Don’t Start at the Very Beginning (Teaching Letter Sounds in Context)

handwritten "The End" on notebook

How can one not start at the beginning, you may be wondering.  “Start” and “beginning” kinda mean the same thing, right?

In keeping with our mission here at Reading Simplified—streamlined instruction, accelerated achievement—I propose you skip the beginning stage of traditional reading instruction: teaching letter sounds in isolation.

Instead, jump to teaching letter sounds in context–in the context of real reading.

I wager with you: If you try the technique described below, your beginning readers will learn to read faster.

Typical Teaching of Letter Sounds

Imagine what happens every morning in most 4K, K or 1st grade classrooms in U.S. classes. Teachers are encouraged to hold up, point to, or highlight on their SMART board a letter and teach its name and often its sound.  Perhaps several letters will be reviewed.  The letters may be contextualized into real words, ideally in a multi-sensory way, yet the focus of the lesson will be on the letter alone, as in



and, at best, on its position in the beginning of a word:





Most curricula and teachers assume that before a child can learn to read, she has to learn the letter names and their sounds.

THEN real reading can start.

Is that true?

Is that the most efficient plan?

Our experience working with hundreds of beginning and struggling readers says,


How to Teach Letter Sounds from the Beginning

Instead of teaching letter names or letter sounds in isolation first, we guide both beginners and struggling readers how to build one word at a time using manipulatives–first. Yes, even if they do not yet know the letter names or sounds.

Here are some of the steps of Build It that allows the teacher to skip past letter names in isolation:

Destinee, what do you hear in this spot in the word, ‘ssssssssat’?

Build It_scrambled_sat


Yes, that’s right this sound (tapping space) in “sssssat” is /s–/.

Do you know which of these (tapping letter-sounds) is /s–/?

Even if Destinee has never had formal reading instruction, she has a 1 in 3 chance of getting the teacher’s question right.

Multiple choice is easier.

It’s one way to scaffold her learning.  Suppose she doesn’t know which letter is /s/. The teacher can simply say,

            No, this (tapping the “s” tile/square) is /s–/, as in the word, “ssssat.”

Then Destinee will move the “s” square into the first line and the teacher will repeat her questioning cycle:

Great! Now listen for the sound you hear in this spot (tapping 2nd spot), when I say, /sssa—–t/ (exaggerating and elongating the short “a” sound).

What sound do you hear?

Build It_s

Yes, that’s right this sound (tapping space) in “ssssaaaat” is /a–/.

Do you know which of these (tapping letter-sounds) is /a–/?

Yes! Pull down the /a—/ and say it as you move it.

Build It_sa_

Now the task is getting easier and easier. The teacher can ask Destinee to finish building the word, “sat.”

Build It_sat
She ends by saying each sound separately (phonemic segmentation) as she points to each: /sss/ /a–/ /t/.

The same coaching through the word can continue with Destinee or with a handful of students in small group instruction. These students will be learning the letter-sounds in a multi-sensory way, but that’s not all!

They will also be learning these other fundamental skills:

  •      How our written language code works (the alphabetic principle)
  •      How to segment words into phonemes (individual sounds)
  •      Left-to-write scanning (a concept about print)

This simultaneous integration of multiple beginning skills makes the instructional time much more efficient.  See our previous blog post, “Integrate, Don’t Isolate” for more about the benefits of integrating multiple skills.

And, yet, I don’t find that this approach simply reduces instructional time.

More importantly, this approach, which we call Build It, moves directly toward a real literacy behavior—spelling real words. Since it’s more like real reading, it makes more sense to young learners, especially those who would otherwise struggle with reading.

Teaching any new skill in the natural context in which it occurs is usually more effective for learning’s sake.

Watch this beginning 4 year-old as she tries to build the word, “sad.” Notice all the reading sub-skills she is putting all together in the context of a meaningful word simultaneously.

Teach Letter-Sounds in Context

girl tossing tennis ball 2

Imagine a tennis instructor who begins the first several weeks of instruction by simply showing and practicing how to toss the ball for a serve.

