Ask us anything! Do kids need to have a solid knowledge of sound and symbol before they can begin to read?

Yes, they do. Sounding out words is very taxing on a beginner reader’s working memory. If we think about it – children need to recognise the shape of the letter, attach a sound to it, hold that sound in their heads, do the same for the next letters in the word, blend the sounds into a word by articulating the sounds (aloud or in their heads), pushing them together and matching the word with a meaning: /c/ /a/ /t/ – ‘cat’ (‘Oh, a furry animal, I like cats’.) That is a lot to handle for a young working memory!

Children who do not have an automatic recall of the letter/sound correspondences will have difficulty holding on to the sounds and blending them together. This may cause a ‘cognitive overload’. We need to make sure that beginner readers have sufficient practice in learning the letter/sound bonds so that when they come to read, they don’t have to search for the pairing – it should be automatic.

BUT – children do not need to know ALL the sounds of the letters of the alphabet before they begin to read. We believe that reading can begin almost from the very beginning, with just a few sounds. How? We need to break down the process of learning into very small incremental steps:

  1. Teach only a few letters at a time. We start with s, a, t, i, m.
  2. Teach letters sounds – not letter names. Letter names are not needed at this stage.
  3. Play lots of games to ensure automatic recall of those letter sounds. You can find some suggested games here.
  4. Once students are secure with the letter/sound bonds, build words with just those sounds, e.g.: at, it, Sam, sat, mat, sit.
  5. Practice reading words with just those sounds.
  6. Play games reading words with those sounds.
  7. Dictate words to consolidate the bonds between reading and spelling those sounds.
  8. Now read a decodable book with just those sounds. Read a book multiple times or read multiple books with just these sounds.
  9. Teach in a cumulative way so that students revisit sounds previously taught. This means that at every new stage, previous letter/sound bonds are included.
  10. Make sure that the decodable books you use are cumulative too, so every reading experience builds on previous learning. All of our Phonic Books books are written with a highly structured phonic sequence to support cumulative progression.


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