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Struggling with Sounding Out Words Phonetically in Reading

Heart of Dakota Dear Carrie - reading sounding out words
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Dear Carrie

What would you do with an almost fourth grader who struggles to sound out words phonetically in reading?

My daughter has been using Heart of Dakota, and we love it!  She learned to read using The Reading Lesson. She then moved into the Emerging Reader’s Set. Now she has read all of the Level 2 Drawn into the Heart of Reading (DITHOR) books. She is working her way through the Level 3 DITHOR books. Although she is a slow reader, she has done alright with the reading in Preparing Hearts for His Glory (PHFHG). When she reads out loud to me, she misses quite a few words and struggles with fluency. She does enjoy reading though, and she can narrate like a champ. So, I do think she probably gets most of what she reads.

But, it doesn’t seem like she knows what to do when she gets to an unfamiliar word. She often says a completely different word.  Or, she makes up a word that often sounds almost nothing like the actual word. If I ask her to sound it out, she doesn’t really seem to get how to do that. My other student took off with the reading progression I used, so I’m not sure why my daughter isn’t! She’ll be 9 years old next week. Help!


“Mom of Struggling to Sound Out Words Daughter”

Dear “Mom of Struggling to Sound Out Words Daughter,”

You’ve asked such good questions here! Before homeschooling my own kiddos, I spent much of my 11 years in the public school classroom in 3rd/4th grade. So, the age of your daughter is near and dear to my heart! After coming home to teach my own four boys, I got an even more personal view of the reading process! So, through the years it has been interesting to refine and rethink what I believe about teaching reading. I want to take the pressure off of you to do everything “just right!” So, I’ll start with sharing what is normal for kiddos your sweet daughter’s age!

It is normal for different students to respond differently to the same reading programs.

First of all, different kiddos respond differently to the same reading program. While this is obvious when teaching a large group of kiddos in the classroom, it is less obvious at home! So, I’ll just start by saying that we can’t expect the same results from a reading program with every child. This is because not all kiddos learn to read in the same way or at the same age. So, we can know going into a program that each of our kiddos will respond a bit differently to it – thus varying the stage of reading that they exit the program in having. So, no worries about your older student responding differently than your daughter!

It is normal for different kiddos to need different amounts of phonics instruction.

Next, it’s interesting that not all kiddos need the same amount of “phonics” instruction to become fluent readers. Some seem to need more than others. Yet, at some point, learning phonics rules seems to reach its needed level for reading purposes.  Then, it switches over to learning phonics rules for the purpose of spelling correctly. At that juncture, to me, continuing on with tedious phonics rules that have many exceptions, begins to become less purposeful. This makes it a good time to exit phonics instruction.

It is normal for students to use a combination of sight word recognition and decoding skills.

Another thing to keep in mind is that all kiddos need some sight word recognition, so they will not purely read phonetically. Knowing a solid bank of sight words is an important part of reading, as often words cannot just be “sounded out.” So, reading by sight words part of the time is not a bad thing! It is actually an essential part of reading. However, if a child is reading only by sight words (and by memorizing new words in this same manner, but cannot decode), then we have a problem! Likewise, if a child tries to use phonics rules to decode every word he/she reads, the process of reading also breaks down as not all words can be decoded!

It is normal for different students to exit reading programs at differing levels.

Since kiddos will often exit any reading program at differing levels, there will be differing amounts of follow-up needed to get them reading fluently. So, when a child does not exit a phonics program as a fluent reader, does this mean that he/she is unable to decode words phonetically or hasn’t had enough phonics? Often this is not the case. More typically, it just means a child needs practice in gaining fluency with readers that are less controlled in their vocabulary. Even easy-looking books, with a less controlled vocabulary, can be difficult for kiddos at first simply because they have been used to reading stories with a very controlled bank of words.

It is normal for students to need time to transition into fluently reading chapter books.

When kiddos begin to read chapter books, the pictures begin to go away. The text becomes longer on each page. Because of this, reading fluency can actually decrease for a time. Students are daunted by the sheer number of words on the page! This doesn’t necessarily mean they need another pass at phonics. It just means that they need the readings broken up into small chunks and need plenty of help and encouragement as they transition to more words on the page.

It is normal for students to mispronounce some words.

This transition to chapter books is also a stage where mispronunciation is not uncommon. This is because so many of the words are new (and long). Even the best decoders can really stumble! So, grace is needed for mispronunciations of longer words. It is also alright for kiddos to read silently, even if they aren’t getting everything right! Ask yourself how many words you may actually be mispronouncing in your head as your read silently? Even as adults, we often wouldn’t be able to correctly pronounce every word if asked to read aloud from a book that we consider to be difficult!

S0, what can you do this summer for your dear daughter?

Returning to easier books is actually a good idea for a child who is groping for words as he/she exits the phonics program. Building fluency takes daily reading practice, plenty of cheerleading, sitting by the child and helping (and helping and helping), and guiding them by prompting with the many ways that you can figure out a word you don’t know as you’re reading.

