Teaching the Phonemic Code in Reading Instruction

Effective Multisensory Activities

to Directly Build Automatic Knowledge of the Complete Phonemic Code

(Direct Print=Sound Knowledge)

Free Activities for Teachers and Parents

to Help Students Achieve Reading Success


Skill targeted/reading objective:

The objective is for the student to acquire automatic and direct knowledge of print=sound relationship of the complete phonemic code. Students need to learn and repeatedly practice the direct print=sound code so they automatically and effortlessly convert print to sound. In addition, phonemic awareness is directly linked to print in these many of these activities.  See the article The Building Blocks of Written English: The Phonemic Code Explained for additional information.


Key points/elements for effective instruction:

1) Explicitly teach the direct print=sound relationship. The student must look at the printed letter(s) and say the correct sound.

Examples:   student looks and points at   m  while saying the sound /m/ 


                      student looks and points at   sh  while saying the sound /sh/ 


Remember to use direct print to sound instruction. Avoid using indirect instruction methods such as picture=sound (picture of train = /t/) or printed letter = object (letter ‘d’= dinosaur). See the article Why Children Often Fail to Learn with Indirect Methods for details explaining why indirect methods of phonics instruction often does not work with children.


2) Introduce and teach sounds systematically. Use a pre-planned organized system sequenced simple to complex.

3) Explicitly teach the complete phonemic code. Start with the basic code but also directly teach the complete code including digraphs, vowel combinations, r-controlled vowels and other complexities.

4) Teach correct pronunciation. Remember this is the sound not letter name! (example t = /t/ not letter name /tee/)

5) The printed code needs to be phonetically accurate.  Base printed code instruction on single phonemes. Avoid word families and blended consonants that are not phonetically accurate.

6) Directly link phonemic awareness to the printed letters. Include phonemic awareness development as part of the print=sound instruction.

7) Practice, practice, practice! Practice until automatic. Have students practice print=sound knowledge in isolation with a variety of direct instruction activities until this knowledge is automatic. After automatic knowledge is acquired, the sound no longer needs to be practiced in isolation.


Direct  “print=sound” instruction & practice:

Introduce phonemic code systematically. Directly teach new sounds by showing the print and saying the correct sound. Teachers can use large posterboards, overhead or whiteboard/chalkboard for classroom introduction. For practice, show the student the printed letter(s), they say the sound when looking at the print.  This direct practice can occur with straightforward instruction (printed index cards, posterboards, overhead, whiteboard) or can be conducted with a wide variety of ‘fun’ games. The only requirements are to directly link correct print to the sound(s), have the student look at the printed letter(s) when saying the sound, and to have the student practice until the sound is automatic.  These simple direct print to sound activities link and apply visual (look at the printed letter(s)), oral (say the sound), and auditory (hear the sound) processes to develop necessary print=sound knowledge.

In a classroom situation, the phonics phones are an effective tool for enhancing the print=sound instruction. The phonics phones focus the student on listening to the sound and help establish the essential phonologic processing link.  For more information see the article Phonics Phones Explained.

Specific examples of classroom application:

“Say the Sounds”: This activity can be performed with individual students, with small groups and with classrooms of students. To introduce a sound, the teacher selects and holds up a specific printed sound on a large posterboard or points to the printed sound on an overhead or chalkboard. The teacher demonstrates the correct sound.  The students look at the print and repeatedly say the sound correctly into the phones. Sounds can be practices as a group with the teacher pointing to printed letters on an overhead, chalkboard/whiteboard, or large cards. The teacher points to a letter(s) and the students say the sound into their phones.


“Practice Sounds”: After sounds are introduced the students need to practice sounds until they become automatic. The students can go through their individual stack of sounds (index cards) and practice saying the sound into their phones, the teacher can walk around the class listening to individual children and make needed corrections. (5 min/day of direct practice on sounds). When the student has acquired automatic knowledge of a sound, rotate these ‘automatic’ sounds out of the practice stack and replace with new sounds until knowledge of the entire code is automatic. 


