Teaching Phonics to Help Children with  Learning Problems

It is impossible for the classroom teacher to teach all children all of the words that they need to learn in order to read with ease. While we want children to develop a good solid sight vocabulary so that they do not need to sound out every single word they come across in their reading, we also need to prepare children to be able to sound out words that is not a part of their sight vocabulary when they are faced with unknown words in their reading.

When discussing the reading problems of poor readers, it is not uncommon to hear, "Well, if he hasn't learned to sound out words by now, he'll never learn!" That is a bold statement that simply is not true. All children, even those with serious learning skill deficiencies can and should learn the skills needed to sound out words. 

In over thirty-five years of working with students who have had serious learning problems, I have never come across a student who could not be taught phonics. Knowledge of phonics and how it should be applied to sounding out unknown words is an essential skill that all readers must develop in order to learn to read with ease and understanding. If phonics is taught in a step by step fashion with much of the time spent on giving the student practice in applying the skill, tremendous results occurs. The secret lies in teaching one skill at a time and then giving the student plenty of practice is using the skill. In this way the student internalizes the phonetic sound and can apply it to improve his reading skills.

Following is my recommendation for the sequence of teaching phonics once the student has been taught the sounds of the most commonly used consonants. 


Give practice in sounding out words after the teaching of each phonetic sound. Start with one syllable words, then gradually increase this to two syllables, three syllable and then finally four and five syllable words.

Teach: The vowels are a,e,i,o, u and sometimes y.

Short Sounds: a as in ash, e as in empty, i as in itch, o as in on, u as in up

Long Sounds: (They say their own name) a as in cake, e as in beat, i as in bike, o as in bone, u as in cute.

Teach: When there is one vowel in a word or syllable, that vowel is usually short.  Examples: cat, pet, sit, fox, pup
                                            apple, forget, giggle, supper

Teach: When there are two vowels in a word or syllable, the first vowel says its own name and is long. The second vowel is silent. 

Examples with one and two syllable words: cane, maintain, feed, greedy, bite, surprise, goat, floating, flute, and attitude

Teach: Y is a vowel when it comes at the end of a word. At the beginning of a word it is a consonant.

Example: in yellow the y has a consonant sound but in baby the y has a vowel sound. The two sounds that y makes are long i or long e.
Generally in a short one syllable word, y at the end of the short word has the long sound of i.
Examples: by, sly, my, fry, try

Generally y at the end of a two syllable word has the long sound of e.
Examples: baby, heavy, gravy, navy 

Teach: the consonant blends such as ch, sh, sl, fl, str, thr, cl,

Teach: that oo, ew, ue and ui have the same sound. They are vowel digraphs (two vowels that blend together to make one sound).
 Examples: moon, new, blue, suit

Exception: When oo is followed by a d or k it has the sound we hear in the word hood or hook.

Teach: that au, aw have the same sound. They are vowel digraphs.
Examples: caught, claw

Teach: that oi and oy have the same sound. These are vowel diphthongs (two vowels that go together to make a special sound blend that change as you move from the first vowel to the next).
Examples: oil, boy, joining, ointment, joyfully

Teach: that  ou and ow can have the same sound. They are vowel diphthongs. 
Examples: out, cow, announce, cowardly

Note: ow can also make another sound. Sometimes ow makes the long o sound as in snow, showed, narrowing 

Students should know that if the first ow sound does not make sense for the word they are trying to sound out, they should try the other sound that ow makes.

Teach: that ar sounds like the ar in car
Examples: chart, apartment 

Teach: that ir, er and ur sound the same as in sir, her, fur (you hear only the r sound).
Examples: directions, furniture

Teach: that with or you hear the o and the r as in for, torn, horn.
Examples: adornment, fortunate 

Teach: that when g is followed by i, e, or y it sounds like j.
 Examples: ginger, gymnasium, gypsy
Otherwise g sounds like g as in goat.

This is true in most cases. However, the word girl does not follow this rule. 

Teach: that when c is followed by i, e or y it has the s sound.
 Examples: the cy in bicycle, cylinder; ce in cellar, recently; ci in circulation, incinerate.

Otherwise c sounds like k as in call, calibrate, calculate

Teach: phonics clusters (vowel and consonant(s) called phonograms that are often found together) such as it, ap, ig (There are many)
Examples: admitted, editorial, happiness, application, ignite, indignation

Teach: prefixes and suffixes and how to use them.
Example: When you want to make a word plural that ends in y , change the y to i and add es.
Examples: baby, babies, lady, ladies

Common prefixes like re, pre, de, as in repair, prepare, department.

Teach: common suffixes and endings like tion, sion, ture, ed, ing as in motion, mission, creature, skated, and swimming.

Be sure to point out that ed can have three sounds, t, or d, or ed such as raked, framed, skated.

Give lots of practice in having the student sound out words, recognizing and naming the consonant blends, clusters, vowels, prefixes and suffixes in the word. Once you have taught the sound, ask the student if he can find any letter combinations, consonant blends etc. in the word he is trying to sound out.  Initially, ask him to tell you what he is going to say for the vowel or vowels etc., then have him sound out the word, step by step and then blend it.

Remember there are always exceptions to every rule but that these rules work most of the time.

You will begin to see your teenager attacking words independently. You will be amazed at the improvement in your teenagers’ ability to sound out unknown words. 

Addie Cusimano is the author of Learning Disabilities: There is a Cure ISBN 0615120539 and a new second edition ISBN 9780972776271.  While the focus of her book is on learning disabilities, it was written to be used to help all students, learning disabled to gifted reach their full potential. In her book, Ms. Cusimano discusses her findings on the various learning skills that need to be taught to all children, and gives practical teaching suggestions.  Her book is written in a concise, easy to read format with a discussion of her findings in relation to the teaching of learning skills, thinking, reading, writing, eye-hand coordination and study skills. Her second edition includes a chapter on mathematics, foreign language and an update on reading. Preview and order at www.achievepublications.com or by calling 1-800-431-1579 in the USA or Canada, or internationally by faxing 914-835-0398

Check out the Dear Addie tab on this site to e-mail your academic questions.
About the Author:
Adeline M. Cusimano is an educational therapist who has been active in the field of education for more than thirty  years.  She received a B. S. degree in Education with psychology as a concentration.  She also earned a M.S. degree in Education with a concentration in reading, and a reading specialist certification. She holds permanent New York State and Pennsylvania certifications.  She has taken supplementary graduate courses in the field of learning disabilities and has done extensive independent research and clinical studies in this field. 

Ms. Cusimano has worked as a classroom teacher and reading specialist for New York State public school systems. She was director, diagnostician and clinician of a private learning center in New York State for close to twenty years. The Center specialized in working with learning disabled students but also offered programs for slow learners, average students and an advanced program for gifted students.

Ms.Cusimano is the designer of  the teaching material entitled, Achieve: A Visual Memory Program. This teaching program  develops visual recall of words for reading, spelling and remembering of terms for social studies and science. It is also recommended for the teaching of phonics and syllablication.  It is suitable for remedial work with students in grades 1-adult. Developmentally suitable for students in grades 1-8.

Ms. Cusimano has received recognition internationally for her work with students with learning problems.

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