Helping Students Distinguish Sounds in Phonics

A frequent question from homeschool parents, tutors, and teachers is how do I help children to distinguish the sounds in phonics?  There are several ideas to try, depending on the severity of the issue:

* When teaching the alphabet, it is usually easier for children to associate the sound of consonants with the letter symbol if the sound is “embedded” in the letter name.  An example is /m/, so that when the child says “emmmmm” the sound is formed in association with the letter symbol.  Teaching these consonants first helps children get off to a start in reading.

* I prefer to do overkill on teaching the short vowel sounds and put hand cues to them, so that the cue is associated with a clue word AND the mouth formation.  Before introducing any other vowel combinations, I teach short vowels and silent-e syllables, which greatly reduces spelling confusion and helps to make a transition into other sounds.

* Often the consonant blends are taught in isolation or in a mixed format.  I prefer to group the “l” blends (such as bl, cl, fl), the “r” blends (such as br, pr, tr) and the “s” blends (such as sm, st, and sc).  By grouping rules, children often can associate the patterns within words.

* Many of my students have difficulty in “hearing” the difference in triple blends (such as str, spr, and scr).  When teaching and spelling these rules, I do many sorting activities where the child reads the rules/words, listens to the rules within words while looking at my face, and listens to the rules within words where they cannot see my lip movements.

*  For students who mispronounce words, having them orally repeat words to check whether they have processed the sounds correctly is important.  If students mispronounce both one and multi-syllable words, their spelling will be affected.

*  For students who have much difficulty distinguishing phonetic sounds, who have trouble segmenting and blending sounds in words when reading, or who are unable to associate sounds with symbols when spelling, exploring further is there are auditory processing issues involved can help reduce these difficulties in learning to read and spell.  For those children who have more severe difficulties, having an assessment done by a speech/language pathologist and/or an audiologist can help pinpoint if there is truly an auditory processing deficit in the way the child takes in sounds and stores them.  To explore auditory processing further, check out these websites: or  Both of these websites offer information about auditory processing speed,  auditory discrimination, auditory memory, etc.  For more information and reasorces e-mail us at or callus at 406-771-0069

Not every child warrants assessment or intervention–many times using a multisensory approach to teaching or a phonics program that isolates skills may be helpful.  Or repetitious drill–mostly adults get bored from repetition–children are often secure in what they can do well.


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