Refer to the Appendix of Drawn into the Heart of Reading for help in sounding out words.

So, what should you do when your child comes to a word he/she doesn’t know? The Appendix of DITHOR is a great place to begin for this! It includes things like making sure a child begins the unknown word using the correct sound (with the correct starting letter), chunking a larger word into parts, looking for the small word inside the big word (saying the prefix, then the root word, then the suffixes -uncovering the word with your finger as they read bit by bit), using the context of the story to make a better guess at what the word might be, sounding it out, and sometimes even giving the child the word if they are stumbling over it mightily. Running your finger under the words as the child progresses is a good help too.

Give your daughter her own copy of the DITHOR strategies.

You can give your daughter a copy of the run-off paper from the back of DITHOR strategies to refer to when she comes to a word she doesn’t know. Have her read with it beside her, and choose a strategy to use when she comes to a word she doesn’t know. This will show her there are more strategies for this than sounding the word out!

Choose a quiet time to devote for daily reading practice to build fluency.

Once a child becomes a fluent reader, then the need for daily time spent in reading instruction lessens, but until a child hits the stage, consistency is needed. At our house right now, my husband often reads with our youngest son before bed. This one on one quiet time has made a huge difference. We still work on his regular reading schedule during the course of the school day, but this extra dose of reading is motivating to our son and has helped him show good gains in fluency.

Before another round of phonics for a new 4th grader, give the student time to gain confidence and fluency.

So, how do you know if your child needs another pass at the “rules” with perhaps another round of a phonics program? In my opinion, time will tell. If you give your child 3-5 months of regular reading practice daily with easier books, and help from you as a refresher as to what the various sounds are as he/she reads, and you aren’t noticing ANY improvement… then you may need to consider giving another round of phonics instruction.

Sometimes, the child just wasn’t paying much attention during the first round of phonics. Or, maybe they had fluid in their ears and couldn’t really hear the first round of phonics (like my own fourth little guy). Maybe they do have some learning issues that are interfering in their ability to internalize the needed phonics. Or, maybe it is an eye issue where they need glasses, or perhaps they have a tracking issue. But, before we jump to all of these conclusions soon after finishing phonics, we need to take a deep breath and give the child time to gain confidence and fluency for awhile first.

The phonics program is just one piece of the puzzle.

In looking back over all of the things that affect a child’s readiness and ability to read, we can see that the actual phonics program (while important) is just one piece of the overall puzzle. I believe that Mary Pride once said that the best phonics program is the second one that you use! I had to smile when I read that because it is often true that for kiddos who cannot read well upon exiting a first phonics program, the second program (no matter what it is) seems to be the one that works.

Why is this true? Is it because the program is so much better, or is it actually because the child has learned quite a bit more than we thought from the first pass through phonics and is now more able to take in and apply a second round of phonics. Or, is it because the child is just older and more mature? Or, is it because the child is finally at the stage where he/she is interested in reading? It is most likely all of the above.

Keep doing the wonderful job you are doing teaching your daughter to read!

From what you’ve shared here, I think that your daughter has been making gains. I just think that she is still building fluency which does take time. I would be sure at this point that you are keeping up on eye exams and hearing tests at this stage to rule out any concerns there. Sound Bytes reading could be a good option if you are not seeing the growth you’d like to after the summer. These are just some thoughts to ponder as you journey along! Phonics is such a personal journey with so many different ways to approach it. I just share this in hopes that you will see that the phonics journey often looks different for different kiddos, so don’t be surprised with the varying routes taken by different families in search of a similar end!




P.S. If your student did not complete a formal phonics program or missed some phonics due to hearing or eye-related concerns, and you’d like more information about how to review phonics, click here!


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Christina Soleta

    So far I have taught 5 of my kids to read, and each one of them is certainly different. My first was the easiest so that set me up for some disappointment later on :). Two kids really struggled. My oldest son had trouble focusing with his eyes, which the eye doctor had him do some simple exercises for treatment that really helped. My third daughter had trouble transitioning to chapter books. I think she was just overwhelmed by the amount of words. I helped her out by taking turns reading every other paragraph with her, and as she got better, she took over more of the reading. That helped her out in multiple ways. It took the pressure of the overwhelming amount of words off. I made sure to read slow enough and that she was following along. That helped her with some of the bigger words, especially those repeated in the story. When she read, I made sure to point out sight words after a try instead of letting her struggle with them while the frustration buildt. It took a few weeks, but she is a book worm now ( about 18 months later). She still will struggle once in awhile with pronunciation, but she has the bug that is the love of reading, and with that she will conquer all.

    1. Thanks for sharing about your children’s different journeys to becoming readers! You shared some excellent tips for helping them over the humps they encountered. This just shows kiddos can be very successful with reading even if their ‘starts’ to reading are different. Thanks for encouraging other moms here, Christina!

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