Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Words (Part 6 in a Teach Your Child to Read Series)

Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Words (Part 6 in a Teach Your Child to Read Series)

Phonics is knowing that letters make sounds and then blending those sounds together to form words. When we think of phonics, often times we think of SPELLING, but really the initial focus should be on sounding out words, not spelling. In the English language, there are sooooooo many variations of spelling and phonics programs will often go over ALL of the ways to spell words.

Kids typically aren’t introduced to phonics until they are in school, but I believe this learning should occur much much sooner. What I have found is that by keeping it simple and teaching my children three letter word families featuring ONLY short vowels using muffin tins and magnet letters in addition to coloring over my written words together, that reading started to take off as if by magic from a very young age.

Building Words with Muffin Tins and Magnet Letters

Building Words with Muffin Tins and Magnet Letters

Age to Start

After children have a solid understanding of letter names and letter sounds and know that words are made up of letters that carry meaning, it’s a good time to start teaching them how to sound out three letter words using word families. I like to start teaching this concept when my children are about 2-3 years old. Making children wait until they are in kindergarten to learn this skill is completely unnecessary.

How to Teach

To teach three letter words, it’s very important for children to see the difference between the NAMES of the letters and the SOUNDS of the letters. As children start to sound out words, it’s important to have the focus be on the SOUNDS that the letters are making. When I was a teacher, there was an amazing reading program called Fundations that would have children tap out each sound using their fingers. So, for example with the word cat, you would tap your thumb to your index finger saying the c sound, then tap your thumb to your middle finger saying the a sound, and finally your thumb to your ring finger saying the t sound. Then you slide your thumb across your three fingers and say the whole word. (See a video demonstration of tapping out sounds here.)

When my daughter Ophelia was 2, I had a little magnet letter station set up and together we discovered that if you flip a 6 cup muffin tin over, it makes a great platform for teaching three letter words. I would set some letters aside, and we would build words together. At first, I built the words ahead of time and then tapped out each sound as I read the word to her. Once she had seen me do it over and over again, she started to say the letter sounds with me, and eventually she said them on her own. After that, we would build words together.

If we were going to build the word dog, I would say something like this, “Let’s spell the word dog. Do you know what letter the word dog starts with? That’s right! It starts with the letter d. Now, what vowel makes the short o sound? That’s right, o! Now, what letter makes the g sound? That’s right, g! We spelled dog!” She loved doing this magnet letter muffin tin activity, and we did it often.

Here is a video of my nephew, Tristan, learning his three letter words at age 2.5 with magnet letters and muffin tins.

After she mastered three letter words, we found an eight cup muffin tin and spelled four letter words. This was a great time to bring up words with digraphs like shop and chip. We also started talking about long vowel words in addition to some of the trickier sounds like the long and short oo, r controlled vowels, and diphthongs from my phonemic awareness resources. We also enjoyed spelling favorite words like her full name, the names of family members, and so on.

Here is a video of my daughter, Ophelia, learning about three letter words using magnet letters.

My son Julian (2.5), on the other hand, hasn’t enjoyed the muffin tins and magnet letters as much as he has coloring over my words, or erasing my words, and this has really helped him to learn about sounding out words while he memorizes them. We also enjoy using Starfall’s word machine.

My Resources

I have hand drawn and digitized each of these resources to specifically fit the needs of my own children. Someday, I would like to create a “Teach Your Child to Read Kit” that will bundle everything together in one package, but for now, I want to get this information and these resources out there. Please feel free to print as many copies as you would like for your own personal use.

If you are going to be making these, I highly recommend getting the following supplies:

  • Printer – A good basic printer like this will do the job, but if you’re going to be doing a lot of printing, I would recommend something like this.
  • Card Stock – I like to make sure I always have plenty of this around for all of my flashcards, posters, and other needs.
  • Laminator – I have a basic laminator like this, and it works great for all types of paper and projects.
  • Laminating Sheets – I like buying this big pack because it’s good to have plenty of laminating sheets for flashcards, posters, art projects, and more.
  • Three Hole Punch – This hole punch is really sturdy and can handle a whole stack of paper.
  • 1/4 Inch Rings – When making flashcards, I have found it’s best to use two rings on top to keep everything organized and easy to flip through, and this size is best.

To Make the Flashcards

  1. Print – Print on card stock.
  2. Cut – Use a paper cutter to cut the words apart.
  3. Laminate – Arrange the cut pieces onto the laminating pouch. Make sure there is space between the cards on all sides, otherwise the laminate will peel off.
  4. Cut Again – If you stayed pretty consistent with the positions of the cards in the laminate, you should be able to cut a big stack of them at once.
  5. Assemble – Put the word families together or you make make bigger groups with words that have the same vowel sound.
  6. Hole Punch – I like to angle each corner into the three hole punch and can do several cards at once with a heavy duty hole puncher. Put two holes on top in the corners.
  7. Rings – I like using the 1/4″ rings. If you want to attach all of the little rings together, you can get a bigger ring like this.
  8. *Staple – If you’d rather avoid laminating and the rings, you can just staple the word family cards together. Put two staples on the left side of the cards.

