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How To Teach Children To Read

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Do you want to learn a better way to teach children how to read? | topnotchteaching.comYou know at the end of university I didn’t have a clue how to teach kids how to read, write and spell. I came through university with the whole language approach to teaching reading. This approach is based on the visual memorisation of whole written words and doesn’t teach the skills or conceptual knowledge needed to read. When I came through uni, phonics was a bit taboo, and we were told that we don’t teach literacy like that anymore. I have had no exposure to phonics and don’t really know much about this approach to teaching reading.

I attended a 4 day workshop last week called Sounds~Write with two fantastic presenters John Walker and Mary Gladstone. Sounds~Write is a linguistic phonic programme that teaches reading, writing and spelling. The programme begins with sounds in language and moves to sounds in the written words. This is vastly different from a traditional phonics programme, which is designed to focus on spellings, rather than sounds in the contexts of words. A traditional programme focuses on how words look and how they are spelled.

Wowee what an eye opener this was for me. I feel like I’ve been on a massive learning curve and now I need to try and make sense of all of this new information.

I think the best thing about this programme is how explicit it is….it is very sequential, cumulative, skills based and you are provided with individual lesson plans that include a script format so as the teacher you know exactly what you need to say. So you are using the appropriate language from the start.

Concepts and Skills

An important part of the programme for me was learning about the conceptual knowledge and skills needed for a reader. The 4 concepts that a reader needs to understand and that are explicitly taught in the programme include:

  1. Letters are symbols that represent sounds.
  2. A sound may be spelled by 1, 2, 3 or 4 letters. Example: dog, street, night, dough.
  3. One sound – different spellings. Example: rain, break, gate, stay.
  4. One spelling – different sounds. Example: head, seat, break

The 3 essential skills needed in order to decode the English language, and that are taught in the programme include:

  1. Blending: this is pushing sounds together to build words.
  2. Segmenting: this is being able to pull individual sounds apart in words.
  3. Phoneme manipulation: this is being able to insert and delete sounds in words.

The Programme

The lessons are divided into 3 main teaching sections:

1. The Initial Code

In this part of the programme students are taught the essential skills (segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation) needed in order to decode the English language. This section looks at words with the structure of CVC, VCC, CVCC, CCVC, CCVCC, CVCC and CCVC. If you’re unfamiliar with this C=consonant and V=vowel. This section doesn’t yet introduce the concepts 3 and 4 listed above. It also looks at some spellings that can be written with a double consonant.

2. The Extended Code

The extended code continues to use the skills previously taught but moves on to the more complex concepts of one sound – different spellings and one spelling – different sounds.

3. Polysyllabic Words

Again this section uses previously taught skills, but this time with words that are made up of more than one syllable. This section also includes a lesson where students analyse the polysyllabic words to identify the difficult spellings and then use the skills to help read and spell these words.

The Best Bits

Some of the parts that I particularly like about this programme for teaching reading include:

  • It can be used with individual students, small groups or for whole classes.
  • Writing and spelling are part of all lessons.
  • It includes diagnostic assessments so you can work out exactly what skills students are using and what concepts they may already know. You then use this information to work out where to start the individual child.
  • You don’t need the student to have 100% mastery before moving on. You aim for about 80% and then can move on, and this is possible because it is cumulative.
  • The use of gestures, this is an essential component and helps to direct students and let them know exactly what we want them to do.
  • The programme spends a lot of time talking about the possible errors students may make and they give you the exact phrasing of what you need to say to help the student make the correction.
  • It is not the teacher doing the work for the student. The teacher provides phrasing and gestures so that the student can do the error correction on their own.
  • All the extra support materials they provide.

How I’ve Already Used It

I was pretty excited after the first day so I came home and thought I might try a little bit with my Little Miss Three. The first sounds that are introduced are the /a/ /i/ /m/ /s/ and /t/. So I thought I’d try the first lesson and the word ‘sat’.

The first lesson involves students in building words using the target sounds. I wrote the letters in the word on separate post-it notes and had them spread on the kitchen bench (not in order). Then on a piece of paper I had three lines drawn, e.g. _ _ _. I said to my daughter, “I’m going to say the word ‘sat’ very slowly and I want you to hear the sounds that make up the word ‘sat’.” Then I said, “what is the first sound you heard in the word sat.” So I said “sssaaat” very slowly (and gestured to the first line).

