Phonics is a crucial part of learning how to read and involves using letter sounds to form words. I have found that using word families (words that have the same ending) is a great way to do this because it’s pattern driven and predictable. Before children start sounding out words, it’s best that they be really really familiar with letter names and sounds (short vowels and one sound for each letter to begin with).
Age to Start
After children have a solid understanding of letter names and letter sounds, know that words are made up of letters that carry meaning, and have a good vocabulary, it’s a good time to start teaching them how to sound out three letter words using word families. Some children are ready to start this as young as 2-2.5, and others won’t be ready until they are 3-4. The important thing is to make sure they have a solid understanding of the previous skills and show an interest.
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. (*Please review my ABC video and flashcards often to make sure this is really understood.)
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. (You could also flip over a regular baking sheet.) 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 Ophelia had 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. (*Check out my resources for digraphs, long vowels, and tricky vowels here.) 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 at the time), 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.
Here is a video of our oldest daughter Ruby (age 9) teaching Julian (age 3.5) three letter words using magnet letters and a muffin tin.
Three Letter Word Families Flashcards
To teach your child three letter word families, I have created two sets of three letter word families flashcards and two sets of individual letters flashcards that children can use to spell the three letter words. Check all of these out (and more) at my FREE READING RESOURCES page.
- Download PDF: Word Families Flashcards Set #1 (Digital Download)
- Download PDF: Word Families Flashcards Set #2 (Digital Download)
Three Letter Word Families Videos
In these videos, I use a variety of fun and engaging activities to teach my 3 year old son Julian how to sound out three letter word families. You can download these videos (for free) from my Embracing Motherhood Shop or you can stream them on YouTube.
*Download video #1 here: Word Families Video #1
*Download video #2 here: Word Families Video #2
To maximize the use of my word families flashcards, I highly recommend you acquire some of the following teaching tools. Based on your child’s age and his or her interests, you will find different resources that will be appealing. Sometimes the best way to figure this out is through trial and error!
- 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 with Built in Erasers – 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 Words – Starfall 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.
I LOVE Usborne books! The pages are super durable, the stories are interesting, the vocabulary development is phenomenal, and the people at 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.
- 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 includes: Bug 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!
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, and building vocabulary, 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. Help your child break the code for learning how to read…with phonics.
For More Information
You’ll find everything you need to teach your child to read on my FREE READING RESOURCES page which includes flashcards, videos, plus more tips and tricks.
How to Teach Your Child to Read in 5 Simple Steps (Keeping it Simple)
- Language Rich Environment: Use oral language at the child’s level (Get down on the floor and play together!) and help them memorize vocabulary words. (Tell them the names of things!)
- Phonemic Awareness: Teach one sound for each letter of the alphabet. (Start with short vowels.)
- Phonics: Tap out sounds in three letter words to teach how sounds come together to make words.
- More Complex Phonemic Awareness: Introduce long vowels, digraphs, and other vowel sounds.
- Reading Comprehension Strategies: Use quality literature to interact with books and ask questions before, during, and after reading to make sure your child is understanding what is being read.
Teach Your Child to Read Blog Series (Digging Deeper)
- #1-Oral Language Development Lays the Foundation for Learning to Read
- #2-How Engage Your Baby or Young Child with Reading
- #3-Learning How to Read Begins with the ABCs
- #4-Memorizing Words Before Sounding Them Out Leads to Reading
- #5-Building Vocabulary with Numbers, Colors, and Shapes
- #6-Teaching Phonics with Three Letter Word Families
- #7-Unlock the Final Stages of Reading with Advanced Phonemic Awareness
- #8-Reading Comprehension Strategies Lead to Independent Readers
- #9-Reinforcing Reading with Writing