To Make the Posters

  1. Print – Print on card stock. *You can also bring a digital version into a print store like Kinkos and they can enlarge it to a poster size. 
  2. Laminate – Laminating this will ensure that it will last for a long time, but you don’t have to.

Word Families Flashcards

These word family cards will be a guide as you do activities like muffins tins and magnet letters or coloring over words. I recommend starting with one word family at a time and stay with the same vowel sound for at least two sets. Once your child is familiar with the words in one family, you can introduce another. Once your child is familiar with all of the word families, you might want to mix things up by taking the family name covers off and mixing all of the words together.

Word Families Flashcards

Word Families Flashcards

Word Families Posters

If you have a learning station for your child, it would be a really good idea to print out these word families posters so that your child can see all of the words at once.

Word Families Page 1

Word Families Page 1

Word Families Page 2

Word Families Page 2

Word Families Page 3

Word Families Page 3

Get a PDF of all of the cards here: Word Families Cards

Additional Resources

Using my word cards and the following resources will make learning how to read three letter words easy and fun! (*Note: Some of these are affiliate links, which means that I will make a commission if you purchase them from these links. Your price, however, will stay the same.)

  • Magnet Letters and Muffin Tin – Using these two resources together will make learning three letter words fun and easy. Using my flashcards as a guide, have your child build three letter words on the bottoms of the muffin tins.
  • White Board and Dry Erase Markers – I recommend attaching this white board to the wall and using dry erase markers to write three letter words for your little one to erase. The board I have recommended is magnetic, so you can put the magnet letters on it too. With these resources, you can write three letter words on the white board and have your child erase them while reading them.
  • Sidewalk Chalk – Write three letter words on your sidewalk in a hopscotch pattern, and have your little one hop on them and read them.
  • Change-A-Sound Flip Books – I LOVED using these flip books to teach my children how to sound out words. I like how they have sections where the beginning, middle, and ending sound change in the word. The pictures are also great for building vocabulary.
  • Phonics Flip Books – These 34 flip books focus on patterns such as long and short vowels, digraphs, and blends.
  • Starfall Three Letter WordsStarfall is an AMAZING resource for teaching your little one the ABCs, basic math, and how to read. They have an amazing three letter word interactive game that is so fun for kids. The membership is $35/year and WELL WORTH every penny.
  • Montessori Crosswords – Fun Phonics Game for Kids – This app is great for teaching three letter words using pictures and boxes for the letters. I like how you can choose between upper and lowercase as well as cursive.

Usborne Books

I am an Usborne book consultant because I LOVE their books! The pages are super durable, the stories are interesting, the vocabulary development is phenomenal, and the people and Usborne GET reading. They know that children should start young…I’m talking babies…and provide PLENTY of resources to get your little ones interested in reading. If you purchase books through these links (which will lead you to my own Usborne website), I will make a commission, so I thank you kindly.

  • Phonics Readers (20 Book Collection) – These phonics books blow anything I have ever seen out of this world! In some phonics readers, they focus so heavily on one certain sound that it overpowers the text. Not so with these! If you flip to the end of the book, there’s a section for parents that explains what the focus is and how to use the books which is great! Every book in this series is so well done. I mean, this is quality literature for sure that your little readers will learn how to decode with repeated reading. The rhyming text makes figuring out the last word very predictable. I like pausing to give my little ones a chance to say the last word as they are learning how to read. The series includesBug in a Rug, Goat in a Boat, Llamas in Pajamas, Raccoon on the Moon, Cow Takes a Bow, Snail Brings the Mail, Bee Makes Tea, Underpants for Ants, Crock Gets a Shock, Crow in the Snow, Fox on a Box, Ted in a Red Bed, Ted’s Shed, Hen’s Pens, Fat Cat on a Mat, Goose on the Loose, Frog on a Log, Toad Makes a Road, Mouse Moves House, and Big Pig on a Dig
  • My First Reading Library (50 Book Collection) – This is the best set of books you could ever buy! I have totally used all of these books to teach my children how to read from a young age. I love how each book has two levels of text. One page has minimal text for the child to read, often in the form of a word bubble, and the other page has more text for the parent to read. When your child is ready, he or she can read both pages!
Scott Reading Julian His Favorite Usborne Phonics Book

Scott Reading Julian His Favorite Usborne Phonics Book

In Conclusion

Teaching children to sound out three letter words is the beginning of their independent reading journey. With each of my children, once they get to this part after building a strong foundation with letter names and letter sounds, understanding that words have meaning, building vocabulary, and building phonemic awareness, reading seems to take off as if by MAGIC. It’s like they have broken the code and are in the same fervor as Helen Keller’s water scene where she finally understands that the letters Anne Sullivan is putting together in her hand are words that represent things in her world. Teaching phonics doesn’t need to wait until children are in school, it doesn’t need to happen with piles of worksheets, and it doesn’t have to be more complicated than sounding out three letter words. So teach your child young and teach him or her often, and you will be amazed at what your child can do!

Check out the next blog in my Teach Your Child to Read series: Encouraging Children to Read Independently