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#6-Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Words

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Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Words (Part 6 in a Teach Your Child to Read Series)

Phonics is knowing that letters make sounds and then blending those sounds together to form words. When we think of phonics, often times we think of SPELLING, but really the initial focus should be on sounding out words, not spelling. In the English language, there are sooooooo many variations of spelling and phonics programs will often go over ALL of the ways to spell words.

Kids typically aren’t introduced to phonics until they are in school, but I believe this learning should occur much much sooner. What I have found is that by keeping it simple and teaching my children three letter word families featuring ONLY short vowels using muffin tins and magnet letters in addition to coloring over my written words together, that reading started to take off as if by magic from a very young age.

Building Words with Muffin Tins and Magnet Letters

Building Words with Muffin Tins and Magnet Letters

Age to Start

After children have a solid understanding of letter names and letter sounds and know that words are made up of letters that carry meaning, it’s a good time to start teaching them how to sound out three letter words using word families. I like to start teaching this concept when my children are about 2-3 years old. Making children wait until they are in kindergarten to learn this skill is completely unnecessary.

How to Teach

To teach three letter words, it’s very important for children to see the difference between the NAMES of the letters and the SOUNDS of the letters. As children start to sound out words, it’s important to have the focus be on the SOUNDS that the letters are making. When I was a teacher, there was an amazing reading program called Fundations that would have children tap out each sound using their fingers. So, for example with the word cat, you would tap your thumb to your index finger saying the c sound, then tap your thumb to your middle finger saying the a sound, and finally your thumb to your ring finger saying the t sound. Then you slide your thumb across your three fingers and say the whole word. (See a video demonstration of tapping out sounds here.)

When my daughter Ophelia was 2, I had a little magnet letter station set up and together we discovered that if you flip a 6 cup muffin tin over, it makes a great platform for teaching three letter words. I would set some letters aside, and we would build words together. At first, I built the words ahead of time and then tapped out each sound as I read the word to her. Once she had seen me do it over and over again, she started to say the letter sounds with me, and eventually she said them on her own. After that, we would build words together.

If we were going to build the word dog, I would say something like this, “Let’s spell the word dog. Do you know what letter the word dog starts with? That’s right! It starts with the letter d. Now, what vowel makes the short o sound? That’s right, o! Now, what letter makes the g sound? That’s right, g! We spelled dog!” She loved doing this magnet letter muffin tin activity, and we did it often.

Here is a video of my nephew, Tristan, learning his three letter words at age 2.5 with magnet letters and muffin tins.

After she mastered three letter words, we found an eight cup muffin tin and spelled four letter words. This was a great time to bring up words with digraphs like shop and chip. We also started talking about long vowel words in addition to some of the trickier sounds like the long and short oo, r controlled vowels, and diphthongs from my phonemic awareness resources. We also enjoyed spelling favorite words like her full name, the names of family members, and so on.

Here is a video of my daughter, Ophelia, learning about three letter words using magnet letters.

My son Julian (2.5), on the other hand, hasn’t enjoyed the muffin tins and magnet letters as much as he has coloring over my words, or erasing my words, and this has really helped him to learn about sounding out words while he memorizes them. We also enjoy using Starfall’s word machine.

My Resources

I have hand drawn and digitized each of these resources to specifically fit the needs of my own children. Someday, I would like to create a “Teach Your Child to Read Kit” that will bundle everything together in one package, but for now, I want to get this information and these resources out there. Please feel free to print as many copies as you would like for your own personal use.

Word Families Flashcards

These word family cards will be a guide as you do activities like muffins tins and magnet letters or coloring over words. I recommend starting with one word family at a time and stay with the same vowel sound for at least two sets. Once your child is familiar with the words in one family, you can introduce another. Once your child is familiar with all of the word families, you might want to mix things up by taking the family name covers off and mixing all of the words together.

Word Families Flashcards Set #1

Word Families Flashcards Set #1

Get a PDF of the flashcards here: Word Families Flashcards Set 1 PDF

Word Families Flashcards Set #2

Word Families Flashcards Set #2

Get a PDF of the flashcards here: Word Families Flashcards Set 2 PDF

Word Families Flashcards First Page

Word Families Flashcards First Page

Get a PDF of the small flashcards here: Word Families Small Flashcards

 

Additional Resources

Using my word cards and the following resources will make learning how to read three letter words easy and fun! (*Note: Some of these are affiliate links, which means that I will make a commission if you purchase them from these links. Your price, however, will stay the same.)

