Standard Lesson

Dr. Seuss's Sound Words: Playing with Phonics and Spelling

K - 2
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 50-minute sessions
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Boom! Br-r-ring! Cluck! Moo!—Everywhere you turn, you are bound to find exciting sounds. Students begin exploring these sounds through a read-aloud of Dr. Seuss's Mr. Brown Can MOO! Can You? They then play with the sounds in their classroom, creating words that capture what they hear. Next, they explore sounds from selected Websites and record what they hear on a chart, using spelling strategies to help them. Finally, students create original cinquain poems using sound words.

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From Theory to Practice

Playing with the meaning and spelling of sounds comes easily to children. A child's first sounds and words come from playful repetition, gurgling, and babbling. As Nikola-Lisa explains in her article "Sound and Sense in Children's Picture Books," "The repetition of key sounds or words is instrumental in helping young children learn the sounds of language, ultimately enabling them to associate sounds with their respective graphemes" (169).  As students focus on sound words, they begin with their ability to hear and mimic the sounds (phonemes) that they hear. From this beginning step, students move on to use spelling strategies to create the graphemes that represent those sounds. As outlined by Bouffler (1984), primary students will likely focus on spelling as it sounds, spelling as it sounds out, spelling as it articulates, spelling as it means, as explained in Laminack and Wood's book Spelling in Use: Looking Closely at Spelling in Whole Language Classrooms (13-15).

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Dr. Seuss's Mr. Brown Can MOO! Can You? (Random House 1970), or another picture book that features sound words (onomatopoeia)

  • General classroom supplies (paper, pens, pencils, markers, and so forth)

  • Internet connection

  • Tape recorder, to record sounds heard on a sound hike or on the Internet (Optional)



Student Objectives

Students will:

  • explore the connection with between letters and letter combinations (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes) by identifying sound words, or onomatopoeia, in texts they hear (or read) and matching words to sounds they hear.

  • explore a variety of strategies to spell the sound words that they associate with sounds they have heard.

  • compose a poem or other text that focuses on sound words.

Session One

  1. Read Mr. Brown Can MOO! Can You? or another picture book that features sound words to students to familiarize them with the story before you begin looking for examples of sound words. Allow time for discussion of the book and to answer any questions students have.

  2. Once you have read and discussed the book, explain that you are going to read the book again and look for examples of sound words. You will also think about the reasons that Dr. Seuss used the words he did.

  3. Read the first page of Mr. Brown Can MOO! Can You? Ideally, students should be able to see the text as you are reading and thinking aloud. If class size makes it difficult for everyone to see what you are reading, photocopy the page and make an overhead transparency for students to look at, or use this excerpt from Mr. Brown Can MOO! Can You?.

  4. Demonstrate how to find and think about the purpose of the sound words using this Sample Think Aloud as a guide.

  5. Answer any questions students have about sound words before reading the rest of the book.

  6. As you read the book, pause on every other page. This lets you focus on two-page spreads (for instance, pages 2 and 3, pages 4 and 5, and so forth). Ask students to help you locate the sound words on the two-page spreads and record them on the chalkboard or a piece of chart paper.

  7. Once you have read through the book, display the list of sound words. Alternately, you can make an overhead using the last two pages of the book.

  8. With students, examine the list and identify what things make each sound. In one regard, students will be demonstrating memory by recalling the item in the book that makes the sound, but they might also brainstorm alternate items that make the sounds. For instance, the sound "Boom! Boom!" in the book is associated with thunder. However that sound might also be someone beating on a big drum.

  9. After you have identified all the words in the book, play with sounds in the classroom that you can identify and add to the list. For instance, does the heater or fan in your classroom make a noise? What about the windows or door? Is there a sound when you drag a chair across the floor? Have students as a whole group think of things that make sounds in the classroom and then create words that capture those sounds. A list of sample sound words may help you get started.

Session Two

  1. Begin the session by reminding students of the work from the previous session. You may wish to ask students to share any sound words they have heard since then and model strategies for writing them on the chalkboard or a large piece of paper.

  2. Tell students that in this session they will continue exploring sound words by visiting sites on the Internet.

  3. Direct students to the Web Resources for Exploring Sound Words and inform them that they will be exploring sounds from the Websites on that page.

  4. If you decide to search for additional resources, pay particular attention to whether the sites have sound clips of the subject that they focus on. For instance, only two of the National Geographic Sight & Sound Websites on the Web resources page include related sound clips of the animals in the areas explored. The other sites have video clips, and some have audio clips of scientists in the field; however, they do not include sounds of the particular place explored. In addition to exploring animals and habitats, you might have students consider very different places or events - a football game, a marathon, or an afternoon at a farmer's market.

  5. Divide students into groups and distribute copies of the Sound Observation Chart (or point out the link on the Web resources page). They will use this chart to record their observations.

