Teaching Letter Sounds and Phonics

Lori Soard
sight words
Click here to print these sight word lists.

Teaching letter sounds is a fun and important part of the homeschool curriculum and the first step in teaching phonics-style reading. When your child is learning how to read, including hands-on phonics activities in your daily routine will make learning to read painless and even fun. Beginning phonics activities and teaching methods help young kids associate the sounds with their corresponding letters. From the very beginning stages of learning letter sounds to more advanced phonics activities, this guide will take you step-by-step through the stages and activities you need to give your child the skills needed to become an excellent reader.

When to Start Teaching Letter Sounds

Learning letter sounds typically starts in the first semester of the kindergarten year, but this can vary by child. As a homeschool parent, you know best when your child is ready to advance to a new level in his reading journey. Your child is likely ready to begin learning letter sounds when:

  • He knows and can recognize every letter of the alphabet by name
  • He is curious about books and how to read
  • He can sit for ten or fifteen minutes at a time and concentrate on the task at hand

While most children will be ready to learn letter sounds by the age of five or six, if your child takes a little longer to get started or comprehend this skill, don't worry too much. According to the Dyslexia Research Institute, only 10 to 15 percent of the total population struggles with dyslexia. If he continues to struggle well into his sixth year, you may want to have him tested for dyslexia and other learning disabilities just to be on the safe side.

Important Literacy Activities You Can Start Today

Even if your child isn't quite ready to read yet, you can start introducing him to letter sounds. These activities feel more like a game, so learning will happen naturally.

If you need help downloading the printable, check out these helpful tips.

Letter of the Week

Highlighting a letter of the week gives the kids a chance to focus on the shape of it and the sounds that it makes. The order in which the letters are taught is up to you. Some people choose to start with the letter A and move through the alphabet. Others focus on more commonly used letters first, and then move on to the rest of the letters. You could even put all the letters in a jar and let your child draw out the letter to create some mystery and excitement.

The letter of the week becomes the theme for weekly activities. Choose activities that relate to the letter. For example, if the letter of the week is B, the activities should revolve around things that start with the B sound. Ideas include baking banana bread, blowing bubbles and playing with balloons. If possible, tie in other curricular areas with B-themed activities. For example, during B week you can also focus on the color blue or the science of bubbles. Be sure to point out objects that start with the letter B, and ask your child to say the B sound each time. Keep a scrapbook of activities and objects that start with 'b' to help document your time.

Reading Aloud

Experts say that reading aloud to your child is one of the most important activities you can do to build literacy in your child. Kids who are read to consistently, from an early age, enjoy substantially more academic success than their peers do. If possible, read aloud to your young child every day. Choose a variety of picture books, non-fiction books and even chapter books.

Matching Games

Games that require the kids to match pictures with a beginning letter sound offer a fun way to practice the skill. The traditional child's game of Memory is a simple option that is easy to make. Write each letter you're studying on a separate card. Create a matching card with a picture of an object that starts with each letter. The cards are mixed up and turned upside down. Each player takes a turn flipping over two cards in an attempt to match the letter and its corresponding picture.

When to Start Beginning Phonics

If your child was in the local school system, he would start learning beginning phonics and sounding out simple words in the second semester of his kindergarten year. Some homeschoolers follow this schedule, some start sooner and some later. Making the transition from letter sounds to stringing those sounds together is a magical moment for most children. The words they've heard mom or dad read to them for years now start to appear on the page in a way that they can understand. However, getting the child from the point of understanding what sound the letter 'b' makes to understanding how to read the word "bat" takes a little more work. You'll know your child is ready to start sounding out words when:

  • He knows all his letter sounds and can associate the letter with a picture that starts with the sound of that letter
  • He recognizes the first letter in a word and knows what sound it makes
  • He knows all his vowel sounds proficiently and can easily hear and understand the difference between the vowel sounds

Beginning Phonics Activities

Some children begin to put letters together and sound out simple words on their own, but most need to be taught to blend the words first. Most phonics programs start with letters like:

  • s
  • a
  • p
  • i
  • t
  • n
  • m
  • d
  • g

The reason these letters are chosen is because they create a lot of three-letter, simple words that have the pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant. The CVC pattern is the easiest for beginners to sound out based on the knowledge they already have of letter sounds.

Two-Letter Sounds with Refrigerator Magnets

Start with simple two-letter words to help your reader gain confidence in his abilities. Purchase a set of refrigerator magnets, which are available on Amazon or through your local teacher supply store. Place the vowels on the right side and the consonants on the left. Ask your child to make two-letter words and sound them out. Examples include words like "it," "at," and "on." Try to avoid words with unusual sounds for now as this might confuse your beginning reader. It is best to stick with short vowel sounds at first, master those and then add long vowels later.

Short Words I Spy

Reading starts with simple words like at, cat and dog. To help children actively look for phonics sounds in their surroundings, try playing a version of "I Spy" that helps your child recognize the words around him. You can start by saying: "I spy with my little eye, a sign that has the word "cat." Your child has to figure out what it is that you're looking at by finding something that has the correct word. The game works well with signs when driving, at home, or in a doctor's office waiting room. If your child guesses something that doesn't show the word, correct him by saying something like, "That's a good guess, but that word starts with the letter, 'H'. Do you remember what letter 'cat' starts with?" Then correct your child accordingly. This is similar to what your child would do with flashcards. However, with 'I Spy', there's nothing to bring with you.

