This is a tool that one must fully understand in order to use it correctly!
Here's the deal. You can ask any child who just successfully figured out a word, "How did you do that?" and most of the time the answer will be, "I sounded it out." But most of the time that's not actually what she did! See, SIO has become a meaningless catch-all. I want children to use a wide variety of strategies to figure out words and I want them to have some awareness about what strategies they are using and how they work. I want that child to say, "I looked at the beginning of the word and it was a /th/ sound and the girl in the picture was throwing a ball so I tried 'throw' and that made sense, so then I looked at the rest of the letters and they all worked to make the rest of the sounds of 'throw'."
Also, the most appropriate strategy to use depends heavily on what your child can already do. You might more simply equate this with book level. Certain levels of books require children to use certain strategies. In very early books children should look at the pictures to help figure out words, and maybe sometimes look at the first letter. Children should not be 'sounding words out'- looking through the letters of the word left to right and blending the sounds together- until they are already reading pretty well. I'm not going to get into what strategies to use with what levels because that would be a really long long long post. However, there is sort of an order to things.
This is not exhaustive...
- Look at the picture
- Remember the words you know by heart. (Children should not try to 'sound out,' or decode, high frequency words such as the, it, and, me, etc. These should be memorized and recognized instantly. Most early books have just a few of these.)
- Look at the first letter(s) and make the sound (sometimes we call this getting your mouth ready. It is a precursor to sounding words out)
- Look for parts of words you know (if you know str- or -ike then you can figure out strike just by connecting those two chunks. This also applies to affixes, like re- or -tion)
- Always be paying attention to what would make sense or sound right. This is not guessing. This is predicting and we adults do it all the time.
If your child is struggling to figure out a word for a long time and is becoming frustrated, if you are becoming frustrated, if the connection to the meaning of the book is getting lost because of this one dumb word, just tell it to him! If there are several words like this (more than 1% in a chapter book. Yes, you heard right, children need to read with 99% accuracy in order to become better readers) change books. Reading should be easy. EASY. This idea does not compute for most of us. In our culture we believe that success comes from facing struggles and working really hard. We say, "no pain, no gain," and "nothing worth getting was ever gotten the easy way." But reading doesn't work like that. All the research shows that in order to become better readers (and therefore to go up through the levels of books, if that's what matters) children must have a lot of time reading books that are EASY. In chapter books this means over 99% accuracy. In very early books (with one sentence on a page) sometimes one error is already 5% of the words, so the rule in books with fewer words is a little less stringent. Regardless of level, children need to feel successful in their reading if they are going to put in the time that is required for further success. (Read the post on praise for some ideas on how to help children feel successful)
And try some other ways to support your child in figuring out words!