Happy Cheetah Reading

What You Should Know About Sounding Out Words and Reading

What You Should Know About Sounding Out Words and Reading

As you read this blog post, you aren’t decoding and sounding out every word you encounter in this sentence. Only when we encounter a completely unfamiliar word, do we resort to phonetic sounds, and it is often in segments of word sounds that we recognize. Fluency as a reader is achieved when we no longer need the exercise of sounding out and read accurately, smoothly, and with appropriate expression.

Yet, so often we labor alongside our child as they painstakingly isolate each letter sound in a word. Is this helpful and does it encourage reading fluency?

The Problem with English

Sounding out words is one of the techniques in many programs that teach beginning readers to read. You probably know this process, where children determine each sound in a word, one at a time, then combine them slowly, and then quickly.

You don’t do this when you’re reading. If you went letter by letter through something like, “The time of day when all was finished,” not a single one of those words would make sense.

English is so incredibly irregular!

So it surprised me when I realized that the Happy Cheetah Reading System has no sounding out.

You do make sure that your children know that each letter has a corresponding sound, but phonetically segmenting every word isn’t’ required. Every once in awhile, my son will need to sound a word out, but this only happens when he is reading back a list of unrelated words that he has just spelled. It is never within the context of a story.

When he’s reading a story, he just reads.

He knows the story well enough that even if he doesn’t fully remember the word, he can predict what comes next. Prediction is natural because the brain is contextually driven.


Start your students reading with the thirty stories with Happy Cheetah Reading, a research-driven program for beginning readers.


Sounding Out is Not Natural

Because English is so irregular, good readers use meaning and structure 85% of the time.

When you’re teaching students to read, you want to create this shift for students, so that their brains start to read for meaning and structure. Meaning is pretty obvious: does what they’re reading make sense?

Identifying structure is easier to demonstrate than explain:

  • “Does the word fit where you’re reading it?” makes sense. 
  • “Does fit the word where you’re reading it?” doesn’t make sense. 
  • Let alone something horrible like “Does the reading it fit where word you’re?”

Good readers know this intuitively. Even non-readers can tell the difference!

When students are starting to read and encounter a word they don’t know, they might need to go back to the beginning of the sentence and start again to get a running start towards sense. That’s great! It’s natural problem-solving! But 85% of the time, children predict correctly what the next word will be, even if they aren’t sure.

And if they don’t predict correctly? You supply it and move on. They will see the word again, and they’ll probably remember it next time. The higher the reading level, the less phonetically regular the words are. So teaching sounding out, instead of teaching predicting, is not a good long-term strategy

Phonemic awareness is a useful backup system, but it’s not a good way to build pathways in the brain, and good readers rarely need to sound words out.

Question the Agony of Sounding Out

Reading fluency is a mystery we don’t fully comprehend. Our minds can instantly determine the differences between homographs, homophones, and homonyms. We can read a sentence and immediately use the word “read” with the proper verb tense. This is amazing!

Yes, basic phonemic awareness is helpful for a child just learning to read but isn’t the life-long skill needed for reading fluency. There is an entire toolbox of skills that aren’t as easily visible that will build fluency in reading, so we should not glorify “sounding out.”

sounding out words

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