Teaching a child to read and write

First published in SPELD SA newsletter Spring 2008

The aim of this article is to go through the process of teaching a child to read and write, step by step. It assumes reading readiness skills including the ability to recognise symbols, provide rhyming words and say the first sound in a word.

For early reading to be successful and enjoyable, a child needs:

• To know the sounds of the letters of the alphabet
• To be able to blend 2 and 3 sounds to form words eg a-t (at), s-i-p (sip)
• Carefully chosen texts that they can manage independently
• Stories they can read within their concentration span

For early writing to be successful and enjoyable, a child needs:

• To be able to form all the lowercase letters of the alphabet correctly at a size that is comfortable
• To be able to identify the beginning, end and middle sounds in 3-letter consonant-vowel-consonant words
• Carefully structured writing tasks that they can manage independently; eg complete a sentence using two words chosen from a group
• Tasks they can complete within their concentration span

This article will present a practical, manageable plan for achieving the requirements above.

Set Up

Learning sessions:

• Set aside 5 minutes, 5 times a week, every week of the year
• Set a timer; and
• Stop the moment the buzzer goes off
• Set SMART (Short, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time limited) goals eg, read alternate pages in a story for 3 minutes
• Reward goal achievement eg, with praise, stars, stickers, a game
• Praise attention
• Acknowledge strengths
• Negotiate - control to student


Step 1

Learning letter sounds

English has 42 main sounds. Some sounds are written with two letters, such as ee and or. These are called digraphs. Note that oo and th can each make two different sounds, as in look and soon, them and thing. To distinguish between the two sounds, these digraphs are represented in two forms below. Jolly Phonics, a popular introductory literacy program, presents the sounds in 7 sets at a rate of 6 sounds a week.

Week 1: s, a, t, p, i, n

Week 2: ck, e, h, r, m, d

Week 3: g, o, u, l, f, b

Week 4: ai, j, oa, ie, ee, or

Week 5: z, w, ng, v, oo, oo

Week 6: y, x, ch, sh, th, th

Week 7: qu, ou, oi, ue, er, ar

When teaching a sound it is important to teach the sound and how to form the letter(s) at the same time.

For example, this is how you might teach the letter ‘s’ and its sound.

a) Learning the sound of the letter ‘s’

Teacher presentation

Teacher: This is a letter of the alphabet. Its sound (s) is heard at the beginning of the word snake: s-nake.

You say: snake-(s).

Supported practice

Teacher: What is the beginning sound in snake?

Student: (s)

Teacher: helps student to say: ‘snake-s’

Tracing the letter 's' on a whiteboard

b) Learning how to write the letter ‘s’

Present large lower case printed letter on a board

1. Show child how to write it.

2. Say sound aloud. Trace letter several times.

3. Say sound aloud. Copy letter.

4. Say sound aloud. Write from memory.

5. Say sound aloud. Write with eyes closed.

c)To provide regular practice in sounding and writing a letter, make a sound book. Start with a half-size exercise book with blank pages. As you teach each sound, paste a 5cm high copy of the letter and a small picture that starts with the sound on the page. Child traces over the letter saying the sound aloud

Practice forming and sounding the letter(s)

• For new letters, ask the child to trace the letter in their sound book, with their finger, saying the sound aloud, 5 times
• To revise previously learned letters, randomly choose letters from the sound book and ask the child to trace and say the sound aloud.
• For variety, call or show the letter sounds already learnt in a different order and ask the child to write the letter in the air. Watch. If formation is not correct, say nothing. Focus on correctly tracing the letter in the sound book or on the board another day.

Tracing the letter S in a sound book Air writing with two hands together

How to choose a child’s first readers

• Once a child knows the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, they are ready for their first readers.
• Because children need to achieve success to develop confidence in their reading skills, it is important to provide revision and pre-teaching so they can read a new story without error.
• The reading program that is arguably the best in the world in terms of its careful step-by-step, no surprises, phonically developmental progression is the Fitzroy Program, an Australian series of 70 stories.

The Fitzroy Program Fitzroy readers

To ensure success, each book includes

1. revision tasks on page i
2. pre-teaching on page ii of the new sound and special words (words that have to be learned by rote) that are introduced in the story


What follows is an overview of how to approach a Fitzroy reader with a child, followed by a sample weekly program.

1. Page i revision

letters we know

Say the letter sounds, one-by-one, and the child to say each sound as they form the letter in the air. To add variety, they can form the letters with their finger on the carpet, in sand etc. Keep it quick.

words we know

For variety:

1. Read one vertical or horizontal line of words a day

Letters we know and words we know
2. Time their reading of each line or row. Can they say the words quicker the next day

3. Match word cards.

  • Print each word on four blank cards. Choose about 6 different words a day (6 different words x 4 copies of each word). Spread the words out. Give the child one card and say the word eg had
  • Ask the child to pick up the other three cards with the same word, saying the word, as they pick the card up. Time them. Do this for each of the 6 words. Can they go quicker the next day?

Word matching Word recognition

4. Play snap

  • With the words in sets of four, divide the cards between two people. Each person gets two of each word. Each person shuffles their cards.
  • With the word cards face up, take turns to say the word on your top card and put it on the table.
  • When you have a match, say the word, put your hand on the card as you lay it down, and call SNAP.
  • The player with most cards at the end wins.

Play snap

2. Page ii introduction to new sound and special words

new sound

• Look through the story. Find each word with the new sound, and sound it aloud. The sounds must be said quickly to hear the word. Blending sounds to make a word is easier if the first sound is said louder.

