Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog

4 Reading Strategies for When "Sound It Out" Isn't Enough

 By Beth Richards, Literacy Interventionist, Reading Recovery Teacher, Guest Blogger

As a literacy interventionist, the phrase “sound it out” is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Although it is often used with good intentions from well-meaning teachers or parents trying to support their early readers, it implies several things about reading that are not true: that how a word looks is the only (or most important) source of information to use when reading, and that solving words using visual information is as easy as making a sound for each letter. In this post, I’ll teach how to support young readers as they try to make sense of the visual code.

Since reading is a message-getting, problem-solving activity (Clay 2016, 5), a child learning to read learns to use many sources. 

  • They keep meaning at the forefront by looking at the pictures, thinking about their personal experiences, and activating their background knowledge around a topic or theme.

  • They use their understanding of our language, anticipating what types of words could come next, and thinking of how stories work.

  • Finally, they look to the print on the page and try to determine unknown words. This can be an overwhelming task for a young reader as they start to become aware of the nuances in the English language. 

4 Strategies for Improving How Readers Scaffold Visual Information: Here are some ways you can teach readers to scaffold visual information that will help them notice and use patterns in words. 

1.  Working with CVC Words  

For help with the sound of a regular CVC word (like sun or had), encourage the child to say it slowly and think about what would make sense. Here is an example from my own experience working with a student named Sam. When Sam came to the word 'had', he predicted the word 'laid', but then noticed it didn’t look right. He reread the sentence and stopped at the word 'had.' I prompted him to reread, think what else might make sense, and say the tricky word slowly. He then articulated the h, then the a, and was able to quickly say 'had.'  Rereading and saying the word slowly helped him integrate the visual information with meaning. 


  • Do NOT allow the child to say it letter by letter in a choppy fashion; it should be smooth and not splitting every sound.
  • Teach them to keep one sound going with their mouth until they switch to the next sound.
  • They need to be blending those sounds together with their voice in a smooth way to help the ear.
  • Hearing each sound in a short, staccato blip makes it nearly impossible for the young ear to blend into a word. 


    2.  Reading Compound Words

                                                                                                          For a compound word or a word with two known parts (into, cannot, looking), ask the child to look for a part they know; once they locate it, have them say the first part, then the next part. If they do not notice it is two known words, use your finger to mask the end and reveal the first known part to the child, and then slide your finger over to reveal the second known part. 






        3. Teaching Words with Vowel Pairs       
        For a word with a vowel pair unknown to the child, or an irregular spelling pattern (in words like tough, bear, or bought), you will need to provide the child with the information since it’s unknown. Say, “Find the part that says _____and use it to help yourself."  For example, if the child came to the word bought, you would expect them to at least articulate the b. When they stop, you would say, “Find the part that says ought (use the sound, not the letters) and use it to help yourself.”   The child is then responsible for looking for that part and blending it back with the t to solve the word. 
        4.  Working with Other Complex Words
                                                                                                        For a word that has a part from another known word (such as silly, which has the -ill part known from the word will), encourage the child to look for a part they know. Once they find it, prompt them to use that part to help solve the word. If they can’t locate the part, but you know they already know the helper word (like will), you can prompt, “Find the part you know from will and use it to help yourself.” 


        You will notice that all of these strategies still require the child to be doing some work: noticing, locating, articulating, blending, and checking on their attempt. Scaffold as needed until the child develops more of an awareness of patterns and parts in our orthography. Would a child know how to read a word like "bought" if you didn't supply them with the unknown bit? They would never expect that combination of letters to make those sounds, making it impossible to “sound out.”

        Research by Elizabeth Kaye (2006) demonstrated that proficient readers use many different ways of taking words apart and do not limit themselves to one way of solving words. They do not sound out words letter by letter but instead, look for useful parts or chunks. With scaffolds like those above, your little readers will learn to become flexible with how they solve words instead of relying only on the “sound it out” strategy. That flexibility will help them become efficient readers, being able to take words apart in a continuous text quickly. 


        Beth has been teaching for seventeen years. She has taught kindergarten, third, and fourth grades in Wisconsin. For the last six years, she has been a literacy interventionist and Reading Recovery teacher and loves spending her days helping her students develop and share her love of reading.