What if he modeled how it related to serving himself (as in when a teacher reads “p” words), but he doesn’t ever allow the beginner to try to serve?

Yes, practicing a toss in isolation at times may be beneficial, but to begin tennis instruction with just that in isolation will delay many future players.

How high should they toss it?

How will they know if it’s a good toss?

Without a system for getting feedback, this approach at learning how to serve or how to begin in tennis, will be very inefficient.  And those players who have seen little or no real tennis before will be especially


of getting little or nothing out of the experience of tossing a ball in the air over and over again.  All of that info about the experience may even be “filed” away in the their brains in the wrong place because the isolated activity has little or nothing to do with the relevant context of tennis.    

So goes beginning reading instruction as well. 

Teach letter-sounds in the context of real words for spelling and reading and children will more likely:

  •      Learn the letter-sounds more quickly,pink bed build it
  •      Store the information about the letter-sounds in the part of the brain most connected to reading, and
  •      Not miss completely the point of the teacher’s instruction!

Skip the traditional beginning weeks or months of reading instruction and jump right into Build It. However, since this technique is so counter-cultural, you may have doubts….You may doubt whether your K or 1st grade students with limited literacy exposure could handle such a big jump.

You may be surprised to discover that traditional Montessori classrooms have been guiding their 3 and 4 year-old students to begin reading and writing instruction this way for over 100 years–in the context of real words and sentences. Somehow I never learned about the Montessori techniques when I earned my master’s in education. Thankfully, my mother-in-law tuned me into it when her first grandchild (yes, my first-born daughter) needed to find a good pre-school.  What a difference that approach made to our daughter’s ease of learning to read!

In case you still doubt, here’s an example of an advanced 3 year-old doing an activity much like our Build It.


If Montessori children can handle reading and building words at age 3 or 4, is it possible that your student, no matter how limited her experience, could tackle it at 5?

If you’re wondering what the theoretical or research communities have to say about the value of teaching letter-sounds, phonemic awareness, and reading all together, here are some biggies:

  1. The National Reading Panel concluded in its Phonemic Awareness meta-analysis that phonemic awareness instruction combined with decoding was more powerful than phonemic awareness instruction without letters.
  2. Some researchers have tested the isolation vs. integration question directly.  An early study on this by Peter Hatcher, Charles Hulme, and Andrew Ellis can be found here. Briefly: reading + phonemic awareness instruction > than either phonemic awareness or reading instruction alone.
  3. A past president of the International Literacy Association and chair of the National Early Literacy Panel, Tim Shanahan, indicates here that the National Reading Panel “concluded that phonemic awareness and phonics both needed to be taught and that they could and should clearly be connected.”
  4. The ultra-scholarly among us can read deeply into the theory undergirding the Build It approach with Dr. David Share’s “self-teaching hypothesis.”

Please try Build It with a beginning student! And please let me know what questions or concerns you have before trying this approach.

Or, if you have tried it, were there any sticking points?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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21 thoughts on “Don’t Start at the Very Beginning (Teaching Letter Sounds in Context)

  1. Well you certainly flipped the traditional model on its head. I like it. I have always assumed that you would start at the very beginning.

    I have a niece that is learning to read and write now. Her mother is a kindergarten teacher so she would be very open to this approach or at least be willing to try.

    • Ha! Glad the flipped model appeals, Shae.

      It’s so much fun (usually) when teachers get to teach their own children to read. Hope it goes well for them!

  2. Another truly remarkable post! I love how you make it so simple. My daughter was lucky to attend a Montessori preschool last year and started her reading journey with the techniques you described. As she is now 5 and no longer at that pre-school, I am attempting to continue to build upon her skills at home. She knows her letter sounds well and has mastered the three letter words, but I am not sure where to go from here and how to tie in the sight words. She is never keen to practice at home. Any ideas ? Should we be doing reading books? games? writing? Thank you for sharing.

