What Does the Research Say About Teaching Phonics?
Research indicates the importance of teaching children phonics as a preliminary step for learning to read. Phonics is the relationship between letters and sounds as well as the understanding of how those sounds connect to form words. Research also suggests that systematic instruction which incorporates word play (manipulating letters/sounds in words to change the word), writing words, and using manipulatives such as magnetic letters to create words are all effective strategies for teaching phonics.
Additional research demonstrates the benefits of applying a multi-sensory approach to phonics instruction. A multi-sensory approach incorporates sight, sound, touch, and movement into instruction. This helps address a variety of learning modalities, enabling students to better absorb the information.
Ten Fun Research-Based Phonics Activities to Teacher Letter-Sounds
1. Play the game “I Spy”
In the game “I spy” you pick something that you see and don’t tell the child what it is. The child has to guess what you see.
Here is how you can use “I Spy” to teach letter sounds (phonics):
Let’s say you see a book in the room: You can say: I spy something that starts with the letter B or I spy something that ends with the letter K. After your child guesses what “you spy” have them tell you the sound the letter makes. If your child cannot guess what “you spy” or does not know the letter sound, provide them with assistance.
You can also do the same thing using letter sounds. For example, if you see a book, you can say “I spy something that starts with (make the sound for b)” or “I spy something that ends with (make the sound for k). After your child finds the object, have them tell you what the first letter (or last letter) of the object is. Take turns with your child. First you spy, then they spy, or vice versa.
2. Put letters on flashcards and for a fun activity.
Put one letter on each card as shown below (create upper case and lower case cards):
Here is a sample activity:
Pick three to four letter words and scramble them up. For example, if the word is pig, put the letters out-of-order (e.g., ipg) on the table in front of your child. Put the letters one to two feet in front of your child so she has room to work. Next, give them a sheet of paper with three (or four) spaces for letters on it, like so ___ ___ ___. Then tell them the word or show a picture of the word and give the instruction (e.g., “I want you to make the word pig on the lines below, using the letters above).
You can do word families to help your child understand that many words are spelled the same way, with only the first letter different. So after pig, try big, wig, and rig. Rhyming practice is another helpful strategy when teaching kids about letter sounds.
3. Play letter-sound Go Fish.
Make doubles of flash cards. Each player gets five cards and the rest of the cards go in a pile in the center of the table. Player 1 calls out a letter-sound and asks if player 2 has a match. If they don’t have a match, tell them to “go fish” which means to choose from the pile. See more detailed rules for how to play Go Fish here.
4. Make your own phonics Bingo game.
While the grid above has 25 boxes, you can play phonics Bingo with 9 or 16 boxes also.
Here are four options for getting pictures into the boxes:
Option 1 – Draw something simple in each box. Examples of simple drawings for each letter of the alphabet include an apple, a banana, a comb, a door, an egg, a feather, a girl, a hat, an ice-cube, a jar, a kite, a light bulb, a mitten, a nose, an orange, a pan, a queen, a ring, a spoon, a table, an umbrella, a vase, a worm, a xylophone (that one might not be so easy to draw), and a zipper. Use colors to make it look fun.
Option 2 – Get images from Google Images, print them, cut them out and glue them in the boxes.
Option 3 – Go to Google Images, copy each image by hitting “control c’ or by right-clicking on the image and selecting copy, then paste each picture into each grid box by right-clicking in the grid and clicking paste or by hitting “control v.”
Option 4 – Find and print out ready made Bingo grids by doing a search for Kids Bingo Grids
You can play the Bingo game four ways:
1 – Call out a letter sound. If your child has a picture on her Bingo card that starts with that letter sound, have her put a coin, checker piece, or small piece of paper over the picture (you can cut index cards into small pieces. This will work better than regular paper because the pieces will be heavier and stay on the Bingo card better).
2 – Call out a letter. If your child has a picture on her Bingo card that starts with that letter, have her cover the picture.
3 – Call out a letter sound. If your child has a picture that ends with that letter sound, have her cover the picture.
4 – Call out a letter. If your child has a picture that ends with that letter, have her cover the picture.
When your child fills up a row, up, down, or diagonally, she gets Bingo (she wins).
5. Make flash cards with a picture on one side and the letter the picture starts with (or ends with) on the other side
You can draw the pictures yourself or make flash cards using pictures from Google Images.