“Sound Superstars”:  This is just another version of direct print=sound practice. After group practice, you can play a few minutes of this game to find the ‘sound superstar(s) for the day. The game rule is they remain quiet until you point at them to say the sound. Hold up one of the previously introduced printed sounds. Point to individual students and they say the sound to be the ‘superstar’. You can also add practice quickly with individual students when they file out for recess or line up for lunch. You flash a card and they give you the sound. 


“Sound Bingo”, “Stack the Sounds”, “Fishing for Sounds”, “Herding Sound Horses”, “Catching Sound Butterflies” and Other FUN GAMES: For younger students, this direct print = sound instruction and practice can be conducted with a variety of fun sound games including ‘sound bingo’, ‘stack the sound’, ‘fishing for sounds’, ‘herding sound horses’ & ‘catching sound butterflies’. See the article Fun Games to Help Your Child Learn the Phonemic Code  for specific descriptions of these fun activities. Some games such as ‘sound bingo’ would be effective as a classroom activity. Others are effective in smaller groups (ideal for centers!). These ‘sound games’ also make excellent homework activities. For example, send home a baggie with paper ‘sound fish’ for the child to play ‘fish for sounds’. Young children love these ‘games’.


Drill with Sound Cards: For older students, straightforward drill of print to sound is more appropriate. Index cards are ideal for individual practice. The student can practice their stack of sounds (index cards) into their phonics phones. Overheads, whiteboards or large poster board sized cards work for class or group presentation and practice.


Direct sound to print practice: Have the student listen to a sound and then identify/point to the appropriate printed representation. In this way the student practices the phonemic code in reverse, sound to print. These sound to print activities can be conducted with many of the phonemic awareness activities listed in the article Activities to Directly Develop Phonemic Awareness Many variations of sound to print activities exist. Sound tiles or index cards can be used to conduct these activities.  These activities directly build phonemic awareness, link phonemic awareness to print and also build automatic knowledge of the printed code. Plus they can be fun. These sound identification activities only require the child to point at the letter when they hear the sound so can be used for children who have not yet learned to print.


Write & Say the Sounds: In this highly effective activity, the student prints the letter(s) while saying the correct sound. This simple multisensory method is highly effective in helping students learn the ‘printed letter=sound’ relationship. The act of printing the letter when saying the sound directly links the kinetic motion of forming the letter, visual image of the completed letter, oral process of saying the sound, and auditory process of hearing the correct sound. As a result, the act of printing the letter(s) while saying the correct sound is one of the most effective tools for developing automatic print=sound knowledge.   Sound writing can be conducted as a class, group or individually. The students can write using paper/pencil. Older students who print proficiently can use personal whiteboards.

A few points to consider with ‘sound writing’ activities include: 

-Use standard manuscript print.

-Correct formation is important.

-Tracer letters are a fantastic tool for younger students who are learning to print. It is better to have a student trace correctly than to ‘write’ letters incorrectly on their own. The tracer letters help children learn correct formation!

-In classroom situations, the teacher can use pre-printed sheets of tracer letters that coordinate with the sounds being learned/practiced.

-At the beginning level, the sound practice can be conducted in conjunction with handwriting instruction. Have the child say the sound as they print the letter.

-Sound writing (print/say sound) is a useful tool for older students. Since the handwriting itself is typically not a learning process, older students can quickly print/say their sounds. (Remind the students, the objective is gaining direct print=sound knowledge so they must SAY the sound as they print… It is not writing practice!).

Sound writing is a highly effective multisensory activity for developing direct print=sound knowledge. If a student does not automatically know a sound, have them repeatedly print the letter(s) as they say the sound. Not only is ’sound writing’ highly effective, it is extremely efficient from time and cost standpoints.







Additional free information on teaching students to read is located at Reading Information and Information & Resources for Teaching Reading pages of the Right Track Reading website. 


This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at www.righttrackreading.com ~ Copyright 2008 Miscese R. Gagen

writing sounds - older student writing sounds tracer letters