    • Kimya, glad to see you here again! Thank you for the kind words. Yes, please do continue to build on her good foundation by reading words and books. Switch It is a game that I describe here along with word lists: It will help develop her decoding flexibility “mental muscles” and is usually considered fun for 5 min. Also, letter-sound cards to do Switch It are found here:

      Also, the Read It activity that you already read about is an important activity, too. Try to move her into CVCC (i.e., “help” or “must”) and later CCVC words (“flag” or “stop”). If she doesn’t want to sit and do one word at a time with you, you could play a game I call Act It Out. Put individual words on a index cards; have her draw a card; read it; and then act it out a la charades style. Example words for her: hop, rest, jump, fast, swim, spit 😉 etc. If she has the patience to write each word as she says each sound afterwards, great! If not, wait to do that later. (Another idea: you could also write words on post its and place them in funny places around the house. Go on a hunt!)

      Sight words develop best when the child has strong sound-symbol relationships and strong decoding skills (like the flexibility that will develop in Switch It) and THEN she re-reads the same texts multiple times. To motivate, you could create simple books for her with her name in it and include high frequency words and easily decodable CVC and CVCC words, such as “Leslie will jump…..She will run….Leslie is running.” Or you could go to this site for personalized free options:

      Finally, easily decodable texts that she reads with your support and then re-reads several times would be the last step in moving her towards willingness to practice reading with you. Here are some places to find such texts: (free but uses word families so mix with other types);
      Bob books by Bobby Maslen (also good apps with same name);
      Nora Gaydos “Now I’m Reading” Level 1 books Go to the Learn to Read section (they also sell their books for little)

      Apps are great ways to sneak in practice, too. Montessori Crosswords is one of my favorite. I also list my top 7 picks in the sidebar of my blog.

      Hope this sounds doable! I know it’s a lot of info.

      • Wow! As a Kindergarten teacher and mom of a curious 4 y/o boy, this response has answered SO MANY of my wonderings! We use Wilson’s Fundations in my district, which I have found good success with, but need “something else” for my kiddos who struggle to get anything to stick.

        So, I’m hearing:
        -Start with Build It
        -Progress to Switch It
        -Move to Read It
        -Then practice in context (thanks for the resources!!! Beginning phonics/decidable are sooooooo hard to find!)

        Summer vaca just began for us here in CT, but I’m already looking forward to beginning my new year with this knowledge! Thank you so much Marnie!

        • Perfect interpretation, Jess. Sorry I didn’t see this earlier. Hope you’ve got a good plan now for the new year! 🙂

  3. My daughter is 6 and in a Spanish immersion program in kindergarten. I was wondering how learning to read in Spanish would impact her ability to read English words and while I’m not sure what exact methods are being used at school (it’s a combination of “starting at the beginning” and learning in context), she is able to apply the concepts in both languages. It helps that we read a lot too – I usually read a book first, and then I make her read it back to me. She relies on her memory, the pictures, as well as the actual words to get through the book 🙂

    Now I’m curious to try your techniques out with my three year old.

    • Rosanna, good question! How wonderful for her to be in a language immersion program! I’m jealous. Usually, the research indicates that on average children learning 2 languages will be slower at first but end up with far greater cognitive and educational achievements.

      Learning the phonemic (individual sound-based) structure of 2 written languages will develop the cognitive flexibility that’s especially needed to decode words in English (Spanish having a code that’s more 1-to-1 is so much easier). I would recommend the activity Switch It, which I write about here, along with a video:
      Switch integrates multiple reading skills, such as phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, decoding, and flexibility. I might do a little of it with English and then separately a little in Spanish so she gets really good at distinguishing the English short vowel sounds from the Spanish vowel sounds.

      Your current reading relationship sounds awesome! I would keep that going and gradually wean her off you reading everything. Example: Today, ask her to read one word in the book that you’re reading aloud. Then tomorrow ask her to read one word a page. At what ever rate she can handle the transition based on her motivation, just gradually move from doing the work to having her do the work. Sounds like she’s doing well so don’t feel as if you have to rush the transition; I just wanted you to be headed in that general direction for 1st grade.

      Also, the Read It activity is essential to ensure that she does what I can Blend As You Read:

      If you do 5-10 minutes a day of these things several times a week, she will likely learn to read well regardless of the approach of her school. (See above comment for example books if you need easily decodable book examples.)