Little Miss Three for a couple of times just said the word ‘sat’, so then I really held the initial sss sound so that it was very obvious what that first sound was. She then said /s/. We moved on the same way with the other two sounds. She had some trouble with the sound /a/ but did get it but then when we got to the /t/, she kept saying ‘sat’. Then she got irritated and said she didn’t want to do it anymore.

As we had started cooking dinner I continued with what I was doing. I could hear her saying to herself the word over and over again and the first two sounds. Then I heard her just say the /t/. She then said to me, “Mummy the other one is /t/. I’ve been practicing and now I can say it.”

We then built the word using the post it notes and pulling each letter down to the corresponding line as we said the sound. We then read the word. We didn’t do any more after that as I thought that was more than enough for her to digest.

Then a couple of days later I was sitting at the table doing my reflection sheet that is part of the programme and Little Miss Three asked if we can do the activity we did the other day.

So I got my post-it notes again and randomly spread the letters in the word ‘sat’ on the table. But Miss Three didn’t want to build the word; she promptly told me that she needed 3 post-it notes because she had to write each one.

I didn’t want to push it so I gave her the marker pen and the post-it notes and went back to my sheet.

A little while later she said to me, “okay Mummy I’m ready now.” Then she told me I had to say the sound as she pointed to each letter. Below you will see how I had arranged the post-it notes and how she wrote her letters for each sound.

How To Teach Children To Read |

I was quite astounded by this as we didn’t really spend that much time on it the few days before. I feel quite excited now about using this new approach to teaching reading.

They do suggest that the age to start with children in this structured approach is about 4. So I won’t be spending too much time with Little Miss Three completing the formal lessons yet. But I’ll focus on sound games. Things like “I spy  a mmmuuug”. And get her to blend the sounds to make the word. Also games for when we’re driving, “I see the ‘sun’, what’s the first sound you hear in the word sun”. I’ll post updates on our progress as I use this programme more.

Summing Up

I would highly recommend this programme to any teacher out there. If you’re a graduate or teacher in training, then to me this is an essential programme to learn. If you’ve been teaching for a while and use a phonics approach, then Sounds~Write can actually replace any of those and be the only programme that you use. It is almost like a one stop shop, no more trying to scrounge together a heap of different resources to help you teach reading, writing and spelling.

If you have the chance to attend a Sounds~Write workshop, then do. You will not be disappointed. If you want more information then you can check out the website here:

I’m really excited to start using the programme! I’ll keep you updated on my progress with it.

Graphic Credits: Little Red’s School House, My Cute Graphics, Jamie Kay & Jessica Stanford.

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  1. Jenny Quld

    This is wonderful!
    I am a graduate teacher in a prep class and also went through uni and learnt the whole language approach, however I have always have been a huge fan of phonics (Jolly Phonics) and try to balance the two approaches.
    I would love to do this course!
    I have printed out this article and are adding it to my pedagogy file for easy access and review!
    I find a lot of great stuff on your site, thank you for sharing 🙂

    Jenny in Brisbane

    • Melinda

      Hi Jenny,

      Thanks so much for being here and I’m glad you find lots of ‘great stuff’ here 😉

      What’s great about this programme is that you don’t need to mix and match and balance lots of different ideas and approaches. It’s an all in one approach….I hope you can end up attending one of their courses. One of the presenters, Mary Gladstone, is on the east coast, I think in NSW. She mentioned they pretty much travel anywhere to share the course, so all you need to do now is convince your school that this would be an excellent PD opportunity 😉


    • Mary Gladstone

      Hi Jenny,
      SPELD in Brisbane are running a Sounds-Write training in May 2014. Think it is around the 8th but can’t remember off the top of my head (am in Alice Springs at the moment and haven’t got everything with me)

        • Melinda

          Hey Margie,

          Thanks so much for dropping by. Yes I also find Sounds-Write extremely easy to use. I’ve just gotten some of the Dandelion Readers so I’m really looking forward to using those with the programme too.


          • Melinda

            Hi Andrew,

            Thanks so much for stopping by. I have downloaded your article and will read it with enthusiasm. I am always very interested in reading and learning other views on how to best teach reading.

            As you would have read in my article I was trained to teach language acquisition through the whole language approach. This approach did not seem to work for the students that I taught that had specific learning difficulties. I was very excited to learn about Sounds-Write and have been using this programme with a dyslexic student for about 12 weeks. I have already seen a remarkable improvement in her reading and spelling and I’m keen to try this with others.

