How to Teach a Child to Read

It’s so easy to teach the alphabet to kids. They love the song, they love the letters, and they love feeling like big kids who know more about what’s going on with all those mysterious words in their books.

But the alphabet is just the beginning. The real work comes as you begin to help your students connect the sounds to each letter so that they can sound out words and be ready to read on their own. It’s a long process, and with 26 different letters — and even more sounds — it can be hard to know where to start.

There are many different methods for teaching letter sounds, and you may already have a favorite. If you’re looking for ideas — or if you just want to try something new to spice things up — try these tips for helping your students connect the sounds to the letter for your foundational literacy lessons.

1. Work With Upper and Lower Case Letters

Lots of alphabet work focuses solely on upper case letters. This is great for beginners because they’re easy to distinguish, but your students will need to recognize both. Lower case letters are much more common in reading anyway, so it’s important to use them early and often! Be sure to continue writing practice with lower case letters, and use the “little letters” often when you teach the sounds.

2. Mix Things Up

Though it makes perfect sense to teach the letter names in alphabetical order, you don’t have to do the sounds that way. In fact, shaking things up will help your students recognize the letters out of the context of the alphabet, so their recall will be quicker. This also gives you the freedom to focus on letters that are commonly used together or skip around to add a letter to a holiday theme (V on Valentine’s Day, for example).

3. Start With Consonants

Because consonants are typically associated with fewer sounds than vowels, it’s easier to start with them to keep things simple. Pick a letter like D, P or B that makes only one sound — and has a sound that’s easy to hear in the letter name. From there, you can move on to consonants that make more than one sound, like a hard or soft C.

4. Add in Vowels

One of the tricky things about vowels is that in English they make many sounds. The long vowel sound is the same as the vowel’s name, so this often makes sense to students; however, the simplest CVC words all use short vowel sounds (think “cat” and “dog”). Once you’ve covered the concept that some consonants make more than one sound, you can let students know that vowels are the same way and teach the long and short sounds simultaneously. You can reinforce long and short vowel sounds throughout the year as you practice.

5. Teach Letter Sounds in Groups

Teaching just one letter sound at a time may make it harder for your students to remember them over time, and it’s a recipe for boredom. Instead, focus on two to three letters together so you students can practice differentiating between them. This is also a great way to sneak in some CVC words if you choose letters that work well together; for example, B, A and T will spell “bat” and “tab.”

6. Spiral Your Review

A spiral curriculum is one that doesn’t move through concepts in a straight line. Instead, it circles back to old material to combine it with new lessons for regular review. This help students make connections to new material and aids in memory and synthesis. When teaching letter sounds, frequent review of sounds you’ve already covered gives your students an opportunity to practice and to see how new sounds combine to make more words. For example, after teaching a letter grouping of D, I and G, you can spiral back with B, A and T for all sorts of new CVC words: “tag,” bag,” “dab” and “bit,” for example.

7. Save Blends and Digraphs for Last

In English, there are so many sounds! Keep things simple for your students by focusing on discrete, single letters first. Once they’ve mastered those letters and sound combinations, you can advance to consonant blends and digraphs. These are often harder for kids to hear, so you’ll want to make sure they have plenty of practice with single sounds under their belts before asking them to combine them.

When teaching letters and sounds, it’s a good idea to offer as many ways to practice as possible. Creating literacy centers with different activities will keep things fresh, and there are plenty of printables and worksheets to share with your students to keep them tuned up without getting bored of repeating the same exercise again and again. They’ll thank you for it!