University of Iowa

Teaching Letter-Sound Correspondences and Syllable Types for Word Identification

Girl writing on a word box

Using a word box can help students determine what letters should represent what sounds they can hear in a given word.


Posted on: November 27, 2018

Findings of research studies consistently have confirmed that alphabetics and phonics instruction contribute to the reading achievement of children (e.g., Murphy & Farquharson, 2016). These foundational skills are not the ultimate goal of reading instruction, nor are they sufficient to enable a student to read with understanding (Brady, 2011). However, in alphabetic language systems such as English, an understanding of how language sounds are represented in letters is a necessary part of making sense of written words (Ehri, 2014). Some children may learn certain letter-sound correspondences or basic words through extensive exposure to books and printed words in their environment (Pelatti, Piasta, Justice, & O’Connell, 2014). Unfortunately, the letter-sound correspondences in English are not as obvious or consistent as in other alphabetic languages like Italian or Finnish (Seymour, Aro, & Erskine, 2003), so it can be very difficult to learn all the different ways that our language might be represented through simple exposure. It often is more efficient to teach letter-sound correspondences directly (Keesey, Konrad, & Joseph, 2015).

This instruction also occurs in a sequence that moves from easier to progressively more complex skills. For example, initial instruction in letter-sound correspondences might be ordered as follows:

  1. Consonants representing the most common sounds and vowels representing short sounds
  2. Consonant digraphs
  3. Two-letter consonant blends
  4. Three-letter consonant blends and digraph blends
  5. Welded sounds (e.g., all, ing, ink)
  6. Single vowels or vowel-consonant-e patterns representing long sounds
  7. R-controlled vowels
  8. Vowel digraphs
  9. Consonant-le patterns
  10. -sion/-tion endings

It is important to keep in mind that the sequence above is one possible way of ordering lessons from easier to more difficult correspondences. Different curricula may have slightly different sequences to align with supporting materials such as decodable texts.

Example Elementary-Level Lesson for Effective Phonics Instruction 

The objective of the following example phonics lesson outline is to identify letter-sound correspondences to decode closed-syllable, consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words. Given this focus, it is intended for elementary students. However, the type of instruction described can be adapted for secondary students (see Figure 2). The lesson outline provides a scripted think aloud for the modeling phase and incorporates a tool referred to as a word box. Word boxes are used to help students segment or break apart the individual sounds (phonemes) in a word and represent those sounds with letters (graphemes) that can be blended together again to read the word. A word box is created by dividing a rectangle with vertical lines drawn inside the rectangle. At first, a picture is placed above the divided rectangle, and the number of boxes provided below the picture equals the number of sounds in the word that the picture represents. Later, the number of boxes may remain constant so that students have to determine the number of sounds for themselves. As students begin to read more complex words, the boxes may be used to represent syllables rather than individual sounds. Blank template word boxes can be found in the Supplemental Material for Teachers section.


To begin, tell students the objective of the lesson is to identify the sounds in a word and how to represent those sounds with letters so that they can read the word. After stating the objective, activate students’ background knowledge with a warm-up activity or review of the phonics skills learned in previous lessons. Before beginning the new instruction, remind students of the importance of learning letter-sound correspondences and how phonics skills can improve reading ability by giving readers a way to figure out new words they see in their books. Explain that skilled readers can identify the individual sounds in a word and can connect those sounds with letters. To learn how to do that, tell students they will be using cards with letters printed on them, or letter cards.


Model the steps of using letter cards with word boxes either on paper, with a document camera, or using an interactive whiteboard. Use decodable words with corresponding pictures. Be sure that the words chosen for the lesson are appropriate for students’ age and the syllable types they have learned in a systematic sequence. The words in this example lesson are appropriate for students who have learned the common consonants and short vowels. Students will be applying those letter-sound correspondences to decode closed syllable, CVC words. The following is an example of introducing the word box and thinking aloud to model the use of it (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Example Word Box

m a p

Today we are using a word box and letter cards to practice decoding words with the letter-sound correspondences you have been learning. I am going to model how to use the word box and then we will practice together. To begin, watch me as I model how to use the word box.

This is a word box (place word box and letter cards in front of students). At the top of the word box is a picture of a map. At the bottom of the word box are three boxes. These three boxes tell us how many sounds there are in the word “map.” The first sound I hear in “map” is /m/. I know that the letter “m” represents the sound /m/ (arrange the letter cards in front of the students so that they can see you find the “m” letter card and place it in the first box on the word box).

I found the “m” letter card. I am going to place the “m” letter card in the beginning box on the word box. The letter “m” represents the sound /m/ in “map.” The middle sound I hear in “map” is /ă /. That /ă/ is the short “a” vowel sound. I am going to choose the “a” letter card and place it in the second box to represent the /ă/ sound (arrange the letter cards in front of the students so that they can see you find the “a” letter card and place it in the middle box on the word box).

The ending sound in “map” is /p/. The consonant “p” represents the sound /p/. I am going to find the “p” letter card and place it in the ending box on the word box (arrange the letter cards in front of the students so that they can see you find the “p” letter card and place it in the end box on the word box).