Simple Rhyming Beach Ball

This is also a good time to begin learning rhyming because it helps the child recognize that certain letter patterns appear again and again in the English language. Use a sharpie to write easy phonetic words on a beach ball. Keep the words about two inches apart and use words like cat, dog, pig and sun. Sit across from your child or have the children sit in a circle. The beach ball is tossed back and forth. When the child catches the ball, whatever word his right thumb is closest to is his word. He now needs to come up with as many words as he can think of that rhyme with that word. So, if his thumb were on the word cat, he would say: hat, mat, sat, at, bat and so on until he runs out of rhymes. Each player gets a point for each correct rhyming word he comes up with. The person with the most points after ten tosses wins the game.

Challenges for Beginners

If after a week or two, your child struggles to sound out simple words like cat or pin, it may be that she doesn't know her letter sounds well enough. Go back and review any she seems to struggle with. Knowing the sound each letter makes helps the child sound out words more easily and quickly. Sounding out a word too slowly can make the word lose its overall sound and meaning. If your child struggles with rhyming words, play the beach ball game above and when it is your turn, offer as many examples as you can. Hearing the parent rhyming words can help the child better understand how to do so.

When to Move to Intermediate Phonics Lessons

A good rule of thumb for moving forward with your phonics training is to make sure your child is easily reading the words at the previous level without hesitation or adding a hard "uh" at the end of consonants. When your child can read simple words, then it is time to move on to the next lesson. However, don't be afraid to give him some time to enjoy the fact that he can now read books like Dr. Seuss's, The Cat in the Hat on his own. When he is ready, you can begin to add some intermediate lessons on how to blend two consonant sounds, the difference between short and long vowels and the sounds that double vowels, such as "oo" make. Most children will be ready to move to this level by the first semester of first grade, but if your child needs a little longer that is okay as well.

Activities to Teach Intermediate Phonics

Consonant Clusters

When learning consonant clusters, it is best to start with just the blended letters before introducing complete words. Teach your child the sound that the following common consonant blends make and then move on from there:

  • ch
  • th
  • wh
  • sh
  • tr
  • str
  • pr
  • sl
  • pl
  • gl
  • fl
  • ck
  • sk
  • st

Once your child can pronounce the sound for each blend, introduce worksheets that have the end of the word and ask the child to fill in the correct consonant cluster. For example, the word might appear as _ _ ick. The picture is of a baby chick. The child then completes the blank spaces with the blend "ch." Repeat the practice with words with blank spaces at the end. For example, the word might appear as fi_ _ and a picture of a fish appears. The child would complete the word as "fish."

Long and Short Vowels

It is usually best to stick with short vowels when teaching beginning phonics, but by the time your reader moves to an intermediate level, he begins to encounter words like play, hide and note. Take the time to run through flash cards with each vowel and have him memorize both the short and long sound. Once the sounds are both memorized (he should already know short sounds), then teach the rules:

  • When there is an "e" on the end of the word, it is usually a long vowel and the "e" is silent. Examples: hide, lone, mine, skate
  • When a vowel is followed by "y," the "y" becomes a silent "e." Examples: play, stay, toy
  • When the vowel begins a word, it is usually a short vowel sound. Examples: at, ick, on
  • When the word ends in a vowel, it is usually a long vowel sound. Examples: knee, no
  • However, you must also teach that there are exceptions to these rules, such as "do" ends in a vowel but is not the long vowel sound. Tell your child he will learn which words are exceptions by memorizing them.

Teaching Double Vowels

The double vowels crop up more and more in this stage of reading. Some double vowels make an entirely new sound, such as "oo" making the "ew" sound. Teaching "ee" is easier because it simply makes a hard "e." Some activities to help your child remember double vowels include using pictures of objects and having only the consonants so your child can fill in the double vowel. Words you could print pictures of and use include:

  • bee
  • zoo
  • knee
  • tree
  • boot
  • hoot
  • moo
  • see
  • free

When to Begin Advanced Phonics Learning

Advanced phonics are taught anytime between first and third grade. Since they encompass learning many words and memorizing sight words along the way, through each phase of learning to read, advanced phonics are taught all the way through second or third grade. At this point, most readers can read pretty well on their own with minor help when they encounter a particularly difficult word they've never seen. Advanced phonics includes learning about sounds like:

  • ph = f
  • ing
  • blended vowels like ou, ai, ie

Activities for Advanced Phonics Readers

The best activity for advanced phonics is to have the child read as often as possible. Since there are many occasions when your child may have to read aloud as an adult, have him practice reading both aloud and silently. Listen closely for any words he might not pronounce correctly and offer correction when needed along with an explanation about the language rule. If he pronounces the word "hide" as "hid-ee," then remind him about the silent e rule and ask him to read the word again with a long "i" and no "e."

Worksheets can also reinforce lessons like blended vowels by having the child fill in missing letters to create a word that matches the picture.

It's All in the Sound

You do not have to spend a fortune to find activities for teaching phonics. In fact, most activities you can make easily without purchasing any additional materials or manipulatives. A strong understanding of letter sounds builds a foundation for reading success in the future. Build on each level, perfecting one skill before moving to the next. Find a variety of ways for teaching phonics throughout the day and in real life. Soon you will find the kids reviewing the letter sounds and attempting to sound out new words. Over time, they will read harder words or ask you how to pronounce something you may even have to look up in the dictionary.

Teaching Letter Sounds and Phonics