  • Magnet Letters and Muffin Tin – Using these two resources together will make learning three letter words fun and easy. Using my flashcards as a guide, have your child build three letter words on the bottoms of the muffin tins.
  • White Board and Dry Erase Markers – I recommend attaching this white board to the wall and using dry erase markers to write three letter words for your little one to erase. The board I have recommended is magnetic, so you can put the magnet letters on it too. With these resources, you can write three letter words on the white board and have your child erase them while reading them.
  • Sidewalk Chalk – Write three letter words on your sidewalk in a hopscotch pattern, and have your little one hop on them and read them.
  • Change-A-Sound Flip Books – I LOVED using these flip books to teach my children how to sound out words. I like how they have sections where the beginning, middle, and ending sound change in the word. The pictures are also great for building vocabulary.
  • Phonics Flip Books – These 34 flip books focus on patterns such as long and short vowels, digraphs, and blends.
  • Starfall Three Letter WordsStarfall is an AMAZING resource for teaching your little one the ABCs, basic math, and how to read. They have an amazing three letter word interactive game that is so fun for kids. The membership is $35/year and WELL WORTH every penny.
  • Montessori Crosswords – Fun Phonics Game for Kids – This app is great for teaching three letter words using pictures and boxes for the letters. I like how you can choose between upper and lowercase as well as cursive.

Usborne Books

I am an Usborne book consultant because I LOVE their books! The pages are super durable, the stories are interesting, the vocabulary development is phenomenal, and the people and Usborne GET reading. They know that children should start young…I’m talking babies…and provide PLENTY of resources to get your little ones interested in reading. If you purchase books through these links (which will lead you to my own Usborne website), I will make a commission, so I thank you kindly.

  • Phonics Readers (20 Book Collection) – These phonics books blow anything I have ever seen out of this world! In some phonics readers, they focus so heavily on one certain sound that it overpowers the text. Not so with these! If you flip to the end of the book, there’s a section for parents that explains what the focus is and how to use the books which is great! Every book in this series is so well done. I mean, this is quality literature for sure that your little readers will learn how to decode with repeated reading. The rhyming text makes figuring out the last word very predictable. I like pausing to give my little ones a chance to say the last word as they are learning how to read. The series includesBug in a Rug, Goat in a Boat, Llamas in Pajamas, Raccoon on the Moon, Cow Takes a Bow, Snail Brings the Mail, Bee Makes Tea, Underpants for Ants, Crock Gets a Shock, Crow in the Snow, Fox on a Box, Ted in a Red Bed, Ted’s Shed, Hen’s Pens, Fat Cat on a Mat, Goose on the Loose, Frog on a Log, Toad Makes a Road, Mouse Moves House, and Big Pig on a Dig
  • My First Reading Library (50 Book Collection) – This is the best set of books you could ever buy! I have totally used all of these books to teach my children how to read from a young age. I love how each book has two levels of text. One page has minimal text for the child to read, often in the form of a word bubble, and the other page has more text for the parent to read. When your child is ready, he or she can read both pages!
Scott Reading Julian His Favorite Usborne Phonics Book

Scott Reading Julian His Favorite Usborne Phonics Book

In Conclusion

Teaching children to sound out three letter words is the beginning of their independent reading journey. With each of my children, once they get to this part after building a strong foundation with letter names and letter sounds, understanding that words have meaning, building vocabulary, and building phonemic awareness, reading seems to take off as if by MAGIC. It’s like they have broken the code and are in the same fervor as Helen Keller’s water scene where she finally understands that the letters Anne Sullivan is putting together in her hand are words that represent things in her world. Teaching phonics doesn’t need to wait until children are in school, it doesn’t need to happen with piles of worksheets, and it doesn’t have to be more complicated than sounding out three letter words. So teach your child young and teach him or her often, and you will be amazed at what your child can do!