I found all the letters for the word “map.” Now I am going to practice saying all the sounds in “map.” As I say each sound, I am going to touch each letter that represents that sound: 1) /m/, 2) /ă /, and 3) /p/. Blend all the sounds together, “map” (repeat the modeling 3-5 times or until the students understand the procedures)

Guided Practice

Explain to students that they will use the word boxes to spell and read words when their small groups meet with the teacher. Provide each small group with a set of pictures for words containing only the syllable types and letter-sound correspondences that the students have learned. In this lesson, the practice would continue with CVC words. Display a picture in the top box and follow the procedures from the modeling phase. However, during guided practice, include the students in carrying out the steps. Ask students to state the word that the image or picture represents. Then, ask students to say and count each sound in the word. Ask how many boxes are needed to represent the sounds in the word. Guide students in selecting letter cards to represent each sound and placing the cards in the boxes. After all the letter cards are placed, have students repeat in unison each sound. Finally, have students blend all the sounds together to form the target word. Ask students to confirm that the word they read matches the picture. Complete additional guided practice words if all students did not respond accurately. This phase should be repeated 3-5 times, or until students demonstrate understanding.

Independent Practice

While still working with a small group, transition from whole-group responses to individual student responses. If in a one-on-one setting, transition from teacher-and-students responding to individual student responses. Display a new picture in the top box. Ask a student to select the letter cards for the corresponding letter sounds (or by printing the letters, if appropriate) and then blend the sounds together to read the word. If a student is unsuccessful during independent practice, it is important to return to modeling and guided practice until each student can respond accurately. If the group reaches mastery, consider implementing this lesson with more challenging words.

Adaptations of Phonics Instruction with Word Boxes for Secondary Students

Explicit phonics instruction also may be beneficial for older students who struggle with word identification (McDaniel, Houchins, & Terry, 2013; Warnick & Caldarella, 2016). Although explicit phonics instruction may seem rudimentary for secondary students, basic phonics skills can be practiced using multisyllabic words that are age appropriate and learned in content areas (Casillas, Robbins, Allen, & Kuo 2012; Kim et al., 2017). For example, the word “concept” may be aligned with grade-level texts that students frequently use in their classroom. Choosing words that are relevant to students may increase motivation and engagement during phonics instruction (Lovett, Lacerenza, De Palma, & Frijters, 2011).

The preceding explicit lesson outline may be implemented by replacing letter cards with syllable cards for teaching multisyllabic words. The teacher selects a word formed with syllable cards that follows regular phonics patterns and syllable types that have been taught to students. The teacher presents a word formed with two or more syllable cards. Students use the pattern of consonants and vowels to determine the syllable type, which indicates how the vowel in the syllable is to be pronounced. After pronouncing each syllable separately, students then blend the syllables together to say the whole word.

For example, a teacher might present the syllable cards “con” and “cept” (see Figure 2). Students would be asked to identify that the single vowel in the syllable followed by one or more consonants indicates that each card contains a closed syllable. The vowels in closed syllables are pronounced with the short sound: /ŏ/ and /ĕ/. Each syllable starts with the letter “c.” When the “c” precedes the vowels “a,” “o,” or “u,” it typically represents the /k/ sound. When the “c” precedes the vowels “e” or “i,” it typically represents the /s/ sound. Hence, students can use their knowledge of the letter patterns to determine the pronunciation of the vowel in the syllable as well as the first consonant sound. After saying each syllable separately (con-cept), students then should blend the syllables to identify the entire word.

Figure 2. Syllable Cards


Quality explicit and systematic phonics instruction is difficult, but pivotal for students who are learning to read and those who need interventions due to reading difficulties (Ehri & Flugman, 2018). Practicing letter-sound correspondences using the word box and letter cards or multisyllabic words with syllable cards are examples of instructional tools that teachers can implement in explicit and systematic ways to support the reading development of their students.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers

PDF iconWord Box Template

A graphic organizer designed to help students determine which letters represent the sounds heard in a given word. A graphic representing the word is provided with blank spaces for each sound to be filled in.


Brady, S. (2011). Efficacy of phonics teaching for reading outcomes: Indications from post-NRP research. In S. Brady, D. Braze, & C. Fowler (Eds.), Explaining individual differences in reading: Theory and evidence (pp. 69–96). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Casillas, A., Robbins, S., Allen, J., & Kuo, Y. L. (2012). Predicting early academic failure in high school from prior academic achievement, psychosocial characteristics, and behavior. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 407–420. doi:10.1037/a0027180

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Ehri, L. C., & Flugman, B. (2018). Mentoring teachers in systematic phonics instruction: effectiveness of an intensive year-long program for kindergarten through 3rd grade teachers and their students. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal31, 425-456. doi:10.1007/s11145-017-9792-7

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Kim, J. S., Hemphill, L., Troyer, M., Thomson, J. M., Jones, S. M., LaRusso, M. D., & Donovan, S. (2017). Engaging struggling adolescent readers to improve reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 52, 357–382. doi:10.1002/rrq.171

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Murphy, K. A., & Farquharson, K. (2016). Investigating profiles of lexical quality in preschool and their contribution to first grade reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal29, 1745-1770. doi:10.1007/s11145-016-9651-y

Pelatti, C. Y., Piasta, S. B., Justice, L. M., & O’Connell, A. (2014). Language-and literacy-learning opportunities in early childhood classrooms: Children's typical experiences and within-classroom variability. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29, 445-456. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2014.05.004 

Seymour, P. H. K., Aro, M., & Erskine, J. M. (2003). Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 143–174.

Warnick, K., & Caldarella, P. (2016). Using multisensory phonics to foster reading skills of adolescent delinquents. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 32, 317–335. doi:10.1080/10573569.2014.962199