How To Teach Phonics To Preschoolers in 3 Simple Steps

by | Dec 21, 2022

If you have a preschooler in your life, you’ve probably found yourself googling, “How can I teach my preschooler to read?” more than once.

Maybe you’ve even seen terms like “phonics” or “decoding” show up in the search results. Or maybe you’ve caught yourself scrolling Pinterest for hours looking for tips to teach your preschooler letters and sounds. 

Teaching kids to read is a common concern for both parents and teachers, and rightfully so! Raising a strong reader is one of the most important things we can do for our little ones.

Learn strategies for how to teach phonics to preschoolers for early reading, letter identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding.

Although we want a fast, easy answer, teaching a child how to read is very complex. It takes years of systematic, explicit instruction before our kids become fluent readers who comprehend what they’re reading.

The good news is that we can lay the foundation while they’re still young to give them the best possible chance to be strong readers in the future!

In order to do that, let’s start with some basic literacy definitions that are important to understand. Then you’ll be on the right track for learning how to teach phonics to your preschooler.

Learn strategies for how to teach phonics to preschoolers for early reading, letter identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding.

Phonics vs. Decoding

Phonics and decoding are both essential parts of teaching a child to read. If you’re not too familiar with these common terms of early literacy, here is a brief review:

Phonics is a method of teaching reading by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system. So, hearing a sound and knowing what letter made it.

Decoding is the ability to apply knowledge of letter-sound relationships to correctly pronounce written words. So, seeing a letter and knowing what sound it makes.

Phonics and decoding go hand-in-hand.

Let’s take the word BUS as an example.

When we teach our preschooler there’s a /b/ sound at the beginning of “bus,” and then we help them connect the /b/ sound with the letter b, we are teaching them phonics.

When they can look at the letters “b” “u” “s” and blend the sounds together /b/ /u/ /s/ to read the word “bus,” they are decoding.

Our preschoolers need to master the sounds of printed letters so that they can use that knowledge to decode words. Letter sounds are the building blocks of reading.

Related Post: 14 Simple Activities to Teach Preschoolers the Alphabet

Why Are Phonics So Important?

Many people believe that the best way to teach kids to read is via sight words, but phonics sets a strong foundation for the process of reading. Eventually, kids need to know more than just sight words; they must be able to decode new words as they see them.

That’s where phonics comes into play.

Throughout early childhood education, kids focus on phonological awareness and letter recognition. They learn the sounds each letter creates and how to blend simple words together. The goal is to build automaticity in their reading.

Learn strategies for how to teach phonics to preschoolers for early reading, letter identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding.

The Order to Teach Phonics to Preschoolers

There is a general order in which you should teach your child phonics. If you use a curriculum, you’ll notice that most are set out in this manner.

  1. Letter Sounds: Start with teaching your child the sounds of the letters. Kids are often taught the letters S, A, T, P, I, and N first, giving them a lot of words to sound out.
  2. Digraphs: Digraphs are two letters that make one sound, such as ch, th, sh, and wh. This is a great time to introduce words like wish, bath, and chip.
  3. Blending Sounds: After your child knows all of the individual sounds and digraphs, you start to move to blends for your child. Blends include bl, pl, st, sn, etc. These make up a huge portion of our language!
  4. Vowel Digraphs: Next, you’ll move on to vowel digraphs, such as ae, oo, and ai. Your child will learn how to sound out words like hair and moon.

How to Teach Phonics to a Preschooler

If your preschooler is ready to begin the process of learning to read, here are 3 steps you can follow to help set them up for success with phonics and decoding: 

STEP 1: Start with Sounds (Phonemic Awareness)

Learn strategies for how to teach phonics to preschoolers for early reading, letter identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding.

Let’s take one step back…

Before we ever introduce printed letters to our kids, we want them to know that English is a language of speech sounds. There are 44 speech sounds (phonemes) in the English language that are represented by 26 letters.

If you’re not sure what the 44 sounds are, click here for an easy-to-read chart.

