Sounding Out Words Phonetically

Your child needs phonics, but you are confused about where to start. Check out this parent-friendly guide to sounding out words phonetically.

“/mmmm/. /aaaaa/ /ppp/. Map!” she exclaimed as she matched the word to the picture.

It is magical to watch a kindergarten student put the pieces together and actually begin reading.  Children learn to read by sounding out words phonetically.

Not sure where to start with sounding out words with your child? I’ve got you covered.

This parent-friendly blog post cuts down on the teacher talk and makes it easy for parents to understand how to help their children learn to read.

Before we dive into sounding out, it’s important you understand this:

Written language is a code of letters that represent speech sounds.

When sounding out, your child becomes a code breaker. This is hard work.

So anticipate that sounding out phonetically will be a process for your child.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you.

a reading teacher with three students  points to a whiteboard. The text reads "a parent's guide to sounding out words phonetically."

What is sounding out words phonetically?

Sounding out words phonetically has two important parts:

  • decoding
  • blending

Decoding words is when a child matches the correct speech sound to the letter or letters.

The good news is we only have 44 speech sounds. The hard part is many letters can represent more than one sound.

Blending is the second step in sounding out phonetically. Your child takes those sounds and puts them together to make a recognizable word. This is where their vocabulary comes into play. If your child already knows the word, they are more likely to be able to read it.

When your child sounds out the word “dog,” they will first decode each letter. Then they will blend it into the word and think of a furry, four-legged pet.

a girl with blond hair in a blue striped shirt reads a book. The text reads "sounding out words is the sum of decoding letters sounds & blending the sounds into a word."

What is an example of sounding out words?

Here’s an example of sounding out words phonetically.

First, your child sounds out each letter. This is the decoding part.

Your child thinks “c spells /k/.” They repeat with the letters a and t.

They say the sounds /k/ /a/ /t/.

Second, they blend /kaaaaaaatt/ by stretching the sounds into each other. Your child is listening to themselves to make a meaningful word.

If your child is struggling with the 2nd part, then check out the blog post: Blend CVC Words. It has ideas on how to help your child blend sounds into words.

a white girl with blond hair sits with a book. the text reads "children learn to sound out words in kindergarten or when they are 5-6 years old."

When should kids be able to sound out words phonetically?

In the kindergarten year, a child should be spending most of the year sounding out words.

Ideally, your child enters kindergarten knowing most of the letter names and some of the sounds. This is because your child’s teacher might move very quickly through the sounds and some kids need more time.

By mid-year in kindergarten, your child should be sounding out words like:

  • if
  • at
  • on
  • fan
  • not
  • tin

By the end of the kindergarten year, your child should be reading three sound words easily. These words are called CVC words and look like this:

  • tap
  • wed
  • him
  • cob
  • sun

why is sounding out words important?

English is a phonetic and morphologic language.

Sounding out is important because it’s a way to break the code.

English also uses morphemes, or the smallest parts of words that carry meaning.

This is why the letters “ed” mean something happened in the past, even though it can represent three different sounds:

  • /t/ like camped
  • /d/ like biked
  • /id/ like winded
flashcards for letters c, a, and n to help children sound out words phonetically on a brown table

How do you teach sounding out words?

First, your child needs to sound out the letters.

Once they can automatically match sounds to some letters, they can start by sounding out words phonetically.

My favorite way to do this is to use the same letter cards (called phonogram cards) that I use when teaching letter sounds.

This way your child connects the sounds from the cards to the sounds in words.

Once your child knows a handful of sounds, they can read a bunch of words.

For example, if your child knows the sounds a, o, t, n, s, m, they can sound out phonetically:

  • at
  • an
  • am
  • mat
  • Sam
  • Tom
  • sat
  • not
  • tan

After they sound out the words on the phonogram cards, they should practice reading and spelling the words on phonics worksheets or in decodable books.

a latino boy has his head in his hands next to a stack of books with the text 'English Language Learners and dyslexic children can struggle with sounding out."

Why do kids struggle with sounding out words?

There are three main reasons why children struggle to sound out words phonetically:

  • Haven’t been adequately taught
  • English Language Learners
  • Dyslexia or another learning problem

Haven’t been taught

Some children simply haven’t been taught how to sound out words in school. Many schools still use an approach called Balanced Literacy.

Instead of systematically teaching phonics step-by-step, children are taught in a more haphazard way.

They are encouraged to guess at words based on the context of the sentence, the pictures, or the first letter.

If your child goes to a school with this approach, you’re going to need to work on sounding out words at home.

English Language Learners

When English isn’t the primary language at home, it can take some learners longer to match the sounds to their oral speech.

This year I noticed several students substituting the sound /t/ for /th/. Their primary language doesn’t include a /th/ sound.

But they had trouble sounding out phonetically and would read “bat” for “bath.” If your primary language is not English, you’ll want to make sure you can sound out the letters properly first.

Dyslexia or other disability

Many students struggle to sound out words phonetically because they are dyslexic. They might not have been evaluated or diagnosed yet, but the problems remain.

At its core, dyslexia is a weakness with hearing sounds in spoken language and breaking apart words into sounds.

Some children with untreated ADHD might have trouble learning to read because sustained attention is hard. ADHD and dyslexia often co-occur, though. So it’s important to get a good evaluation.

More Help for Sounding Out Words Phonetically?

I heard from a lot of moms who didn’t feel comfortable helping their children learn to read.

They didn’t have the basic knowledge of sounds to get started with sounding out. I couldn’t find a training that I’d recommend.

So I made Sounds School to help parents like you. You’ll learn:

  • the 44 sounds in English
  • the most common ways to spell them
  • a simple routine to teach and review the sounds
  • blending them into words
  • how to teach your child to spell them

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