Missing Piece in the Learning to Read Puzzle

//Missing Piece in the Learning to Read Puzzle

Missing Piece in the Learning to Read Puzzle

Do you have children having trouble learning to read?

Maybe you know that all the research says to teach Phonics, and you’re doing that but your child is still “stuck” or not progressing as expected?

There is a MISSING PIECE of VITAL information that will make a huge difference.


We all know that based on current research, the optimal way to teach children to read is via an approach called “Systematic and Explicit Instruction of Synthetic Phonics”.





Certainly, when children and teenagers with reading difficulties come to us at Starfish (or to our consultancy) for intensive tutoring in almost every instance we find that there are significant gaps in their PHONICS knowledge.

But we ALSO almost ALWAYS find that even if they do have a reasonable grasp of phonics (the sounds the letters represent) they do not know how to join those sounds together – or they have great difficulty doing so.

There may be a few reasons for that:

  1. they may be over-relying on guessing, sight words, the first few letters in a word
  2. they may have visual tracking issues (for lots of differing reasons)
  3. they may working memory pr0blems
  4. they may not have been taught how to join sounds on

So let me explain what this missing piece is – the technique, why it works and how to do it.

Firstly, a little disclaimer:  I did not invent this technique.  Like all good teachers, I was honing my skills and happened to be observing a session many years ago between a Speech Therapist and a 9yr girl at Dalwood (a Department of Education intensive service in Sydney for rural students experiencing significant learning difficulties).  This is where I first saw this strategy at work.  

Sounding Out

When I was little and learning to read, I distinctly recall being told to “sound it out” when stuck oil a word when reading.  I would then dutifully sound out the word (using the sounds the letters represented) : c – r – u – s – t

Somehow I had to miraculously join those 5 distinct and separate sounds together.

Like most children, I had trouble doing this.

If I knew the sounds, I then had trouble joining them all together.

I know NOW – it is virtually impossible for most children to perform that task because most children can only hold 3 or 4 items in their working memory!!!!!



To read more on working memory and Cognitive Load theory you can go a fabulous link here.

There is also a link to the blog of Pamela Snow here, where amongst a load of other really interesting material working memory is also discussed.



Yet, that is what are expecting children to do when we ask them to “sound it out”.  We are asking them to do the impossible – to hold more items in their working memory than what they are able.  In the case of the example above ‘crust’ to hold 5 separate sounds in working memory – and manipulate them by joining them together.

What happens instead, when we insist on them “sounding out” is:

  • they ‘drop’ sounds out so they might say but, lunt, lut or
  • they jumble the sounds and say tub, lub or
  • even add in sounds and say trub or
  • guess a word based on the first sound (purely because they are smart, and desperately trying to think of a word that makes sense).

We see this ALL the time.

Unless we teach children how to join sounds on, we are setting them up to fail.

Joining a sound on “one at a time”

The solution is so logical and so simple – it is not rocket science – and it is easy to teach. Some children will pick it up quickly, within a session or two.  Some may take much longer.  But it WORKS.  And even with the children that takes a lot longer, we stick at it. We persist, because we know they will get there, too.

By teaching children to join on one sound at a time, it means they are not overloading their working memory.

I prefer to use the Educational bricks in the video.  You can purchase them in our store or online here


This is how I have my educational bricks set up.








You can definitely use magnetic letters, or little letter strips or even pen and paper. But I love the bricks for two reasons:

  1.  They’re concrete manipulatives
  2. They clearly show on ONE brick how sometimes you need two or more letters to make one sound eg ay or ai
If you do wish to use the magnetic letters, I’ll put the link for purchasing here.

You can see two brief clips of me working with young students, using the joining strategy here.

Some tips when teaching children to join on one chunk at a time:

  • it is NOT necessary that children know all the sounds the letters of the alphabet make before starting to teach the joining strategy
  • start with short vowel words first and CVC (consonant vowel consonant) eg cap, beg, tip, mop, bug
  • progress to CVCC words, then CCVC then CCVCC
  • when children begin learning digraphs, you can include those in words as well eg shrub, much

Word lists

In the video I talk about my “cheat book”  – it a a resource I made quite a few years ago with lists of words to use for the above.  For example, I have loads of CVC words (for each vowel sound), heaps of CVCC words etc  I made it by going through all my teaching resources and believe it or not, flicking through a dictionary twice – all to get good words for my lists!

But you guys don’t need to do that.  These days, there is a website called Worksheet Genius, which i often recommend to people.  It has loads of word lists for you, and it is FREE.  It even has other options like making your own flash cards or word finds amongst a whole heap of other things.  I’ll put the link here for you.

Once children get quite good at this joining strategy it becomes more automatic, which is what we’re after.  We certainly don’t want children having to use this strategy with every word in a text – it would be a very slow laborious task!  

With time and practice, we move to chunking groups of letters/sounds together which will improve fluency.For example, blends  (tr, cl, str, nd, nk) word families and rimes (est – nest, rest, best).

I hope you find this post helpful.  Let me know if you have any questions.

Kath (one of our brilliant tutors) and I are “taking requests” for video topics and would welcome any suggestions for upcoming blogs and vlogs.

Kirstie xx

By |2019-02-19T04:53:59+00:00January 11th, 2019|Language- literacy|0 Comments

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