  6. You may wish to share this example on the board to get students started:
    What Were You Listening To? What Sound Words Describe It?
    Barn Owl

    Hoo Hoo
  7. Have groups add a third column to their charts and brainstorm details in this column about the animal or location that they've explored. Here's an example to share:
    What Were You Listening To? What Sound Words Describe It? What Related Details Do You Know?
    Barn Owl

    Hoo Hoo

    eat mice, fly at night, live in trees and buildings
  8. Circulate the room while students work. As you notice students having difficulty deciding how to write down a sound that they hear, introduce alternative strategies that may help them-for instance, you might help students change from sounding a word out to thinking of alternative words or sounds they know, using phonetic spelling or articulatory strategies (see Laminack and Wood for more details).

  9. As students complete their lists, ask them to think aloud, telling you about their composing. Discuss the graphemes they have chosen as evidence of what Laminack and Wood call "spelling in use." Ask students how they decided on the particular word(s) that they have recorded for various sounds, for instance.

  10. As you observe how students move from heard sounds to phonemes to graphemes, you can suggest additional strategies as either a part of this lesson or in future lessons: especially if you notice the majority of students are using a limited number of strategies as they move through this process. A basic spelling observation checklist can help focus your feedback and document students' current language development.

  11. Allow them plenty of time to explore the sounds they are including on their charts. Encourage students to replay the sounds on the Web pages as many times as necessary to pinpoint the sound word that they want.

  12. Collect the sound charts so that you are certain they will have the lists for the next session.

  13. Close the session by informing students that they will be using their newly-found sound words in a creative writing activity.

Session Three

  1. Begin the session by reminding students of the sights and sounds they explored on the Internet in the previous session.

  2. Introduce the writing project to students by sharing information about cinquain poems with students (see the Composing Cinquain Poems lesson for more information). Each student in the group will write a cinquain or two about one of the places they visited or things that they heard. Then all the pages they have created can be assembled into a group book using the Stapleless Book tool.

  3. Discuss the structure of a cinquain, as outlined below, as students look at a copy of the graphic organizer.

    Cinquain Poems
    Cinquain (pronounced "cin-kain") is a five-line poetic form, using a wavelike syllable count of two-four-six-eight-two.

    Line 1: One or two words that tells what the poem is about-this might be "Hallway," "Monkeys," or "Whales"
    Line 2: Two words-one that describes the kind of sound (loud, soft, etc.) and the sound word itself
    Line 3: Three sound words related to the subject
    Line 4: Four to six words describing the sound and using sound words
    Line 5: One or two words that rename what the poem is about (a synonym)
  4. Distribute the sound charts (PDF or Interactive) from the previous session to the groups.

  5. Generally, students should use their sound charts to compose the group poems; however, if they need to return to the Web page or tape recorder, make them available.

  6. Once students have composed their own poems, they should share with the class. These pieces rely on sound words and are meant to be shared aloud! If students need additional time, share the pieces during the next class session.


  • At the end of Session One, have students brainstorm a list of at least five sound words that describe the sounds they associate with each the following items or events. Ask students to think about the reasons for the words that they choose. Provide students with copies of the Brainstorming Sound Words handout, use the online Sound Description Chart to record their observations, or write the information on the board in table form, like this:
Item or Event Sound Words Reasons
The school hallway between classes
The sound of a thunderstorm
Traffic on a busy street

  • In Session Two, instead of (or in addition to) exploring sounds on the Internet, take students on a sound hike around the school. Depending upon the weather, you might explore nearby areas outside (be sure to get permission from parents or guardians and from the school administration before leaving school property). If you choose this option, it will help to carry a tape recorder along and record any sounds that students want to use so that they can replay those sounds in the classroom as they work.

  • ReadWriteThink has also produced this online video sound hike that can be used as part of the activity.

  • In Session Three, offer students choices beyond the cinquain. Students may also compose acrostic poems, theme poems, or diamante poems using online tools.

  • Have students look at this chart of animal sounds in a variety of languages and sound out the animal sounds listed there. Discuss why different cultures might say and write animal sounds in different ways.

  • This game at the Seussville site works on letter recognition, using sentences from Mr. Brown Can MOO! Can You?

  • Continue to explore onomatopoeia with these lessons from the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Feedback for this lesson should be ongoing, integrated with the students' composing process. It's not something that occurs after the project is completed, but while students are working. Since the focus is on the strategies and processes students use, feedback and reflection takes the form of kidwatching and specific commentary that helps students expand and extend their language strategies.

  • The spelling students use in their poems or other texts should never be evaluated for adherence to a mechanical sense of "right" and "wrong." There is no one way to spell and express the sounds that an animal makes. Nor is there a single correct way to spell the sounds of machines or people. As a result, students' spelling should be observed (using the Spelling Observation Checklist) with an analytical eye that searches for the strategies that students are using and works to help students understand, name, and expand the strategies available to them (see Laminack and Wood 10-13).

  • Have students, either in writing or in a conference setting, answer quetions from the Cinquain Reflections Worksheet.

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