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2 letter words
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2 Letter words: Why readers struggle with them

Have you ever noticed that the ‘f’ in ‘if’ and ‘of’ sounds differently? How about the ‘s’ in the 2 letter words ‘is’ and ‘us’ that makes 2 sounds?

You’ve probably learned these words a long time ago and never questioned the differences. A struggling reader however is confused about a lot of things that come easy for you.

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If you ever wonder, how is it that a struggling reader can say the words ‘people’ and ‘dinosaur’ when spotted but find it very difficult to read 2 letter words, then this article addresses your concerns.

To start, do a proper reading assessment on the struggling reader. This will tell you the problems to fix with your very own reading intervention programme or reveal signs for you to seek professional help. Here is the process that is necessary to read up to 2 letter words properly.

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Phonological awareness

A struggling reader usually lacks phonological awareness. This is simply being aware of the different sounds that are made in speech.

To put yourself in the shoes of a struggling reader, think about listening to someone who speaks a foreign language that you don’t understand. You hear a string of sounds, but cannot tell when a word begins and when it ends.

Phonological awareness is the umbrella over the many sounds made in speech. These include segmenting a sentence into words, noticing these words have syllables, some of them rhyme, they have alliteration which means they have the same beginning sounds, assonance which is same vowel sounds, and knowing the individual sounds which is phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is being aware of each sound made in a single word. Let’s look at the words ‘of’ and ‘off’. The letter ‘o’ represents 2 sounds which are ‘uh’ in ‘of’ and ‘or’ in ‘off’.

Also, the letter ‘f’ in ‘of’ makes the sound that ‘v’ represents. The ‘ff’ in ‘off’ represents the sound that the letter ‘f’ usually represents. Some readers are unaware of these different sounds in 2 letter words before they begin to learn about phonics.


Phonics is the representation of sounds with writing. You start off learning that there are 26 letters in the alphabet, 21 are consonants and 5 are vowels, but ‘y’ can be both. Then, you learn to blend these letters to make words.

Students learn to identify letters and sounds, and they learn to associate the sounds with letters. They blend sounds as in combining ‘short u’ and ‘s’ for ‘us’ and ‘short i’ and ‘f’ for ‘if’. This is the start of decoding.

Decoding words

Decoding is a skill required for reading. It involves sounding out each letter based on a person’s phonological and phonemic awareness, and knowledge of phonics, spelling rules and syllables. For 2 letter words, one essential skill that is part of decoding is reading from left to right.

Some children learn the 2 letter words ‘to’, ‘do’, ‘go’, ‘so’ and ‘no’ without issues. Others however struggle with problems such as reading ‘no’ as ‘on’ because they don’t read from left to right, differentiating the letter ‘b’ from ‘d’, and understanding why ‘o’ makes 2 sounds in ‘do’ and ‘go’. This is the stage when they start learning sight words since there are 2 letter words that cannot be sounded out.

Sight words

Sight words go against everything that was learned about letters in the alphabet and the sounds that they represent. The words ‘as’, ‘is’, ‘of’, ‘by’ and ‘to’ have letters that represent different sounds in the alphabet. These words must be learned.

In a traditional classroom, these concerns are usually ignored and the class moves on to decoding 3, 4, 5 and 6 letter words. These words contain syllables as in joyous – joy/ous, a digraph as in ‘oy’, and trigraph as in ‘ous’. The problem intensifies as the student learns bigger sight words.

Learning bigger sight words too quickly

Many readers jump to learning bigger sight words before they are ready to do so. This is where the complication happens that causes readers to struggle at ages 7 and older.

While the rest of students can comfortably add ‘g’ to ‘do’ and read ‘dog’ or ‘t’ to ‘no’ and read ‘not’, struggling readers still have underlying issues that were never addressed. Jumping to sight words before grasping these concepts causes a delay in the foundation for reading for many children.

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Coping strategy of struggling readers

Struggling readers learn to cope with their challenges by looking at the shape of big words instead of decoding them. They memorise sight words effectively convincing everyone around them that they are learning.

They know the words ‘people’ and ‘dinosaur’ because they are very distinct and are easy to recognise. However, it is more difficult to use the word-shape strategy on 2 letter words because they require understanding of phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, and a lot of practise.

Practise reading 2 letter words

When doing reading intervention, the reader must practise 2 letter words properly after learning sounds and letters that represent them. Here are pairs of 2 letter words that can be confusing to a struggling reader.

am and an

A struggling reader may find ‘am’ and ‘an’ look and sound similar. The ‘m’ is really ‘n’ doubled and they both have nasal sounds.

as and us

The ‘s’ in ‘as’ represents the ‘z’ sound and the ‘s’ in us represents ‘s’. This may be confusing and get mixed up.

be and by

Some readers learn the words ‘be’ and ‘by’, then move on to the 3 letter words ‘any’ and ‘day’ without question. Others are thrown aback at the different sounds that the letter ‘y’ represents as in ‘i’ in ‘by’, ‘e’ in ‘any’ and ‘a’ in ‘day’.

as and us

The ‘s’ in ‘as’ represents the ‘z’ sound and the ‘s’ in ‘us’ represents ‘s’. This may be confusing and get mixed up.

of and if

The ‘f’ in ‘of’ represents the ‘v’ sound and the ‘f’ in ‘if’ represents the ‘f’ sound. The differences must be learned properly.

on and no

The words ‘on’ and ‘no’ have the same letters and can be problematic for struggling readers. These words usually reveal the child’s ability to read from left to right.

be, by and do

The letters ‘b’ and ‘d’ are usually a pain for most struggling readers. If the 2 letter words ‘be’, ‘by’ and ‘do’ are not mastered before moving on to 3 letter words, then the reader would have even bigger problems.

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Even though 2 letter words are small, they are definitely not insignificant. They are actually the foundation for word building as a reader becomes more advanced. Clear up issues that a struggling reader may have with 2 letter words and you would strengthen the groundwork needed for improving the reading skill.

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See also:

5 Reading assessment topics to give proper diagnosis

6 Common reading assessment mistakes to avoid

Reading intervention: 20 critical literacy problems to address

Reading lessons: Change someone’s life now

How to help my 7-year-old read better?

Parts of speech: A simple guide and test to master grammar

Autism signs parents should take seriously

Learning styles – visual, auditory, read-write, kinesthetic

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