How to Teach Kids to Read Words

Teaching Children to Read Step by Step

Learning to read begins with vowelsSurprisingly, learning to read begins soon after birth,  when an infant hears spoken language. The more language young children hear, the more the language part of the brain develops. Hearing a variety of words and language patterns, through conversation or by listening to and looking at picture books, promotes development in the “reading centers” of the brain.

Reading Readiness. Next, between the ages of two and four, children are introduced to the alphabet. The English alphabet is made up of 26 letters. Five letters are called vowels, a, e, i, o, and u. (Eventually they learn that w and y sometimes act like vowels.) The other 21 letters are referred to as consonants.

As an aside, for those who are interested, vowels are sounds made with unrestricted air flow through the mouth. Consonants, on the other hand, are sounds made with restricted air flow, usually by the closed lips or by the tongue against the teeth or upper palate. Interestingly, in other languages, even more complex sounds are created than English speakers are accustomed to making.    

Preschool children usually enjoy learning the alphabet because it involves fun activities like singing the ABC song, pointing to or touching the letters on cards or in games and toys, writing the letters in activity books or playing electronic alphabet games. By doing these activities they learn to recognize and write the 26 letters in the alphabet, in both upper and lower case.

learning the alphabet with refrigerator magnetsThe next step is a little more complex as it involves more parts of the brain working together, thus requiring little more maturation. Children have to make the leap to learn that each letter in the alphabet represents a different sound, and they have to learn to associate the shape of the letter with its name and the sound it makes. Because of the complexity, it’s easier for children to start by learning the consonant sounds.

They learn how to put a sound with a symbol, that is, they learn to associate the sound “bee” or “bu” with the letter “B.” They are learning how to read using a phonetic code. This is a simple and natural process for most children. According to Sally Shaywitz, M.D., “70 to 80 percent of American children learn how to transform printed symbols into phonetic code without difficulty” (Overcoming Dyslexia, p. 51).

After that, beginning readers are introduced to the five vowels. They begin with learning the sounds of the short vowels: “A” as in apple; “E” as in egg; “I” as in igloo; “O” as in octopus; and “U” as in umbrella. The Tiger Tuesday Reading Program simplifies this by providing a single picture to illustrate all five short vowel sounds. Children can point to the animals and items that represent the sounds as they sing, “Alligators, elephants, inchworms too, met otter uptown at the Tuesday Street Zoo.” to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Reading Begins. Beginning readers can now start reading! To make this as easy and as pleasant as possible, we’ve broken the process down into five steps or levels. While there’s no set time how long each level should take, once children master the reading on one level, they can proceed to the next level. And, once they master all five levels, they’ll be at a beginning fourth-grade reading level and will probably no longer need a structured reading program.

Picture of Tiger Tuesday Reading Program ModulesLevel 1 CVC Pattern. CVC words are likely the most satisfying way to start reading because they’re also the easiest words to learn. They consist of three letter words formed by putting a short vowel between two consonants. This is called the Consonant Vowel Consonant (CVC) Pattern. This is why the CVC pattern is the starting point, Funbook 1, in the Tiger Tuesday™ Reading Program.

Here are some examples of how this works: “h a t” in print is read aloud as “hat;” “g e t” in print is read aloud as “get;” “p i g” in print is read aloud as “pig;” “t o p” in print is read aloud as “top;” and “s u n” in print is read aloud as “sun.” Notice the CVC pattern. In each case, a vowel is sandwiched between two consonants.

At the same time, beginning readers are introduced to “sight words.” Sight words are important words that don’t follow the normal phonics rules. Sight words include such words as: the, and, they, do, what, there, of. Because they don’t follow the normal phonics rules, children have to memorize how to read and write these commonly used words.

Level 2 VCE Pattern. Next, children are taught that when you add the “magic-e” to the three letter words, it makes a different word. In each case, the additional final “e” turns the short vowel into a long vowel sound (a long vowel sounds like its letter-name) and the “e” is silent. This is called the Vowel-Consonant-E pattern (VCE). Here’s how it works: “cap” with a silent-e becomes cape; “pet” becomes Pete; “bit” becomes bite, “hop” becomes hope, and “cub” becomes cube, in the Go-Fish or other matching games used to provide reading practice in our VCE module, the children learn that matching-pairs include “hop” and “hope,” and “cub” and “cube,” as well as other common VCE pairs.

Level 3 Vowel Digraphs. As we continue to teach children how to read long vowels, reading becomes a smidge more challenging because there are numerous ways to express long vowel sounds. So, after mastering the VCE Rule, we introduce Vowel Digraphs. Vowel Digraphs are formed by writing two vowels next to each other. The child learns to read the first vowel as a long vowel and the second one is silent. A cute jingle that we recommend helps children remember this pattern: “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” Here are some examples: rain, meal, oat, blue, toe.

Level 4 R-Controlled Vowels. Teaching the R-Controlled Vowel follows. It’s an important rule because of the large number of words that follow this rule. This rule explains that if there is an “R” after a vowel, the vowel is no longer short nor long, but has a new sound. Here are some examples: “ar” makes the sound heard in car, park, smart; “er” makes the sound heard in her, paper, flower; “ir” makes the sound heard in bird, chirp, girl; “or” makes the sound used in corn, thorn, fort; and “ur” makes the sound heard in fur, burn, turn.

Level 5 Diphthongs. Upon completing level 4, young readers are now ready to tackle diphthongs. Diphthongs are another way that vowels can be combined to make different sounds. Diphthongs are usually two vowels and blend together to form a new single vowel sound. (Sometimes W and Y act like vowels.) In addition, some of the fancier diphthongs have more than two letters, some of which are consonants. As a group, these will also produce a vowel sound. Examples that follow will make this easier to understand.

Here are some examples: “oi” makes the sound heard in oil and coin; “oy” makes the sound heard in toy and boy; “ou” makes the sound heard in found and about; “igh” makes the “vowel” sound heard in night and bright; “eigh” makes the “vowel” sound heard in eight and freight.

How to Teach Kids to Learn to Read?

Kids-Cheering-2Teach them how to decode words using phonics.

As mentioned above, during the time children are learning how to decode words using phonics rules, they’re learning more and more sight words. Most children learn to read during first grade. Some begin as early as four because they pick up the code on their own and have strong language memories. Others don’t begin reading fluently until second or third grade. Children who still struggle with reading beyond the third grade need an intervention that will help them become readers without triggering the emotional component which invariably impedes reading success.

A common sentence that summarizes the reading process is:

Children spend first, second and third grades learning how to read,
and from then on, they spend their time reading to learn.

Do you have a question about how to teach kids to learn to read?
Email Dr. Linda Silbert (Linda @

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