    • Tami, great question! I generally prefer to teach all reading sub-skills, such as letter-sound knowledge, in small groups. Each group will get better instructional match that way and they’ll progress more rapidly.

      However, if that’s not your preference or is not feasible, I would still do Build It as described in this post. Students would take turns moving the letter-sounds into position on the interactive whiteboard, regular whiteboard/chalkboard, or on overhead projector. Kids would take turns moving individual letter-sounds.

      When a child comes to the front of the room and moves the letter-sound into place, I would ask the whole class to speak aloud that sound at the same time.

      They could also have their own letter-sound cards at their desk and move letter sound along with the one on the board.

      In addition, while Build It would be my main approach to ensure they get a strong foundation in sound-symbol processing, a little reinforcement in isolation won’t hurt. I might sing the alphabet song but say the letter-sounds instead of the letter names, for instance. 🙂 Try it–it sounds funny but you get the hang of it quickly. Or, if they watch a letter-sound video/song like Leap Frog’s Letter Factory. Again, these would reinforce the letter sounds and not names. But these activities in isolation are only secondary to the more meaningful, contextual activity of Build It. Let me know if I’m not addressing your question!

      • Thank you so much. You answered my question. My principal wants me to move away from teaching 2 letters a week and I am looking for alternatives.

  4. I have just discovered your amazing website and blog – thank you!! My question is….do we work through the ‘Build It’ Wordlists in a particular order? I am assuming we start in the very left hand column and work down to the bottom before moving to the next column of words? Sorry if that is a weird question!

    • Great question! Not weird at all. 😉

      Thanks for the kinds words, too. 🙂

      When I plan my lessons for this level of reader, I think about 2 main goals:
      1) Phonemic awareness: How well are they segmenting each sound in CVC words?
      2) Letter-Sound knowledge: Which consonants are they learning? Which short vowels are they learning?

      So, if they can segment CVC words and know more than 5 letter-sounds, they are advancing beyond the need for Build It and I would replace it with Switch It instead (which does the same things as Build It but challenges them more deeply so they learn faster).

      Or, if they are NOT able to segment CVC words yet, we’ll stay with the Build It activity.

      Then, the 2nd goal kicks in for planning purposes–do they know letter-sounds in a given column about 70% of the time?

      If so, I move to the next column–always adding as many consonants, and especially short vowels, as they can handle each day. That’s one way we save time; we’re always adding a new letter-sound (at least) each day. I try not to camp out with just the same-old short vowels day after day.

      So typically developing readers won’t do all of the words in any column and won’t even do all the columns because they’ll move on to Switch It after they know a handful of letter-sounds and can mostly segment CVC words.

      The lists are long to provide a wider selection of words and to support children with learning challenges. In sum, move across the page, from column to column, as aggressively as possible. You may worry that your students can’t handle it, but give it a try! They also may surprise you. The main problem I see with K teachers teaching these skills is that they move too slowly adding letter-sound knowledge and phonemic difficulty.

      Hope this makes sense!

  5. I had the privilege of attending your Letter of the Day session at the IRC reading conference in Peoria last week. You’ve inspired me to do more with my phonics time!
    Is there a spot to download the letter cards?
    Thanks for your help
    Jodie Landers

  6. I need help with how this looks at the start of the year in my K/1 class of 19? I love the academy but feel lost for how to start the year teaching the sounds in small groups. How many in each?? I’ve done 3 kids in each group but it feels overwhelming…6 groups to meet with each day? Help!!❤️

  7. Thank you for such good and easy to follow instructions.
    I teach in an early
    intervention class. Assortrd levels and ages.
    Could you please help me with any ideas on how i can implement this in my class.
    Thank you.

    • Hello Sandra!

      Thank you for your comment! We show teachers and parents how just a small handful of activities can rapidly accelerate all beginning and struggling readers’ decoding. You can learn more about our core techniques in 1 of two ways: 1) You can read about these core activities on our blog here: OR, 2) You can watch an on-demand workshop, 3 Activities a Day to Keep Reading Difficulties Away, when it’s convenient for you. Register for a time for this workshop here:

      Hope this helps!