How to Teach Sounding Out CVC Words: 3 Key Steps

Text says: How to Teach Sounding Out Words: 3 Key Steps. Photo shows a decodable version of the Three Little Pigs.

As a reading specialist, I’m often asked how to teach sounding out CVC words in kindergarten. 

Many students pick up this skill seemingly effortlessly. It’s truly a wonder to behold! One day they are learning letters, then all of a sudden they are reading simple texts, using what they’ve learned about letters to solve words.

It's easy to teach sounding out CVC words, like the words in this photo of a decodable text.

But some kids need more intentional support in sounding out words. I’ll share some of my favorite techniques in this post.

But first, let’s address a few key ideas.

What is “sounding out words?”

When readers “sound out words” they say the sounds that the letters/letter combinations represent, then blend those sound together. 

As an example, when you see the word “mug,” to sound out the word you would say the following sounds, then blend them together: /m/ /u/ g/.

Sometimes teachers cringe at the idea of “sounding out words” because they’ve heard too many kids take it literally. For instance, they come to the word “this” and say /t/ /h/ /i/ /s/. They get stuck on the idea that the number of letters and sounds in a word match. Sadly for them, English doesn’t work like that.

That’s why it’s important to help kids understand hat readers need to sound out both letters and common letter combinations (such as th-, sh-, -ing, -er, oy, etc.)

When readers sound out words using letters and letter combinations, they can solve (or decode) a great number of English words.

What are CVC words?

CVC word are words that contain a consonant, vowel, then a final consonant. The vowels are a, e, i, o, and u. The consonants are the remaining letters. In CVC words, the vowels typically make the “short vowel” sound.

The short vowel sounds are the sounds in apple (short a), itch (short i), echo (short e), octopus (short o) and up (short u).

If your student only knows 1-2 short vowel sounds, that’s fine. Just provide words that include those known sounds.

Why can’t a child sound out words?

Although sounding out words is a basic reading skill, it is actually more complex than it seems at first glance. In order to sound out words when reading, a child needs to have certain phonemic awareness skills in place (see below), as well as know the common sounds of the letters in the word.

Even with all of that foundational skill knowledge, English is still tricky. Many common words in English are tricky to sound out (ex: the, said, of, you…)

Many other words require students to recognize more complex spelling patterns (such as th-, sh-, -ing, -er, oy, etc.) in order to sound out the word.

Finally, the entire process of sounding out words requires juggling a lot of information at once (letter sounds, blending the sounds, checking that it sounds like a familiar word, not to mention attending a bit to the story plot.)

If sounding out words is tricky for a child you are teaching, keep reading. I will show you how to teach sounding out cvc words later, and what to do when it’s hard.

How do you teach sounding out CVC words?

First, decide if your student has the key skills to successfully sound out words. Do they know most letters sounds, including a few short vowel sounds?

Second, it’s easiest if the child is able to blend sounds into words (a phonemic awareness skill.) Confused? If a grown-up says the sounds /f/ /a/ /t/ (with a tiny break between each sound), can the child tell you that it’s the word “fat?”

If blending sounds is tricky (which initially it is for many kids), read the tips below.

On to the process of how to teach sounding out cvc words…

Write a short vowel word (such as “mat”) on a white board. Slide your finger under the word to demonstrate how you say the sound that matches each letter (/m/ /a/ /t/). First leave a small break between each sound, to focus on the sounds matching the letters.

Then say the sounds again, a bit more smoothly, with almost no break between. (I tell kids to “make the sounds touch.”) Finally, say the entire word.

Use the same word and have the students repeat the process with you (saying each sound, making the sounds touch and saying the word.)

Practice with another word. For beginners, stick with words that have the same vowel sound (so in my example, words that have the short a sound.) 

Photo shows a list of short vowel words for students to read.

Keep it simple – at first

To keep it even easier, simply change the beginning letter, keeping the last two letters the same. (So in my example, after reading “mat,” change the word to “sat,” “hat,” and “fat.”)

Continue practicing this for several days until it becomes easier for students. As they become more efficient with one vowel, switch to a new vowel sound (ex: words with short o).

When students can read words with two different sounds, start mixing them. (For instance, use the following sequence: cat, cot, not, hot, hat, ham, Sam, dog, fog, etc.)

What should I do if sounding out words in kindergarten is hard?

First, don’t panic. Remember that sounding out words (and even orally blending words) is complex at first and that kindergarteners are young.

Next, go back and work on some of the skills that come before sounding out words. Keep working on letter names, especially short vowels (they are just so tricky!)

