Chances are, if someone asks us how we learned to read, we say "I learned how to sound out words" or some variation of this. "Sound it out" is a go-to phrase used by parents and teachers to tell children how to attempt reading a word. But, do we believe that this is the best or only way to support children in their early reading?
Sounding out is not a foolproof method for figuring out unknown words, or for making sense of a chunk of text. Some people might say that sounding out words actually hinders, rather than helps, readers comprehend a text because many words cannot be "sounded out." Also, by focusing only on the individual parts and sounds of a word, the reader is not thinking about what the word means, or how it fits into the context of the whole story.
Children do need to have phonemic awareness, but there are other strategies that could be more helpful in understanding a text as a whole:
~ Use the visual information (pictures) surrounding the text to generate ideas about what an unknown word might be.
~ Tell students to think about the context of the sentences they have already read. See if there is a pattern in the words that might help them figure out the unknown word, or come up with possible words that fit into that part of the story.
~ Rather than sounding out an entire word, look at the first letter and think of a word within the context of the story that begins with that sound.
~ Continue to give students more strategies throughout the process of learning to read. Every child learns differently, so what works for some may not be the best strategy for others.
The conclusion here, it seems, is that the best strategy for early reading is to use a variety of strategies which work together to help young readers understand texts. Instead of focusing only on sounding out words, let's encourage children to solve words using multiple strategies.