Education, Parenting

Teaching a Preschooler to Read: Word Identification Strategies

For me, this is the part of a child’s reading development that is the most exciting.  This is when the child begins to recognize words.   The child starts off reading one word at a time, but before you know it, he or she is reading phrases, followed by sentences and then books!  The best part is when the child has come far enough along to recognize that the more he practices word identification, the more independence he gains.

In a previous article, I discussed phonemic awareness tasks.  These tasks focus on encouraging children to learn to identify the sounds of their language.  Here I will discuss teaching phonics, which is the ability to associate the correct sound with the written symbol in a language (Zarillo, 2005) as well as sight words.  Sight words are terms that occur at a high frequency in text (e.g., at, a, and) or have irregular spellings such as the and two (Zarillo, 2005).   In teaching children phonemic awareness, it is unnecessary to introduce them to the graphemes (written symbols) of their language as the focus is on identifying correct sounds.  However, if you have introduced graphemes while teaching phonemic awareness tasks then you are off to a good start with phonics.

When I began teaching my son word identification, I chose to start with sight words.  I did this because I felt that at two and a half years old, he would have an easier time memorizing high frequency words than with words that need to be sounded out.  I did, however, employ some phonics in teaching him sight words.  For example, he often confused the words me and my as well as we and me.  In this case, rote memorization was not working and we had to break down the words by the sounds the letters could make (this also led to the introduction of short and long vowel sounds).

Tips for Teaching Sight Words and Phonics

At times, teaching sight words may not seem that exciting.  These words are intended to be memorized and recognized on sight.  While yes, flash cards are your “go to” method in regards to sight word instruction (we have this set), it doesn’t mean there aren’t ways you can’t make learning these words fun.  However, I will say that my son has enjoyed using his flash cards and I have created a Pre-K set to help get you started.  I recommend laminating them for durability and I have also included some blank cards for you to add your own words.Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.02.50 PM

—>Download Pre-K Sight Word Flash Cards Here<—

  • Let your creative side take over and find ways to incorporate your child’s natural interests.  When I started teaching my son sight words, he was a huge fan of Cookie Monster.  I had come across activities on Pinterest in which parents and teachers decorated tissue boxes to look like monsters and then had children feed magnetic letters to the “monsters”.  I decided to take that idea and combine it with my son’s infatuation with Cookie Monster. Watch the video below to see just how much he enjoyed this activity.

I apologize in advanced for the cat’s intrusion, but you can’t do anything in this house without Rocky’s help!


  • Make it a Game.  Hold a sight word scavenger hunt.  Print off the above sight word flash cards and hide them around the house.  Provide some clues by hiding the word yellow by an object of that color or putting the word up somewhere the child would have to look up to find it.
  • Gather up your manipulatives.  Use alphabet bean bags, magnetic letters, letter tiles, etc., to create words and have your child practice sounding them out.
    • Strategy:  place letters far apart and have your child sound out each letter.  Then have your child say each letter sound faster and move the letters closer together at the same time.  The goal is to  have your child say the sounds closer together until he/she forms the target word.
  • There is an App for that!  While I try to limit my son’s screen time, I have found that Endless Reader and Endless Alphabet have been great for keeping Lil’ Man busy in the doctor’s office and on long car trips.  Endless Alphabet goes beyond sight words by using phonics to introduce more advanced vocabulary words like gargantuan.  Each app uses sentences with animations to define featured words.  I can’t tell you how surprised I was to not only hear my then three year old use the word gargantuan, but use it correctly.
  • It is okay to use a worksheet.  Sometimes you just have to take care of grown up things, so it is nice for me to have Lil’ Man sit at his table in the kitchen and do some pages while I work on something like washing the dishes.  There are a lot of great free worksheets online, but you can also pick up a workbook, like the one Lil’ Man is using below, for around $10.phonics and sight words

Kindergarten Reading & Math Workout: Activities, Exercises, and Tips to Help Catch Up, Keep Up, and Get Ahead (Sylvan Beginner Workbook)

  • Display a word wall in your house.  I picked up a $3 pocket chart from the Target dollar section a few years ago (they usually have these in stock during the back to school sales) or you can find them at your local teacher supply store.  You can also check out this Daily Standards pocket chart on Amazon.  We like to display the flash cards we are currently learning and have Lil’ Man point to each and read them aloud.


  • Introduce your child to BOB Books.  We are currently working on our fourth set of BOB Books and they have really helped my son grow in his reading development. He has gone from reading phrases in his first set to compound sentences in his current books.

  • Read together.  Now that my son is able to read sentences, we regularly use shared reading experiences to further his reading development.  We ask him to employ phonics and use context clues to figure out words that he does not yet know.  We will read a challenging word aloud to him after giving him the chance to decode it first.
  • Be patient!  You’ll find that some words may come easy while others may take lots of practice.  My son managed to master words like funny before he was able to correctly identify me and my.  If you find your child is struggling with a word and even getting frustrated, back off for a bit and reintroduce it at a later time.

Zarrillo, J. J. (2005). Ready for RICA: A Test Preparation Guide for California’s Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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