Phonics for Kids: Sounding It Out

What Is Phonics?

Decoding Words With Phonics

When kids figure out a word by sounding out b-a-t, they are using phonics. Sounding out words is also referred to as decoding. In order to decode words, kids need to know what sounds are made by letters and letter combinations. The relationship between sounds and their spellings is called phonics.

What Kids Need to Learn

By the end of first grade, children should have the following skills:

  • recognize all letters of the alphabet and know the sounds they make
  • understand how changing a letter in a word changes the sound and meaning (bat becomes cat)
  • sound out letter blends (th, st, cl, and so on)
  • read simple words with short and long vowels: bean, alone, teacher

Putting It In Context

It is important to understand that sounding out words on a page is just one part of learning to read. Phonics learning should be combined with phonemic awareness (manipulating spoken sounds), reading comprehension, and reading fluency skills to help kids become strong readers.

In kindergarten, kids spend a lot of time doing word play with spoken words (phonemic awareness). They work with rhyming and changing a letter to make a new word (cat to rat), and learn to make a simple word when given individual sounds (you sound out k-a-t and your child says cat). They also learn the sounds made by each letter of the alphabet.

In first grade, the focus shifts to decoding words on a page. Many of the same skills that were learned in kinder with spoken words are now applied to written words. Rhyming skills, for example, become very helpful when kids are learning word families such as bake, cake, and take.

Kids will learn rules for identifying short or long vowel sounds (kit vs. kite), and letter blends (sh, th, ea, oi and so on). They should be able to sound out one syllable words with either long or short vowels by the end of the year.

Why It Is Important

Without phonics skills, kids will not be able to figure out new words on their own.

Children use many different clues to read the words in a book. They look at pictures, memorize words, and guess words based on rhyming or story structure. But without phonics skills, they will not be able to figure out new words on their own.

Kids who are able to decode can break a word into small parts and figure out what it sounds like. Most kids benefit from an explicit and organized program of phonics teaching.

Challenges Kids Might Face

  • When decoding every word, reading is so slow that by the end of the sentence she has forgotten what she read.
  • Mom Helps Boy With Phonics Reading
  • Gets stuck on words when reading; can't figure them out.
  • Telling him to sound it out only makes him more frustrated.
  • Reads the first letter or two and guesses the word.
  • Mixes up long and short vowels.
  • Knows rules or letter sounds on their own, but doesn't recognize them in words.

How to Help Kids Who Are Struggling

  • Long vowels can be tricky to learn. With words like home, bake, or time, tell kids that if there is a silent 'e' on the end, the vowel says its name.
  • With words such as team, rain, or loan, tell kids that the first vowel says its name.
  • Phonics Alphabet Letters
  • Give clues when your child is sounding out a word, to help her get unstuck. That's a short vowel, or What sound does s-h make?
  • If a child is reading very slowly, repeat short phrases he has just read to help him keep the flow.
  • Notice words in your home that your child can read. Point these out and read them together.
  • If a story is difficult, take turns reading sentences so she gets a little break and the story keeps moving. Or, comment on what your child just read or on the picture. This will help with comprehension, give short breaks, and keep things interesting.

Kids need a lot of practice decoding words before they are able to read fluently. A good phonics program can make a huge difference in helping kids read, especially for those who are struggling with a whole-language reading program. You can read inspiring, real-life stories of kids who made dramatic improvements in reading with phonics games at

IMPORTANT: Make sure your child has solid phonemic awareness skills before diving into phonics learning. Kids need the ability to manipulate verbal sounds before they are ready to apply that knowledge to written words. Phonemic awareness games area a good way to strengthen skills that kids will need for phonics learning.

You can make decoding fun with phonics activities and games, by reading favorite first grade books out loud, and by just being your encouraging and supportive self.


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“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself. ”
~John Dewey