Using word chunks to sound out words

Encourage your child, when she is learning to read, to watch for “mini words” or “chunks” she recognizes within words. It is a lot easier to sound out words in “chunks” than to sound out each letter individually.

For example, it is easier to sound out “flashes” as “fl-a-sh-es” than as “f-l-a-s-h-e-s” and it makes a lot more sense to the child–after all when we make the “sh” sound we don’t say “s-h” (suh-huh) or for “es” we don’t say “e-s” (eh-suh).

If a child is having trouble with a certain consonant combination, think of lots of easy, short words that use the combination, and start with those. For example, for “sh” you can point out words like “she, ash, wish, fish” etc. After practicing these several times, your child will soon be noticing the “sh” combinations in more difficult words, and sounding them as “sh.” You can also give your child an old magazine or newspaper or anything that has words on it, and have her search for words with the particular consonant blend. Then circle those words and try sounding them out.

To practice a particular “sound chunk” (like ow, at, ay, ar, ick, ill, etc.), write the chosen chunk on a paper or white/blackboard, and place a copy of the alphabet where the child can easily refer to it. Then together brainstorm as many “family” rhyming words as possible, first using the alphabet letters in order. It is best to start with “short vowel” chunks. For example: -at: at, bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, tat, vat.

Then go back to the beginning of the alphabet, and brainstorm words that use consonant blends. For example: –at: brat, chat, flat, spat. If possible, also think of some multi-syllabic words that “contain” the sound: chatter, mattress, flatter, splatter.

When the child really “gets” the short vowel chunk, you can move on to the similar “long vowel sound” chunk, as in: -ate: (ate, date, fate, gate, hate, late, mate, rate . . . crate,  grate, plate, state . . . create, fateful, statement). While you are doing this, you can of course discuss the spelling rule for magic/silent e.  You can even match up the short and long vowel words to show how adding magic e changes the vowel sound: at/ate, fat/fate, hat/hate, mat/mate, rat/rate.  Once your child understands that, you may also want to use this opportunity to introduce the spelling rule, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking and says its name, and the second vowel is silent,” using examples such as bait and wait.  For a child who is intrigued by spelling, you can even toss in a couple words like weight and freight!

Another method for working on particular “sound chunks” is to write the chosen chunk in the middle of a page, circle it, and draw lines outward, connecting to more circles. Add single syllable words using the original sound chunk in these circles. From these circles draw more lines out, and more circles. Keep building words this way. Try for 4 levels for at least some of the words. For example: at, cat, chat, chatter or at, bat, brat, bratty.  Or, if you’d like to do it with long vowel sounds, you might do: ate, gate, grate, grateful  or  ate, fate, deflate.

Another thing to try is have your child look for words he already knows, that are found within other words. For example, in and to are found in into; up and on in upon; to and day in today and so on. Using these very simple combinations is a great way to introduce compound words. To help your child, in the beginning you can draw in a light slash between the two words (in/to), and if necessary, cover up one part of the word so the child can focus on the other part, then switch the covered part. Start by covering the different parts with your finger; then have your child do the same with his own finger. Another thing you can do is make a little pile of paper slips, each with a separate small word, and then have your child try putting them together, to discover which ones actually “go together.”

Some words have a “full word” plus a “chunk”: dark+er=darker; child+ren=children. You can use the same methods to help your child figure out these words, as you would use for real compound words.

Looking for other useful tips on helping your child read and write? Check out the list of topics in the second half of our Tutoring Tips page.

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