To make a flash card from Google Images, go to the Image, copy it, “right-click” on it and click copy or hit “control c.” Then go to a word document and paste (right-click and click paste or “hit control v.”). Then print out the pages, cut out the picture, and write the corresponding letter on the back. If you know how to insert tables, you can put several pictures on the page in table boxes, print the page, cut out all the pictures and put the letters on the back. Here is an example:
Click here to print out a larger version of the flash card sample above. Show your child a picture and ask them to tell you the letter (or letter sound) it starts with (or ends with). If they are correct, let them know and show them the back of the card. If they are not correct, give her two more tries. If she does not get the letter or sound, show her the back of the card and tell her the letter and sound (then enunciate the sound as you say the word), have them say the letter/sound back to you twice, and shuffle the card back in the pile. Repeat.
6. For children who have a lot of energy, turn a phonics lesson into a movement activity.
Tape four letters onto the wall as shown in the image below:
Call out a letter sound and tell your child to run to the letter that makes that sound, touch it and run back. Spice it up. Here are some examples:
-Hop to the letter that makes the sound
-Skip to the letter that makes the sound
-Tip Toe to the letter that makes the sound
7. For another movement activity, put tape on the floor, with a letter on each piece of tape.
Tell your child to start with their feet on a certain letter (e.g., start on letter A), then tell them to jump to different letters, using the letter sounds. For example, “Jump to the letter that makes the sound (insert letter sound).”
See an example below:
As your child becomes more independent with his letter sounds, you can make the letters spell actual words. For the word cat, have three pieces of tape, C, A, T. Tell your child to start at the C, then jump to the next letter in Cat, and then the last letter. To make it more challenging, have your child spell the word backwards, by starting with the last letter and jumping in order until they get to the first letter.
Mix up the game with upper and lower case letters. The example above has three letters, but you can use as many pieces of tape and letters as you want. Start out with a few and add more if your child is making good progress.
8. Make a work sheet, using words and pictures with your child’s favorite characters, foods, animals, etc.
You can draw the worksheets by hand or use tables in Microsoft Word. For a three-letter word, make a table with five columns and one row. Put the picture of the word in the first box of the table (you can draw in the pictures or copy and paste them from Google Images). Put the letters in the other boxes, but leave one letter out. Have your child fill in the missing letter. Here is an example of the worksheet:
For children who may have trouble solving this work sheet, try providing them with a letter bank to see if that helps. See an example of a worksheet with a letter bank below.
9. Have your child paste letters on paper as you call out the sounds
You can use the letter flash cards you made, like in number 2.
You can use this activity to teach your child how to spell words. Draw lines or boxes on the paper like so your child knows where to paste the letters. You can give your child the exact number of letters in the word, or throw in some extra letters to make it more challenging.
Call out the first sound in the word, have your child pick the correct letter and paste it on the first line. Then have her do the next sound, and so on, until the word is complete. Supervise the activity, providing assistance as needed. When your child is done, hang up their work to show her that you are proud of her effort.
You can also use this idea to teach a child how to spell their name. Check out this cute idea below where a child built a rocket by pasting the letters of her name.
10. Sing the alphabet sound song.
The tune is similar to the traditional alphabet song. Here is a great example by Kidstv123. You can make up your own version as well.
Keep Your Cool
Keep in mind that the activities in this article are recommendations. Please do not try to pressure a child into participating in any of these activities. This can lead to frustration, which can turn your child off to phonics (letter-sound) practice
Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting. If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session. Keep practice sessions short (5 to 10 minutes for younger children or children who get easily frustrated and 10 to 15 minutes for older children or children who can work for longer periods without frustration), unless the child is eager to keep going.
What Else Can You Do to Help Your Child Learn Letter Sounds?
For suggestions on ways to encourage children to complete tasks or assignments they do not want to do, read our articles 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior.
If your child is significantly struggling with learning letter sounds or acquiring other academic skills, despite consistent practice and guidance, talk to your child’s school and/or doctor. They should be able to refer you to the appropriate professionals to determine what might be interfering with your child’s progress and what additional strategies might help.
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, caregivers, educators, counselors, and therapists to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers. If you want Rachel to write for your business, offer behavioral or academic consultation, or speak at your facility about research-based strategies that support children, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.