Beyond Sounding it Out: Prompts to Make Strong Readers

“Sound it out” is perhaps the most commonly heard advice handed down from adult to new reader. As kids learn to read, they definitely need to know their letter sounds and how to blend sequences of sounds together to form words. No doubt about it, “sound it out” is a very good prompt for new readers who are faced with an unknown word such as c-a-t, u-p, or y-e-s.

But “sound it out” has its limits. Do you know what happens when you use this prompt for the word “right” or “one” or “people?” You are likely to hear a hopeless jumble of letter sounds that may sound something like “rig-hut” or “on-ee” or “pee-o-plee”…and that’s if you’re lucky. While the reader is busy decoding nonsense sounds, she will have completely lost track of what she was reading in the first place!

The purpose of reading is always to construct meaning, so we want to emphasize this even with the most beginning readers. Reading is much more than stringing sequences of sounds together; reading is a complex process of constructing meaning out of text through a variety of sources. We want readers who can decode AND comprehend.  We want to make sure our prompts support the development of a variety of problem-solving skills and reading strategies. That’s where the well-chosen prompt becomes very useful.

Good readers use three cuing systems: Visual, syntactic, and meaning. This means good readers are simultaneously making sense of a text through visual clues (letter sounds, sight words, word chunks, beginning-middle-end of words, pictures); syntax (how the text sounds); and meaning (what is the text saying?). Good readers have strategies to problem solve unknowns as they read using all three cuing systems. They monitor their own reading.  They know when something isn’t right (known as a “miscue”) because it doesn’t make sense, look right, or sound right, and they have strategies to fix errors (self-correction).

I find the most useful first prompt for emerging readers at point of difficulty is: “Get ready with the first sound.” Often emerging readers can get the first letter sound of a word, such as “b” in balloon, even if they don’t have any idea what that word is! We always want to prompt readers to make the first sound of a word (and later the first chunk). By doing this, it eliminates possibilities that don’t make any visual sense. For instance, say we have the sentence “I like balloons,” and the reader is stuck at balloons. If she makes the “b” sound, she is not going to guess the word “cake”, even if there is a cake in the picture, too.

“Can the picture help you?” For very beginning readers, the first letter sound, combined with a picture clue can help the reader make a solid try at an unknown word. Say the reader uses the “b” sound and the picture, then “reads” the word “balloon.” The next prompt could encourage visual checking: “That makes sense. You read I like balloons. We know this word starts with “b.” What letter would you expect to see at the end of the word balloon?” Then, the child looks to the end of the word for another visual/sound clue to check the word.

The point is, there are a variety of prompts to help readers develop all three cuing systems. Here are some possible options developed by Marie Clay to consider when young readers hit a point of difficulty:

Prompts for meaning
Did that make sense?
Can the picture help you?
What do you think it might be?

Prompts for syntax (sound)
Did that word sound right?
How would we say that?

Prompts for Visual information
Does that look right?
What sound does the word start with?
What would you expect to see at the beginning, middle, and end?
Do you see a chunk you know in that word?
Are you looking carefully at the letters?

Prompts for self-monitoring
Try that again.
Check that word. Were you right?
How did you know that?

Prompts for self-correcting
Point to the tricky part. What do you know that can help you?
Are you right about ___________? Could it be __________?
Take a closer look at that word.
Did you check the middle of the word?
The word __________ would make sense, but look at __________.

There are many choices for prompting young readers. We want our prompts to open doors to allow independent problem solving and to support the construction of meaning. Because of this, I am always very sparing in my use of the “sound it out” prompt. In certain cases, it is the best possible thing to say. But in others, those three words can lead a child into a confusing string of incomprehensible letter sounds. It can be like falling into a well. It’s hard to get out of there.


California Early Literacy Learning; Swartz & Shook, 1994; Swartz, Shook, & Klein, 1998.

Clay, Marie; Reading Recovery

Categories: Ivy Sandz, Literacy Access, Reading, Teaching