When we speak, we put those speech sounds together to make words. To represent those words on paper, we pair them with letters.

When it comes to reading, we want our kids to first understand speech sounds before they ever get to the printed letters that represent those sounds.

Tuning into the sounds of English (phonemes) helps our preschoolers develop phonemic awareness.

Phonemic Awareness refers to the specific ability to identify and manipulate the 44 phonemes in spoken words.

Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of how well our kids will learn to read during the first two years of school.

Ideas to practice phonemic awareness (you don’t need any supplies for these games):

  • Slow-Fast: Say a word slowly, and then have your preschooler say it fast.
    • You say /c/ /a/ /t/ slowly and they say “cat.”
    • You say /s/ /i/ /p/ slowly and they say “sip.”
  • Isolate the Sound: Have them tell you the beginning, ending, or middle sound of a word (not the letters, just the sounds).
    • “What’s the first sound in the word caterpillar?” /k/
    • “What’s the last sound in the word cheese?” /z/
    • “What’s the middle sound in the word pop?” /o/
  • Change the Beginning Sound: Say a word but change the beginning sound to make it silly.
    • “Would you like a baffle?” (instead of waffle)
    • See if they can guess the word it was supposed to be.
  • Count the Sounds: Give them a word, and have them count the sounds (not the letters, just the sounds).
    • “How many sounds in the word apple?” /a/ /p/ /l/ = 3 sounds
    • “How many sounds in the word wish?”  /w/ /i/ /sh/ = 3 sounds
  • Same or Different: Determine if words have the same beginning sound or not.
    • “Do “duck” and “dog” start with the same sound?” Yes
    • “Do “fish” and “box” start with the same sound?” No

If you want to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to teaching your preschooler to read, THIS is the area to spend the majority of your time!

Related Post: Letter T Printables

Learn strategies for how to teach phonics to preschoolers for early reading, letter identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding.

STEP 2: Introduce Printed Letters (Phonics) 

Now it’s time to teach your preschooler phonics. You’ll want to start by introducing your little one to the 26 letters of the alphabet. 

Since you started with Step 1 and focused on sounds, Step 2 will be a lot easier because they’ll be linking something new (printed letters on paper) with something they already know (speech sounds).

If we try to link something new (printed letters on paper) with something they don’t know (speech sounds), they’re going to be lost and struggle to remember these concepts.

A few DOs and DON’Ts when introducing printed letters to your preschooler:

  • DO teach the uppercase and lowercase letters at the same time.
    • Uppercase letters will be easier for them to write.
    • Lowercase letters will be what they see most often in books.
    • They need to know both.

Related Post: Fishing for Letters Sensory Activity

  • DON’T do Letter of the Week.
    • This is an outdated practice that doesn’t help with retention of the alphabet. 
    • Stick with 3-5 letters at a time to work on as a group. See the reasons in this book here.
  • DO Stick with the most common sound of each letter. A few to look out for when choosing alphabet cards and books:
    • C is for the beginning sound in caterpillar, not city
    • G is for the beginning sound in gorilla, not giraffe
    • X is for the last sound in fox, not the beginning sound in xylophone or x-ray
    • Don’t choose words with digraphs
      • S is NOT the first sound in shell
      • C is NOT the first sound in chat
  • DON’T teach letters in ABC order.
    • There are many different orders you can teach letters in. Here’s one example that’s very effective as these are grouped by common letters used most often in the English language. I like to group letters together and work on one group at a time:
      • s, a, t, i, p, n
      • c, k, e, h, r
      • m, d, g, o
      • l, f, b, q, u
      • j, z, w
      • v, y, x
    • Then I introduce the digraphs sh, ch, th, and wh.