Next work on phonemic awareness skills, especially blending sounds.

Blending phonemes

When you stop to think about it, it’s kind of obvious that if it’s tricky to figure out a word when a grown-up says the sounds, then sounding out words independently will be tricky. So this is a great skill to solidify a bit.

My favorite way to practice blending is to turn it into a game. Tell the students you are going to say a word in a funny way and they have to blend the sounds together to figure out what the word is. Then demonstrate it before expecting them to do it.

(NOTE: words with 2 sounds are easiest, followed by 3 then 4 sounds.)

Sometimes the task is easier if you keep your mystery words in a theme, such as:

  • animals: cat, dog, fish, pig, fox, bat, duck, rat, gnat, pet, hog, chick, frog, cub, pup, moose, sheep
  • colors: red, blue, black, green
  • people: dad, mom, man, kid, boy
  • feelings: sad, mad, glad
  • food: jam, ham, pop, milk, bread, cheese, cake, juice
  • body parts: chin, hair, leg, lip, toe, knee, neck, hip, shin

If this is still tricky for your students, make it easier by breaking the word into two parts and having the students put those words together.

For instance: c-at, d-uck, fr-og. When this becomes easy, you can go back to breaking words into individual sounds.

Continuous blending

If a child is easily able to blend sounds when a grown-up says them, but still struggles to sound out words in writing, try continuous blending.

Continuous blending is when you say the sounds without a space/break in between. To do this, usually you stretch out the vowel sound: m-aaaa-t (mat.)

For many students, simply stretching out the vowel sound and making the sounds “touch” does the trick.

But sometimes you need to be even more intentional in the words you choose. The very easiest words for kids who struggle are those containing consonants (non-vowels) that can also be stretched out. Some of these include: m, s, r, f, h, l, z, n.

It’s especially important that these continuous sounds be at the beginning of the word. The easiest words for continuous blending would include words like:

  • Sam
  • man
  • ran
  • fan
  • fin
  • run
  • fun
  • ham
  • him
  • zip

Cumulative blending

An alternative to continuous blending is cumulative blending. In this technique, the readers blends the first two sounds, then adds the next. For instance: m-, ma-, mat.

This reduces the cognitive load (there’s less information to remember all at once.)

To encourage cumulative blending, it’s often helpful to write the word, then hold a card over the word, showing just the first letter. 

Photo that shows cumulative blending, showing only the letter "p" in "puff."
Photo that shows cumulative blending, showing only the letters "pu" in "puff."
Photo that shows cumulative blending, showing all the letters in "puff."

After the reader says the first sound, slide the card over to show the second sound. Have the reader blend both of those sounds together before revealing the third sound.

How do you sound out longer words?

This is where English gets tricky. Kids need to make the leap to see that sometimes two (or more) letters work together to make one sound. This is a big leap for some kids, after sounding out three-letter words. 

So how do you support the child?

First, always insist they look from left to right across the word. This is non-negotiable.

As they looking across the word, encourage them to find groups of letters that go together. For instance, when reading “this,” the readers needs to put the letters “th” together in order to sound out the word (/th/ /i/ /s/.)

Break it up

As words become increasing longer, breaking the word into parts is critical. Each part needs to be treated like a mini-word; sound out and blend that part, then move on to the next and add that new part to the first part. Here are some examples:

  • shopping: sh-opp-ing
  • habitat: hab-i-tat
  • treetop: tr-ee-top
  • calendar: cal-en-dar

There are more complex word patterns to think about in longer words, but I’m not going to go into that in this post. 

However, teaching students to break words into parts is powerful. If they don’t quite solve the word after breaking it, have them think about what word sounds kind of like that and makes sense in the story.

For instance, if a child is reading a book about basketball and reads the words “practice” as “pract-ice” (like ice cube), ask them what sounds kind of like that and makes sense in this story about basketball.

When reading in English, flexibility is critical, because of how complex our language is. Most spelling patterns have a reason, but it can take years and years to learn all those complex patterns. Flexible word solving allows a child to successfully read books in the meantime.

As you are helping kids who are sounding out words in kindergarten, just remember that sounding out simple words in a small part in a complex process of reading.

If it’s hard, back up to solidify a simpler skill (like letter names or phoneme blending), then try again a few weeks later. 

Most importantly, keep the tasks simple enough that the child feels successful. A sense of frustration may cause the child to shut down, which can impact later reading achievement. Success breeds success!

Knowing how to teach sounding out CVC words helps teachers be strong reading teachers. This basic skill is one key foundation to building successful readers.

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