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Stop Saying, "Sound it out!"

You heard me correctly!  I said, "STOP telling readers to sound out words!"

When young children are reading aloud to us and come to a word they don't know or are unsure about we (teachers and parents alike) typically have one of two responses. Until my recent training in Reading Recovery (read about that here), I responded in these ways, too. BUT, I never really thought about what I was actually communicating to my students (and my own children) when I reacted in these two ways.

One knee-jerk reaction is to just tell the child the word with which he or she is having trouble. The other response we have is to tell the reader to, "Sound it out," when they come upon a new or difficult word.
Let's think about these responses together...
What are we conveying to students when we simply tell them the word with which they are having trouble?
Imagine if you were working to try a new recipe and Bobby Flay (or worse, Gordon Ramsay!) was over your shoulder watching your every move.  Would you be nervous or self conscious?  I would be! Now imagine that every time you stopped to consult the recipe, double check what you had added last, or went to the spice cabinet, Bobby swiftly stepped in and told you exactly what to do. For awhile this might be nice, but what if the next day you needed to make the same dish and Bobby wasn't there?!?  Would you remember what to do?  Would you have the same questions? More importantly, would you BELIEVE that you could recreate the recipe?  Probably not!  After all, Bobby is an expert chef and you are just a novice.

Think about how this applies to helping a young child read...
When we jump in and give words while children are reading we communicate that we are the "expert over their shoulder," and we don't believe they can figure out the word on their own. We provide a safety net that does NOT help to foster reading growth.  From our action children learn that if they stop or even hesitate THE EXPERT (us - not them) will be there to give them all the answers... if we continue this pattern, how can we expect students to EVER learn new words or know what they should do when that safety net is gone?!?

Instead of telling a reader the troublesome word immediately we should...
Wait (at least 3-5 seconds) AND Watch the child...
notice what he or she is trying alone so that you know how to jump in and help.
If the child is hesitant to try the word alone, prompt him or her to TRY something (really anything) such as look at the picture, read past the difficult word then go back, start the sentence again, etc.

BUT DON'T SAY, "Sound it out!"
When we prompt young readers to "sound out words," what are we really communicating to them?
We are essentially saying, "start at the beginning and say the sound each letter makes in order to solve the word." And when we use this phrase repeatedly we are really saying, "you should do this every time you come to a tough word because it is the only thing that works."
WHOA! Hold the phone!
If what we just said is true, then what about words with more complex letter combinations, silent letters, schwa sounds, affixes, and those dreaded SIGHT WORDS (man I really HATE those)?!?!
Research shows that accomplished 2nd grade readers attack words in over 60 different ways and most of the time they DO NOT start at the beginning and sound out words letter by letter.

Instead of telling students to sound out words we should...
Prompt children to use their eyes to search the difficult word for clues.
If the child is hesitant to try on his or her own or is unsuccessful, give specific clues within the word that may help such as digraphs, affixes, beginning sounds, words-within-words, etc.

NEW! Check out this accompanying YouTube video with teacher/student examples!

As we are helping young readers learn we have to remember our hope is they will gain skills so that the next time they read and we aren't there to help them, they will have the confidence and skills to solve new and difficult words ON THEIR OWN!

NOW, the next time you are listening to a young reader take note of your reaction to their struggles... When you are careful with your response what happens? Comment below and let me know - I can't wait to hear about your experiences!


  1. YES! We should be letting children try all kinds of strategies to figure out challenging words. Great post, thanks!

  2. This is great! I so agree!! My go to after 3 seconds is ..What strategy could we use to find a word we don't know?! lol Kids really seem to connect with that. Then they give me ideas which helps generate their own ideas.

  3. I always tell my son to sound it out!! I will definetly guide him now to choose a strategy that works for him in figuring out unfamiliar words. Very insightful post!

  4. I always tell my son to sound it out!! I will definetly guide him now to choose a strategy that works for him in figuring out unfamiliar words. Very insightful post!

  5. Great points! I think similar approaches can be used when helping kids through multi-step math problems. :)

  6. For me it just depends on the child and the word. I read with all my students daily, so getting to know the reader and how they attack words is huge! Thanks for sharing!

  7. You make very good points here! Great video. Thanks! -Karen

  8. Stopped telling students to sound it out when I, too, began my Reading Recovery training in 1996!! That little phrase is banned from my classroom!! I am forever battling it though--as parents and previous years teachers use it incessantly.

  9. I'm guilty of doing this. Thank you for this informative post. It makes a great deal of sense. Going to use this advice.

  10. I love your tip to wait and see how they approach the word. We learn so much about thier thinking when we give time to use their strategies.

  11. This is great! I will definitely be applying this when I am working with a reading group.

  12. Great post! Excellent analogies. I'd like to add that the shorter the prompt the better: "Try it!" "Say the first part!" "Take it apart" or "Find a part you know." "What would make sense and look right?" "Try that (sentence) again, say this (exposing the first part of the word with a card), and think what would fit there." You can go back to the word after finishing the book and talk about how she solved it, or show ways to attack it. Holding a discussion about strategy in the middle of reading a book makes the child lose meaning. It would be like Gordon Ramsey making you list all the ways you can leaven a cake--meanwhile, your cake is falling flat, and you may not be able to rescue it. Prompting the child to use something she knows to solve a word should take seconds.

  13. Thank you for sharing your very useful, interventionist's approach to decoding while reading. Your video is an excellent way to show, and tell teachers how to teach strategies to students