            I am by no means an expert in synthetic phonics or the different reading approaches out there. But I do know that I’m a classroom teacher that is pulled in many directions and am told by many an ‘expert’ the best approach for teaching reading. What we find difficult is to know which ‘expert’ to put our faith in. I feel that if even the experts can’t agree, then it makes it very challenging for the classroom teacher.

            Thanks again for the link

  2. Crystal Young

    Found your post through pinterest. When reading your post I noticed that you used the word verb to describe what the V stands for. I thought you’d want to know so you could fix it. Thanks for the write up of the program and for telling how well your daughter did with just an introduction.

    • Melinda

      Hi Crystal,

      Oh dear, thanks so much for letting me know…I have now fixed this 😀

      I’m glad you found your way here and enjoyed hearing about this new programme. I’m looking forward to using this approach more and also to see how my daughter progresses.

      Thanks again for the correction!

  3. Jennifer H

    Hi Mel! I found your post via Pinterest. I am currently working to become a reading specialist. I too went to college when everything was centered around “whole language” and not the skill or process of reading. I’ve been searching for years for a program that gives children (I teach Kindergarten) the skills to read and write successfully. My question about this program is does it have a vocabulary or comprehension component?

    • Melinda

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks so much for dropping by :-D.

      The comprehension component is imbedded within the programme. Included are sentences for dictation and texts that can be used for the various units and that include the sound focus. They use the premise that “beginning reading skills and successful reading comprehension are inextricably intertwined.” They use appropriate sentences and texts for students to use independently that only contain the sounds taught in that unit. If sharing texts that contain sounds-spelling that haven’t been taught yet, then the teacher takes responsibility for reading these words and pointing out the unfamiliar sounds-spelling.

      They have a ‘contact us’ form on their website, definitely use that to contact them if you have any more specific questions about their programme.

      I hope this programme is what you’ve been looking for. I certainly feel so much more confident now in my ability to teach reading, writing and spelling.


  4. Bruce Price

    RE: “When I came through uni, phonics was a bit taboo, and we were told that we don’t teach literacy like that anymore.”

    What university is this, and what year?

    • Melinda

      Hey Bruce,

      Thanks for stopping by and for your question. I went to Uni for my teaching degree during 2000-2003 and it was Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia. But, from my understanding whole language approaches are still being taught in Australian universities as the preferred method for teaching reading and writing.


      • Jenni

        Hi – this sounds very much like the Thrass program which my school has adopted in the last twelve months – when implemented properly it makes so much sense and has made a huge difference with students learning to read and spell.

      • Felicity

        The whole-language approach is not being taught in universities these days, as far as I know.

        I am graduating this month from Macquarie University in Sydney and we learnt a phonics-based approach.

        • Melinda

          Hi Felicity,

          Thanks for you comment and I’m pleased to hear that at your university whole language was not taught. I’m in Western Australia and I’m almost certain that it is still being taught at the universities here, as well as phonics. They look at the three cuing system and they’re introduced to PM Benchmark readers, which are both based on whole language.

  5. Luqman Michel

    I have been teaching dyslexic children successfully for 8 years. Many dyslexic children shut down when what they are being taught is not understood by them. This is what most of the teachers fail to understand.
    Most teachers do not teach the different sounds (phonics) that vowels (and some consonants) have. The letter ‘a’ for example has 5 different sounds. When this is not explained to a dyslexic student he just shuts down. I have seen many of my students shutting down before I realised why?

    Wish you all well.
    Luqman Michel

    • Melinda

      Hi Luqman,

      Thanks so much for leaving a comment on your experience of working with students that have dyslexia. I think sometimes it’s not the classroom teacher’s intention, as I know when I was a teacher I hadn’t received the appropriate training to know even where to begin to assist a student that had learning difficulties. This also goes back to what training teachers are taught at university. As in my experience, many teachers are not taught about good quality phonics and how this way of teaching reading can benefit all students.

      Thanks again for your thoughts

  6. luqman Michel

    I have not had any updated comments from this site until today. Recently I viewed a video which seems to support what I have been writing in my blog. You may read it here:

  7. Susan

    I love what you’ve written, but need to just correct that ‘ight’ is a sound. ‘IGH’ is a sound and the ‘T’ is another one. I think that you already know this and that the underlined bit is just wrong. ‘Hope I’m not being pedantic.

    • Melinda

      Haha good spot Susan. Yes I did mean to underline just the ‘igh’. I’ve now fixed this 🙂



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