child to learn enough sounds in kindergarten so they can begin sounding out words phonetically.

If you need more guidance on the basic alphabet letter sounds, check out the blog post with free Alphabet Phonics Sounds Chart. You can also grab this chart in the box below:

Why is Sounding Out Letters Hard?

Sounding out letters is hard. Our brains are not wired to read print. Our brains have developed for tens of thousands to speak and walk.

Written text is still pretty new to humans. It is only about 5,000 years old.

So in short, sounding out letters is hard because we have to retrain our brains.

Some children have problems with sounding out the letters because they have a weakness in phonemic awareness skills.

We hear words as units that carry meaning, not groups of individual sounds. So learning to pay attention to sounds is really tricky for a lot of children.

teach your child to sound out letters by holding a flashcard and modeling the sound

How can I help my child sound out letters?

The easiest way you can help your child sound out the letters is with a pack of flashcards.

Follow these easy steps:

  1. Show the flashcard.
  2. Say, “This is /a/. Your turn. Repeat /a/.”
  3. Your child says /a/.

Add in one new sound a day and review prior flashcard sounds.

You don’t have to do this at the table. Your child can be jumping on a trampoline or eating their snack. You can use your child’s Little People Princess or Paw Patrol characters. Include their interests to make it a game and not a chore.

Toddlers Can Read Flashcards

My Instagram friend Spencer has these durable alphabet flashcards. They have a good keyword picture to help remind you of the sound.

They are very durable like board book material. If you have a young child, they will hold up to a lot of use.

Sounds school flashcards

In my signature program, Sounds School, I have phonogram flashcards parents can print out.

The benefit of phonogram cards is once your child can sound out the basic letters, you can move on to combinations like “ch” and “ea.”

You can also show your child how to build words and sound out phonetically with these cards. Once your child knows the sounds /s/, /a/, and /t/, then you just spell that word.

The downside is you need to print them yourself.

Diy flashcards

Grab a pack of index cards for $1 or less. Write the basic letters of the alphabet on them with a thick marker.

The drawback is you need to figure out which letters to write. But the benefit is the low price!

My child can’t sound out the letters

If your child is struggling to sound out letters, they likely are struggling to even hear the sounds in language.

Your child may have a learning disability like dyslexia. Difficulty with hearing sounds is the primary feature of dyslexia. You can reach out to your child’s doctor about your concerns.

If your child is learning to sound letters and just needs more practice, keep at it. Some children need 4 repetitions to learn sounds and some need 40.

what about when a letter has more than one sound?

This is a common question I hear about sounding out letters:

“How do I teach the letters than have two or more sounds?”

First, you don’t teach this until your child has mastered most of the basic alphabet sounds.

But explaining it to your child is pretty easy.

You hold up your letter i card and say, “You know this letter spells the sound /i/. It also represents the long i sound a word like ‘hi!'”

Most children are way less confused by this than their parent believes. If your child understands that a dog can make the sounds “arf, arf” and “woof, woof,” they’ll get this too.

Need more help with Sounding Out Letters?

If you need more help with sounding out letters, check out Sounds School.

In Sounds School, you’ll get videos that teach you the sound and mouth formation for the 44 sounds of English. Plus you get sound cards for all the ways to spell each sound. So it carries your child from pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade phonics.

Check out Sounds School if you need help with:

  • teaching how to read the sounds
  • a routine to blend the sounds into words
  • a simple way to spell the sounds
  • practice with spelling those sounds in words

beginning sounds worksheets

These Beginning Sounds Worksheets get your child reading to sound out words. The truth is your child needs to be able to hear the sounds in language for this to really stick.

You’ll find over 100 pages of easy-to-use worksheets to build your child’s skills.

You can also find these Initial Sound Worksheets on Teachers Pay Teachers.

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