Reading 101: A Guide for Parents

Phonics and Decoding: Activities for Your First Grader

The goal of phonics instruction is to help children learn the alphabetic principle — the idea that letters represent the sounds of spoken language — and that there is an organized, logical, and predictable relationship between written letters and spoken sounds.

Overview

A child with strong decoding skills uses this knowledge of sound-letter correspondence to read familiar and unfamiliar words, and begin to read with ease. Decoding relies on the rules of phonics, so first graders need to memorize words that don’t follow those rules. 

In first grade, your child becomes a more skillful decoder and can do these things:

  • Blend or break apart the individual sounds (phonemes) of most one-syllable words, like sip and bat
  • Read words with long vowel sounds (see, say, so)
  • Begin to sound out more complex words, including words with silent "e" at the end.

Decoding takes a lot of practice! You can help your child build phonics skills with some of the activities described here — and by offering lots of encouragement as your child gains confidence with this big step into becoming a reader.

Here are some basic tips on how to help your child build phonics skills:

Talk about letters and sounds

Help your child learn the names of the letters and the sounds the letters make. Turn it into a game! "I'm thinking of a letter and it makes the sound mmmmmm."

Model finger-point reading

That means to follow the words with your finger from left to right as you read them. Your beginning reader will do the same thing for awhile.

Practice patience!

Beginning readers may read slowly. Give your child time to decode the words, and avoid jumping in too quickly.

Encourage attention to letters and sounds

If your child is stuck on a word, prompt them to look at the first letter of the word and make the letter's sound. Of course, only do this for words that can be sounded out! If the word can't be sounded out, just supply the word for them.

What strong decoding looks like in first grade

Try these phonics activities at home

Fridge fun

Magnetic letters can provide lots of easy phonics practice right in your kitchen. For an alphabet refresher, ask your child to arrange the letters in alphabetical order. Next, ask her to pick out a letter, think of a simple three- or four-letter word that starts with that letter, and spell it out on the refrigerator. Can your child think of more words to spell with that first letter? Finally, see if she can change one letter in the word to make a new word.

Scrambled words

Draw three boxes side by side on a piece of paper. Using magnetic letters or letters written on paper, scramble the letters of a simple three-letter word (big, bug, top, ran) under the boxes. Have your child unscramble the letters and place them into the correct box.

Extra, extra!

Ask your child to find and cut out all the words in a newspaper or magazine that she can read. Glue or tape them onto a piece of paper and practice reading them together.

The "H Brothers"

Explain to your child that sometimes two letters will stand together to create one new sound. The “H Brothers” join with other letters to make the sounds: sh, ch, th, wh and ph. Write down some example words and use multisensory props and gestures to help your child remember the new letter combination. Here's a fun idea for telling the story of the H Brothers to reinforce the concept.

Spelling lightning round

Talk or play games about letter sounds for a few minutes each day. While driving or cooking dinner, give your child a simple two-letter word and a three-letter word to spell. Choose words that are spelled like they sound (at, hot, pet, sip). Give a rousing cheer or high-five for words spelled correctly

Cereal box read aloud

Your breakfast table can offer some easy practice in sounding out words. Together look at the words on your child's cereal box, choose a simple word, and see if your child can sound out the letters as you point to each. Practice blending the sounds to make the word.

Grocery store literacy

Lots of grocery items come in different flavors. Ask your child to help you find a particular flavor by reading the labels. For example, can she find the low fat milk? The tuna fish packed in water? She'll be using her reading skills to find the right item. Put your child in charge of the grocery list. As you put items into the cart, say the word and ask your child to cross it off the list.

Letter-sound dominoes

Try this activity from the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). The FCRR "At Home" series was developed especially for families! Watch the video and then download the activity: Letter-Sound Dominoes. See all FCRR phonics activities here.

Blend it!

First graders will learn how to sound out the letter blends, such as tr, sw, st, sm, sl, pl, gr, fl, dr, cr, cl, br, and bl. This quick game gives your child a chance to practice those blends. Write out a single letter blend on index cards or the backs of used envelopes. Have your child say the sound of the blend and then ask her to name a common object that starts with that sound (you might have to help with this part). Repeat with a few more blends — it's a good idea to keep games like these short and fun. You can also turn this game into a scavenger hunt by asking your child to find the object in the house or outside.

Words in the wild

Words are everywhere! When you're out for a walk or shopping together, point out some simple signage, such as a STOP sign or a store sign that says "Pet Shop." Ask your child if they can sound out the words. Start with easy consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words like pet and then try words with letter blends, like stop and shop.

Listen, listen

Decoding is hard work! Try setting aside time each day to listen to your child read to you, and let him know how much you enjoy hearing him read and how proud you are. If your first grader has a preschool sibling, encourage him to read to his sister or brother (guaranteed to make you smile!).

Dig into decodable books

Through read alouds, kindergarteners should be exposed to a wide range of books that introduce them to rich vocabulary and story structure. But there is also a role for decodable books to help your child practice beginning phonics skills. Decodable books contain a high percentage of words with predictable letter-sound relationships. You'll find a comprehensive list of K-2 books here: Decodable Text Sources.

How do I explain the “ea” vowel combination?

Reading expert Linda Farrell suggests that you begin with the most common pronunciation, and then teach the exceptions. (From our video series Reading SOS: Expert Answers to Family Questions About Reading.)

Sight words

Sight words are common words kids have to recognize instantly without sounding them out. Many sight words are tricky to read — they aren’t spelled the way they sound so they are difficult to decode. Children need to memorize them as early as kindergarten. Here's a list of common sight words for first grade.

Sight word spy

Tell your child that sight words are "hiding in plain sight" everywhere around us. Your child's "mission" is to spot the sight words out in the world (in the grocery store, on a sign, cereal box, or movie poster) and announce "aha, I found you! This silly game can get your child excited about recognizing words — as well as a boost of confidence from knowing how to read them.

Make a game out of sight words

This video is from Home Reading Helper, a resource for parents to elevate children’s reading at home provided by Read Charlotte. Find more video, parent activities, printables, and other resources at Home Reading Helper.

Getting stuck on sight words

Many striving readers struggle with sight words. Reading expert Linda Farrell suggests this teaching sequence: first, be sure your child knows all the letter names, then all the letter sounds — and then you can introduce a few short high-frequency words such as was. Choose words that don't have regular phonetic spelling. (From our video series Reading SOS: Expert Answers to Family Questions About Reading.)

"Books to the ceiling, Books to the sky, My pile of books is a mile high. How I love them! How I need them! I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them." —

Arnold Lobel