Related Post: Letter O Printables

  • DO Stick with short vowels.
    • Vowels make both long and short sounds, but when teaching preschoolers, it’s important to stick with the short vowel sounds.
      • A = apple (not acorn)
      • E = Ed (not eat)
      • I = itch (not ice cream)
      • O = octopus (not open)
      • U = umbrella (not unicorn)
    • You’ll also want to look out for any vowels that have the letter R after them, as this will change the sound.
      • Don’t use “orange” for short vowel o. The letters “o” and “r” at the beginning of the word say “or” together.
  • DON’T teach all of the letters before going to Step 3.
    • If you follow the order I suggested, you can actually go to Step 3 sooner!
Learn strategies for how to teach phonics to preschoolers for early reading, letter identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding.

STEP 3: Blend Printed Letters to Read Words (Decoding)

Now here’s where you can see Step 1 and Step 2 paying off.

If you played with sounds in Step 1, your little one will be more comfortable blending sounds together.

If you introduced the letters in a specific order in Step 2, you can make LOTS of words without having to go through the entire alphabet.

  • Just from the first 6 letters (SATIPN), you can make words like:
    • sat, sit, pin, nip, nat, tan, tap, pan, tip, nap, and MORE!
Learn strategies for how to teach phonics to preschoolers for early reading, letter identification, phonemic awareness, and decoding.

Teaching Phonics to Preschoolers

Learning to read is complex and takes many years of instruction. English is a complicated code, and we want to give our little ones the tools to break that code so they are confident, successful readers.

Now that you know how to teach phonics to preschoolers, you can start laying the foundation NOW. By following these 3 steps, you’re sure to watch your preschoolers bloom into strong readers in the future.

Related Post: Free Flower Letter Tracing Printables

5 Tips for Teaching Phonics to Preschoolers

Now that you know the steps, it shouldn’t seem as intimidating. One thing to keep in mind is that these steps take plenty of time. At times, it may feel frustrating, so here are some tips to increase your likelihood of success and fewer tears.

Give Your Child Plenty of Practice

Kids need frequent opportunities to practice and apply the knowledge they learned. They need to apply this phonetic knowledge to both reading and writing activities.

Don’t be afraid to give them plenty of practice!

Whether you find some fun games to play with your kids or give them some worksheets to complete, the more practice they have, the better it is.

Try Phonic Clips Cards

Clip cards are a great, non-permanent way to teach your child how to distinguish letter sounds. Your child looks at the picture, says what it is out loud, such as the moon, and determines the beginning sound.

Then, they use a clothespin and clip the beginning sound on the card. Kids love the kinetic part of this; using clothespins is fun!

Related: Christmas Beginning Letter Sound Clips: Free Printables

Be Flexible with Your Instruction

Each child is unique, so it’s important to be flexible whether you are a parent or a teacher. All kids learn differently; some are auditory learners, while others are kinetic learners.

Be versatile and use different methods of instruction. Observe the most effective lessons and tailor your instruction to meet your child’s needs.

Learn about Orton-Gillingham’s method of reading; this is a multi-sensory approach to learning how to read. It offers a variety of activities and brings in auditory, visual, and kinetic ways of learning.

Don’t Just Focus Solely on Phonics

In general, kids need a complete literacy program. You don’t want to solely focus on phonics for kids. They should be learning new vocabulary and working on reading comprehension.

One of the best things you can do for kids is to read to them daily. Pick up several books each day and read them to your child. Ask your child questions about the book to work on reading comprehension as you read. They naturally learn new vocabulary through new books.

Incorporate Writing As Well

Kids should begin to learn how to write the letters they learn to read simultaneously. Start by focusing on correct letter formation.

Use a multisensory approach to teaching letter formations. Here are a few ideas!

  • Write letters in the air as they say the sounds – do it three times!
  • Write on sand or salt trays.
  • Form letters with Play-Doh
  • Build letters with blocks or popsicle sticks
  • Use a dry-erase marker and board for repeated practice


Erin from Littles Love Learning

Erin is a wife, mom, and preschool teacher with a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education & an endorsement in Reading. She is the founder of Littles Love Learning, where she shares hands-on learning activities that are based on early learning standards and rooted in PLAY! Her passion is equipping preschool parents & teachers with the tools to teach foundational skills so their little ones have success in kindergarten and beyond. Connect with Erin on social media: