I am a non-native English speaker. I live in the USA and have a first grader child who is learning how to read in English. While he definitely has a lot of words he can identify and read (mainly the short ones), he has a lot of trouble with words he hasn't seen before, mainly because he can't figure out the sound that each vowel makes. As a parent, I always know how to pronounce all the words, but I don't know how to explain why a certain word is pronounced in one way instead of another.

I talked to the teacher about this and she told me to keep asking him "can't that letter make another sound?", which I did, but it's been quite frustrating.

For example, the word FIRST. First he tried to pronounce the "i" as in fire and didn't recognize it. Then I asked him how else that "i" could be pronounce as, so he tried "i" as in "finish", then he was out of guesses and I had to tell him how to pronounce it. I have absolutely no idea what makes FIRST pronounced like that instead of the alternatives. I feel powerless as a parent and am afraid our reading sessions are starting to make him dislike reading.

I tried looking this up online, but I cannot seem to find anything at the level I could explain to a first grader. For example, here they list 15 rules, but they are all super complicated and full of exceptions. First they assume the person already knows how to split the word in syllables (which is something my child still doesn't know how to do and the teachers never even attempted teaching), then they have all these rules that are full of uncertainties. Like rule 5, with that "sometimes" in the second paragraph, or rule 7.

Seriously, how can I even begin to try to learn this and explain to a First Grader in a way that's not "here's 15 rules full of unexplained exceptions that you can't even apply because you can't split words in syllables"? I am completely lost. I am willing to buy books or whatever, as long as there's a nice way for me to help my child figure out on his own how to read new words and pronounce them.

Examples of other words he found and couldn't pronounce: chaos, island, dirt, heard, losers, rule, confusion.

Thanks in advance.

  • Don't you think this belongs more to a 'Teaching' section? Either way, what happened when you presented the little chap with a table showing the varying sounds for each vowel? Jan 25 at 2:22

2 Answers 2


Learning to read is a long process. And as a parent your are there to support and encourage. Your child will be getting teaching in phonics at school.

Roughly there are 5 stages:

  1. letter sounds
  2. Blending
  3. Digraphs, magic "e"
  4. Exceptions, alternatives
  5. Fluency

And noting that this is winter, your child will be less than half way through grade 1. It seems that she is working at stages 2→3. That's okay.

Now, as a parent, you can help by reading to your child. Read slowly and ask them to read a word or a sentence here or there. If she makes a mistake, you might encourage one "do-over", with support, but don't leave the child stuck - tell them the word and move on. Praise her for knowing "f" and "i", and teach her the "ir" digraph.

You can also get some phonics flashcards. If she stumbled over "ir", then next week you can practice with "bird" "girl" "dirt" etc.

Keep reading sessions short and allow her to choose which books you will read to her. As time progresses she will read longer passages.

But remember its not all on you! And reading progress can seem very slow from day to day at the time, but in hindsight it passes very quickly. Like the dawn, you don't notice the brightening, then suddenly you realise that the sun has risen.

If you have concerns that she isn't progressing as expected, then consult with her teacher. For most children the teacher will put your mind at rest, a few have specific difficulty reading ("dyslexia") for a wide range of causes. Identifying this early can help her to learn coping strategies (but generally can't be "cured")


Let's talk about "first."

The vowel sound in "first" is the /ə/ or "schwa" sound. It's the same as the vowel sound in "fun" (except that in "first" the "r" interacts with it a bit).

In English, any vowel can make the schwa sound. Take, for instance (examples from Wikipedia):

  1. The "a" in "about."
  2. The "e" in "taken."
  3. The "i" in "pencil."
  4. The "o" in "memory."
  5. The "u" in "supply."
  6. The "y" in "sibyl."

This happens most often in unstressed syllables in multi-syllable words, as in the examples above.

But it can happen anywhere, including in single-syllable words. This is why the "i" in "first" can make the schwa sound.

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