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Lisa Gibbs - Tutor

Reading and Writing for Kindergarten through 4th Grade.



"Sound it out!" "Sound it out!"

Posted on January 27, 2016 at 3:50 PM

How many times have I asked a child who had come to an unknown word what he or she could do to figure it out, only to hear these words – “I could sound it out.” How many times have I seen a child struggling unsuccessfully to “sound out” an unknown word?

Why is “sounding it out” the one strategy that many struggling readers turn to when they don’t know a word? It’s often the only strategy many of these children realize they can use.

Years ago, a Pakistani student in my first grade classroom brought in some money from her home country. There was writing on it in Urdu, a language that uses an alphabet different from the one we use in English. The other children in the class asked me to read the words on the money. When I said I couldn’t because it wasn’t written in English, they told me to “sound it out!”

Well, what’s so wrong with the strategy of “sounding it out” anyway? I mean, isn’t that how we all learned to read?

Truthfully, people learn to read in many different ways. But we all employ three types of strategies, to different degrees and in different situations. One of those three strategies is the use of Visual information, which focus on the letters and sounds used in the words we read. Good readers also use Meaning strategies, which draw on the context of the text to inform our ability to figure out a word, and Structural strategies, which employ our knowledge of language structure (grammar, syntax, and usage) to understand how the words work within a sentence. Good readers don’t employ any one strategy alone, but rather use two or all three of these types of strategies in concert. They triangulate between what the word looks like, what it might mean, and how it sounds in the sentence to decipher the text they read.

English is a complicated language when it comes to learning how to read and write. It isn’t a completely phonetic language, because many English words are derived from a variety of different languages. As a result, English phonics can be tricky. The same sounds can be pronounced in a variety of ways in different words. And even some very short, common words cannot be “sounded out” at all – try “sounding out” the words “laugh” or “could”. I’ve heard kids get into all kinds of difficulties when they try to use only the strategy of “sounding out” a word.

“Sounding it out” is a Visual strategy. But it can be a limited one for words that are longer than a single syllable. And even with very phonetic, short words, there are Visual strategies other than “sound it out” that are easier and faster and, more importantly, promote better comprehension.

After all, comprehension is the name of the game. We don’t want children to just be reading words. We want them to be reading ideas. When a child stops to laboriously sound out a word, comprehension tends to go out the window because the child is far too busy working only on separate, unconnected sounds.

Well, if we don’t want children to rely solely on sounding out words, what DO we want them to do when they come to an unfamiliar word? Ah, that is the question! There are many strategies a child can use to help figure out an unfamiliar word. Some are Visual strategies, like “think of a word LIKE that!” In other words, a child who knows the word “take” can use it to figure out “make” or even “shake”. Later, when a child has figured out how to segment words, that same spelling pattern could be used to figure out words like “forsake” or even “forsaken”.

“Think of a word LIKE that” is a Visual strategy. But there are Meaning and Structural strategies I teach as well. A Meaning strategy might be as simple as “check the picture” for a child who is just beginning to read. But all children should be thinking about “What would make sense here?” And children can think more about Structure by asking themselves “What would sound right here?”

In short, there are many, many different reading strategies that go far beyond “sound it out”. And using multiple strategies helps the reader check what he or she is reading to see it is correct. Furthermore, it helps the child understand the text far better.

Children really do want strategies to help them when they have encounter a difficulty in reading. That’s why they cling to “sound it out” so fiercely. But they need strategies to help them read more than just one word. They need to be able to read the entire book. More than that, they need to be able to read lots and lots of books.


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