Why You Should Stop Saying “Sound It Out” and What You Should be Saying Instead

Ah, the 80s! Big hair, fluorescent socks, and one-size-fits-all reading strategies. Those were the days! Well, all nostalgia set aside, those really were the days of the single prompt at the point of difficulty. You remember it. You joined the blue birds reading group with your anthology in tow. Your teacher asked you to read aloud in the group and you inevitably came to a word you didn’t know. You paused. You panicked. You looked at your teacher for guidance. And you heard her say, “Just sound it out!”

In all honesty, I’ve caught myself many times repeating this phrase in guided reading groups over the years. And to be fair, it works once in a while. Take CVC words, for example. If you apply basic sounds to each letter in the word, and you blend it together, you can successfully decode the word. Unfortunately, CVC words don’t show up 100% of the time in our texts. Unless you’re talking about decodable text, but that’s another post altogether (Run, Forrest! Run!).

So what’s a student reader to do? If “sound it out” only works a fraction of the time, what else should they be doing to decode unknown words? In order for students to have decoding success more often with more kinds of words they need to recognize the sounds associated with larger portions a word. This includes digraphs, diphthongs, inflectional endings, word families, etc. We want their little light bulbs to go off when they recognize a spelling pattern they’ve been taught, and be able to apply that spelling pattern when they write too.

To help our students decode new words we may still need to prompt them to do so (though the ultimate goal is for them to try a variety of strategies without prompting). So what should we be saying instead of “sound it out”?

Drumroll . . .

Try saying, “use your sounds”.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “That’s the same thing, isn’t it?” Nope! Think about it – “sound it out” communicates the idea that students need to attend to each sound separately. But “use your sounds” opens up the possibilities for students to use everything they know about sounds, including the spelling patterns you’ve introduced. It’s an open invitation to try different strategies for decoding too, like . . .

  • Attending to beginnings, endings, and the middle parts of words
  • Focusing on parts of words that look like ones they already know
  • Transferring a rhyming part from one word to another
  • Using small word parts to read bigger words
  • Swapping out vowels to fluently decode unknown words

And without being hemmed in by an 80s flashback, students are now free to think more broadly about what word attack strategy try (ahem, cross-checking anyone?).

My favorite thing about prompting students to “use your sounds” is when they began to consistently monitor their own word-solving accuracy. Crazy cool!

Will you ditch an old school habit in favor of a slightly shinier version? Try it out and let me know how it goes!