Check out all of the blogs in my reading series:

  1. How to Introduce Your Baby to Reading
  2. Learning the Alphabet Lays the Foundation for Reading
  3. Memorizing Words is What Good Readers Do
  4. Building Vocabulary with Colors, Numbers, and Shapes
  5. Phonemic Awareness Leads to Reading Success
  6. Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Words
  7. Encouraging Children to Read Independently
  8. Reinforcing Reading with Writing

Coloring Over Words Pre-Reading Activity

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A Word Coloring Pre-Reading Activity

I love getting out large pieces of paper, writing words and pictures on them, and have my toddlers and preschoolers color over them. This is a great pre-reading activity that helps children to memorize words (which is a much bigger part of learning to read than most people think). Best of all, it’s so easy to set up and do!

I have done different versions of this activity with every one of my children, and it has been a HUGE part of what has helped them to all start reading at very young ages.

Materials Needed

  • Paper – You can use rolls of paper, large sheets, smaller sheets, or even just plain computer paper. You can also do this activity using a spiral notebook or composition notebook so that you can save all of your drawings to read later.
  • Markers – I love buying markers like these in bulk when it’s back to school season. You can also use crayons or colored pencils, but markers require less effort for little hands and produce a very satisfying line.
  • Stickers – I love getting the big Melissa and Doug sticker set like this and this. You get a lot of stickers for $5/book, and the kids love them.
  • *Write-On Wipe Off Books – I have tried many different write-on wipe-off books, and the ones by Priddy Books are by far the best. (Don’t forget some Expo markers.) Little ones don’t need to be ready to write their letters to enjoy coloring in these books. My toddlers and preschoolers love coloring over the letters, pictures, and words and this is another great way to get children familiar with their ABCs andto learn more vocabulary.

Directions

    1. Write a smattering of short and familiar words on the paper. I like to use words that reflect their interests, but start each child with many of the same basic words like: hi, clap, wave, cat, dog, sun, bus, car, etc. (You can always type “teaching three letter words” into Google to get more ideas for words to use and resources like this as well.)
    2. Draw little pictures next to some of the words. When a word is new, I like to draw a little picture next to it. Many times I’ll even choose words based on how easy the picture would be to draw! But then after they are familiar with the word, I don’t draw the picture every time so that they can memorize the word without the visual aid.
    3. Keep writing while they color. My little ones love coloring side by side with me. I don’t typically prepare these ahead of time (unless I’m holding a baby and trying to video record at the same time), but rather we do it together. Sometimes we’ll work on the same sheet and other times they’ll color one while I prepare another.
    4. Write down names of family members. Even though names are typically longer and have more complicated spelling patterns, these are among some of the first words my little ones are able to read. In addition to the names of family members, you could also include their ages, relation (brother, sister, cousin, etc.), favorite color, girl/boy, etc.
    5. Write down letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. Children who have a strong understanding of these basic concepts will have a very strong foundation in the basics needed to succeed in preschool and kindergarten. Some of my children like seeing the whole alphabet written out, others just like a smattering of letters and the same goes with the other categories as well.
    6. Use stickers for a treat. Every so often, I like to mix things up with stickers. After putting the sticker on the paper, I will label it.
    7. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I am a big believer in following a child’s lead, and so I like to do this activity whenever my child shows an interest. This might mean we’ll do it every day or only a couple of times a month. Right now, Julian(2) LOVES coloring and so we do this activity often. I use the same words over and over again until he has mastered them or loses interest, and then I’ll cycle in new words.

Here’s a video of Julian coloring some words that I have prepared.

In Conclusion

This activity seems so simple and so easy it’s like, why even write a blog about it? But I’m telling you, it is PROFOUND in helping children learning how to read.

Not only that, but it is a fun and special bonding time between you and your child where you’re working together, sitting side by side, having little conversations, learning about his or her specific interests, practicing the fine motor skills necessary to hold a writing utensil, and having fun!

We get so busy as parents, that doing an activity like this allows for a moment in a hectic day where you can teach, bond, and build memories together, and what could be better than that?

Coloring Station

Coloring Station

Coloring Stickers

Coloring Stickers

Coloring Write-On Wipe-Off Books

Coloring Write-On Wipe-Off Books