Phonics help for young or struggling readers

You’re into your first or maybe even second week of teaching your child at home due to COVID-19 lockdown. Great job!!! I’m proud of you! You’re figuring it all out! Now after a day or two, you’re realizing your child doesn’t know the letter sounds or possibly is struggling with sounding out unfamiliar words. This is where phonics instruction comes into play.

What is phonics, and why should children learn phonics? Phonics is defined as a method of teaching reading and spelling based upon the phonetic interpretation of ordinary spelling (thank you, Alexa!). Phonics allows children to decode, or sound out, words, and that decoding ability is a crucial element in reading success. It is important for children to be able to sound out words when reading so that they can, in turn, improve reading fluency and reading comprehension. In December, I was trained to teach phonics using the Orton Gillingham method, and I found so much of what I learned in that week long training useful for my second grade students! I highly recommend looking at videos on YouTube about the Orton Gillingham phonics method. To get started immediately (as in tomorrow) with this though, you need to plan to spend a little time each day teaching your young child or struggling reader to blend sounds into nonsense words (which later helps your child learn to decode real words in texts being read).

First, you’re going to want to make a deck of letter cards if you don’t have a pack of alphabet flashcards already. You can do this by simply using index cards (or pieces of paper the size of index cards) and writing one letter on each one. If you have different colors of index cards, use one color for vowels and another color for consonants. You can get fancy with it and make a blending board out of wood or out of foam board or even out of a three ring binder, but you can honestly just set the cards in three piles on the tabletop for this. It’s really your preference. If you want to purchase a premade deck, I found an Orton Gillingham one on TeachersPayTeachers for $8.50. Here is a free digital card pack of Orton Gillingham cards for levels 1 and 2 that you can download and print to get started.

Second, go through each card individually and see which letter sounds your child already knows. Make yourself a little cheat sheet with the alphabet written on it, and just put a checkmark or highlight in green the letter sounds your child consistently knows so you know. You still need to use those letters your child knows, but this will tell you how your child is progressing with learning phonics. Here’s one I found for free on TeachersPayTeachers.

Third, you’re going to have your child sound out what we call nonsense words using the letter cards. You will use three piles of cards – consonants, vowels (always in the middle right now), and more consonants. Here is an excellent video showing this. That video also shows the alphabet cards and a wooden blending board at the very beginning of it if you’re looking to see what that actually is.

Each phonics lesson with the blending board will last approximately five to ten minutes (per day). This helps your child learn to blend sounds together to read unfamiliar words. The faster your child can blend sounds together and read unfamiliar words, the better your child’s reading fluency (words read per minute) will be. The better your child’s fluency is, the better your child’s reading comprehension will be once your child is in third – fifth grade (because if it takes you five minutes to read one paragraph, you’re not going to remember what you read in the first sentence!).

Here is a video showing how to do this lesson with a child and about halfway through, she uses the silent e (or magic e) at the end to show how to read words with the long vowel sound (such as came instead of cam, same instead of sam, etc.).

If you, like me, want to be explicitly taught the exact sounds for each letter before trying it with your child, check out this video. It teaches the sound for each individual letter as well as blends, doubled vowels, vowel combinations, etc. If you look at the YouTube listing for this video, this is from a company that has phonics apps as well; some are free and some charge. You may want to download the free ones to see if your child likes them; every little bit of reinforcement will help your child become a better reader.

Last, little kids love to move around while learning. Another part of your phonics lesson can be watching a Jack Hartman phonics song video and singing along to warm up your child’s brain for the blending activity you’re about to do. These are free on YouTube, and his songs are used quite often in elementary schools all over the United States. I recommend starting with this one daily for the first week or two if your child doesn’t know all of the letter sounds when you do your initial phonics assessment.

Remember to make this fun for your child. This is hard for all of the kids, too. They feel your stress even if you aren’t talking about it. Don’t make teaching phonics something else that you stress about every day. Instead, make this a fun few minutes to sit down with your child and work on reading together.

As always, remember to also read, read, and read more TO your child every single day!

One thought on “Phonics help for young or struggling readers

  1. Great to see so many teachers and parents embracing home learning! I teach in Hong Kong and we are 8 weeks into it at the moment! Crazy times! If any use i got a list of all the educational companies offering free subs and resources to help over on my site. I would recommend Go Noodle just for a break from classwork and to get the kids moving 🙂


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