Learning to Read5 min read

How do you learn to read? 

When I asked my small group of first grade students, “How do you learn to read?” Olivia was the first to answer, “You have to sound it out.”

Then Ella answered, “First, they have to look at sight words.  That’s the first thing.” She turned to include Olivia, “And they have to sound it out, that’s important.”

Olivia agreed, “They need to practice their sight words.” 

Both sounding out words and memorizing words in order to recognize them by sight are part of graphophonics: the shape of the letter or letter combinations combined with the sound. 

Frank added his answer, “By getting a #1 book, that’s how you learn to read.”

The vocabulary in books at your child’s reading level will have the right amount of new words to learn and the right level of sentence complexity. Predicting what will come next in the sentence is something your child does without even realizing it. If your child can’t figure out an unknown word after he’s tried sounding it out, you can tell him, “Read to the end of the sentence and then come back and read it again.” Picture clues can help too. 

Ella commented, “I used to not like to read, but then I wanted to know the end.” Children read for meaning using all three of these strategies as they work together: letter-sounds, word meaning, and sentence structure. 

Phonics Patterns

In the early grades, reading, writing and spelling work together hand in hand. First, children learn the alphabet sounds and blend them together to make 3 letter words like cat and dog. Then they learn combinations of letters that have their own sounds. These phonics patterns help young readers break the secret code of reading and are also needed for their writing. Remembering them for spelling usually takes longer.

 “Touch Spell” Reading

I was curious what second grader Zach would say when I asked him to finish this sentence: “While I’m reading, if I get stuck on a word, I can…”

Zach answered, “Keep reading. Most of the time I can figure out what the word is. Sometimes I ‘touch spell.’ You just sound out the word and use your fingers. You look at the word and you hold up one finger at a time for each sound.” I asked Adam to show me. I chose a couple of challenging words. He recognized “special” and figured out “forward” without using fingers. Then I gave him an unknown word, “Timbuktu,” and he used touch spell, proud that I had to give him a really hard unknown word for him to need to use “touch spell.” Zach was very smart, dyslexic, and had come a long way in reading. His writing was more of a challenge for him, so we focused on that most. 

Letter Combinations

Phonics skills go beyond learning the letters and sounds of the alphabet. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, but 44 phonemes, the individual sounds in words when they are heard. These 18 extra phonemes include “blend friends,” like the “ch” in cheese, long vowels that say their own name, like the “ai” in rain, and special vowels that have their own sound, like the “oo” in zoo and “ou” in ouch. On top of all that, there are different spellings for the same long vowel sound. For example, day, rain, and name all have the “long a” sound. Sounds overwhelming? This is one of the reasons why it takes four years from Kindergarten through third grade to learn to read. You can help your child at home by knowing some basic phonics patterns, rules, and exceptions to the rules. Engaging games and activities will help your child remember these patterns and rules. 

Fun with Words & Phonics

Short Vowels

The vowels, a e i o and u, have two sounds: the short sound is the one learned first, along with the alphabet.

Children learn to sound out three letter words with short vowels first, like cat, pig, hop, pet, fun. Then they learn short vowel words with “blend friends,” like when. 

2 Long Vowel Rules

The long vowel sound is the name of the letter, like the “a” in  “bake” and the “o” “boat.” There are two rules that help with the long vowels. The first one is for short words or syllables that have a silent e at the end of the word. I call this the “magic” or “bossy” e, which tells the vowel in front of it to say its own name.


The second long vowel rule is  “two vowels go a-walking, and the first one does the talking, and it says its own name,” like the “ai” in rain. 


“Sight Words”

 It can easily take 40 times of seeing a word for a child to recognize it automatically. The first 100 words most frequently used make up 50% of everything we read and are often not spelled as they sound, words like “of, the, saw,” for example. These first 100 high frequency words are mostly memorized by the end of First Grade. 

The words your child often misspells can also be written on index cards  for using as flash cards or for reference. By second grade, the correct spelling of these first 100 words is hoped for, if not expected. By the end of second grade, the second 100 high frequency words are usually learned as well. Word BINGO and word concentration games are described below to help practice these sight words and other words your child is learning (“Games Make Learning Phonics & Sight Words Fun”). Here are the First 100 high frequency words and other high frequency word lists are available on line. 

The First 100 High Frequency Words


Phonics Assessments You Can Do

If you want to know more specifically which phonics patterns your child knows, which ones he’s still learning and what he’s ready for next, you can use the free CORE phonics survey, available online. When I do this assessment with a student and he misreads a word, I always write what he said above the correct word. His misreads give me a sense of what kind of error he’s making and what he needs to learn. For example, if he says “tap” for “tape,” I know that he has yet to learn or needs more practice with the magic, “bossy e” rule words. I always acknowledge my young readers for all that they’ve learned so far and let them know that the words in this assessment go up to and beyond third grade. 

1 comments On Learning to Read

  • Dear Leslie
    This is truly one of the best web sites I have ever visited. I am not done looking and enjoying all you have given but I just needed to stop for a moment and say THANK YOU.

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