New sound and special words Find the special word

special words

• Look through the story. Find and say the special words, one at a time.
• Learn any (new) words that may be unfamiliar.
• Write the special words immediately on cards to help the child visually match the word when the page is turned

Find the special word 'was'

Why is the revision and pre-teaching of new sounds and special words so important? The psychological benefit of taking a child through these steps before reading is that they will be less likely to stumble over the text. If they try to read without the necessary preparation, they may find learning to read difficult and be discouraged.

3. Read the story

For variety
• Take turns to read page by page. Adult starts.
• Read together
• Ask the child to re-read a page or two and time them. Ask them to read the same pages the next day. Are they quicker? Repeated readings of the same passage are a good way to develop reading fluency.

Points to remember

1. When reading, make sure that the child doesn’t ever guess words. It is better to err on the side of sounding out words rather than not sounding them out, since children have a habit of looking at pictures and guessing words rather than ‘decoding’ them.

With phonics, students should be able to successfully ‘decode’ words, so they don’t need to guess. Guessing does not guarantee accuracy and is a bad habit.

2. Stop when the buzzer goes.

3. For the advanced stories where there is a long list of special words to be learned, break the list in two or three and teach each list on a separate day. This makes it easier to remember the words.

4. Store word cards and use them for regular practice through card games.

An example of a week’s program based around Story 5: The Pet Hen The pet hen

Day 1 goals

Letters we know: trace large examples of w, v, l on the board and say the sound aloud as it is written
Words we know: read the words together
New sound: Find each word with the ‘e’ sound and sound it aloud eg h-e-n > hen
Special word: Find the special word ‘was’ by matching to the card and saying ‘was’

Day 2 goals

Letters we know: copy w, v, l large on a board and say the sound aloud
Words we know: find and read the words with ‘o’ in the middle, teacher gives example eg h-o-t > hot
Read the story together: As you read, relate to real life.

  • Ask the child if they have seen or touched a live hen. Ask the child to tell you one thing they know about a hen.
  • Check child knows what a vet does.

Find the words with 'o' in the middle

Day 3 Goals

Letters we know: write w, v, l, and say the sound aloud, large on board (teacher says the sound or shows letter on card)
Words we know: find and read the words with ‘a’ in the middle, teacher gives example eg m-a-n > man
• Read the story, alternating pages.
• Ask the child to read a short sentence (5 words or less) from the story for you to write.
• Teach the child strategies for learning to spell the special words.

Write a five word sentence from the story as the child reads it to you

Spelling the special words

The following is a multisensory approach to teaching the spelling of special words eg was, said

• Look at the word to find the tricky bit(s). Trace over tricky bits in colour.
• Trace over and then copy the word in large writing on a board
• Ask the child to write the word in the air saying the letters.
• Ask the child to look at the word and try to remember it visually.
• Ask the child to write the word in the air with eyes closed
• Cover the word and see if the child can write it correctly. Child ticks each correct letter
• Say the word as it sounds. Say the word so each sound is heard. For instance, the word was is said as w-a-s, to rhyme with has, the word Monday is said as 'Mon-day'.
• Mnemonics. The initial letter of each word in a sentence gives the correct spelling of a word. For instance, was – We ate sausages.
• Keep an alphabet book of special words for ready reference.

Self checking the spelling

Day 4 Goals

Letters we know: write w, v, l on a piece of paper. Child says the sound as they write the letter

Writing letters we know on a whiteboard
Words we know: spread out 6 different words with 4 cards for each word. Ask the child to pick up the cards in sets, saying the word as they pick up each card. Show them how to do the first set. Divide the sets of cards into 2 and give 2 cards from each set to 2 players. Play snap.
• Take the sentence you wrote yesterday.
• Ask the child to read it aloud.
• Then ask the child to trace over the words, twice.

Tracing the letters two times
• Then ask the child to copy the sentence. If you think they will be able to write the words correctly, dictate the words one by one, giving punctuation. If you think they might get some of the words wrong, stop and do some more practice tomorrow.

Day 5 GoalsSPELD SA sells these fridge magnets - see the shop

Letters we know: Teach the child to write ‘e-t’, ‘et’ and sound it as one unit. Put each of the letters we know (w, v, l) in front of ‘et’ and ask the child to read the words:
w-et > wet
v-et > vet
l-et > let

Words we know: spread out the 6 sets of words not used yesterday. Ask the child to put the cards in sets, saying the word as they pick up each card. Show them how to do the first set. Divide the sets of cards into 2 and give 2 cards from each set to 2 players. Play snap with words Dictationfacing up. Each player must say the word as they put their card down.

Dictation: If you stopped yesterday before dictating the sentence, ask the child to trace the sentence several times and copy twice. Dictate word by word and give punctuation. Ask the child to check their dictated work, ticking each letter they got right. Count the ticks and reward.


The focus of the activities above is on reading and handwriting skills. However, it is important to teach writing and comprehension at the same time. One way to do this is to use Fitzroy Word Skills. These are workbooks that contain written tasks to complement the stories.

Using the Fitzroy word skills book

Tasks focus on
 The new letter sound and special words
 Comprehension
 Extension activities
 Word puzzles

Use the Set Up for learning sessions above and keep written tasks to less than 5 minutes.

Keep reading to your child

For enjoyment and to give access to materials they cannot manage independently*, continue to read stories, fact books, poetry and rhymes to your child. This will increase their vocabulary and improve their comprehension as well as giving you both pleasure. Again, I would limit sessions to around 10 -15 mins.

*For independent reading, a child should make no more than one error per ten words.

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