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How to Teach Your Child to Read With Zoo-Phonics and Have Fun Doing It

While teaching preschool and kindergarten, Ms. Meyers taught hundreds of children to read with Zoo-phonics and absolutely loved doing it.

Because it involves movement, songs, and games, Zoo-phonics is a developmentally appropriate reading program for kids.

Because it involves movement, songs, and games, Zoo-phonics is a developmentally appropriate reading program for kids.

Zoo-Phonics Is Fast, Fun, and Effective

  • Do you want to teach your child how to read but don't know where to begin?
  • Are you looking for an effective way to do it without wasting money on an expensive phonics kit that will just wind up collecting dust in the basement?
  • Do you want your youngster to be enthusiastic about learning and passionate about books?

If so, Zoo-phonics is the best tool for accomplishing these goals as many parents and teachers around the nation can attest. By pairing each letter sound with a body movement, the phonemic information gets quickly and permanently locked in a child's brain. In two short weeks, a youngster can easily master the letter sounds and be on their way to becoming a competent reader.

This fast and effective approach contrasts sharply with the tedious "letter of the week" one that's used in most kindergartens today. That method takes 26 long weeks. When children finally reach x, y, and z, they've forgotten all about a, b, and c. With Zoo-phonics, though, kids review the letter sounds each and every day as they move, dance, and sing.

By watching this video every day for two weeks, a child can easily master all the Zoo-phonics signals and sounds and build a solid foundation for reading.

When the Body Moves, the Brain Remembers

As a parent and kindergarten teacher, I've used Zoo-phonics to help hundreds of students become enthusiastic readers as well as my own two sons. Unlike other programs that are dry and boring, it's fast, fun, and playful—mixing music, movement, and games to teach the sounds that letters make. Because it's developmentally appropriate, Zoo-phonics lets kids be kids—capitalizing on their natural inclination to contort their bodies, act silly, and use their imaginations.

Zoo-phonics works so well with children because it's a kinesthetic approach, pairing each letter sound with a corresponding animal and body movement (called a "signal"). It's based on educational research that shows kids are more likely to remember information when it's connected with action.

That's why the Zoo-phonics motto is: "When the body moves, the brain remembers!" Even if moms and dads have no background in phonics and reading instruction, they can easily teach it to their youngsters while getting exercise and having fun in the process.

What Is a Kinesthetic Learner?

Many young children are kinesthetic learners. As such, they acquire information most efficiently when moving their bodies, not sitting at desks. They retain it more readily when it gets paired with an action. These youngsters get little or no benefit from listening to a teacher, writing in workbooks, or being drilled with flashcards.

It Builds Phonological Awareness

Zoo-phonics can be used as a comprehensive reading program for the homeschooling parent. However, it can also be a powerful supplemental tool for moms and dads who want to enhance their youngster's classroom learning.

It's effective with typically developing kids, gifted students, English Language Learners, and those with special needs such as Down syndrome, autism, and dyslexia. Best of all, it turns young children into happy, confident readers with a strong foundation in phonological awareness.

What Is Phonological Awareness?

It's the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds inside spoken words. During the past 20 years, it's received much attention because researchers found that children with weak phonological awareness became weak readers. It was once thought that children would naturally acquire it through time and exposure.

Today, though, reading experts strongly believe it should be taught in an explicit way through direct instruction such as Zoo-phonics.

Phonological Awareness vs. Whole Language

Those of us who are middle-aged may remember phonics with dread. We may recall those tedious drill-and-kill worksheets with instructions such as: Color the picture that makes the hard “c” sound and circle the object that ends with the “sh” sound.

The irony is we did these while sitting quietly at our desks when the very essence of phonological awareness is auditory. We never heard the sounds that letters and combinations of letters made so it's no wonder some of us struggled with learning how to read.

The generation after us, though, had it even worse because they received little or no instruction in phonological awareness. When they went to school, whole language instruction was all the rage with its emphasis on reading quality literature, connecting reading and writing, and reading for meaning. Many reading experts at that time touted whole language as a panacea. Therefore, phonological awareness got deemed old-fashioned and unnecessary and was pushed aside in many classrooms.

As a result, an entire generation of youngsters grew up without receiving adequate decoding skills. While most students learn to read without lessons in phonological awareness, it's estimated that a whopping 30% do need systematic instruction in it or they'll struggle when sounding out words. They'll read haltingly with decreased comprehension.

What Is Decoding?

It refers to the process of translating print into speech. It's the foundation of early reading because it's necessary to build fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. According to educational research, teachers should present decoding skills in an explicit, systematic way to improve the reading skills of their students.

It's a Balanced Approach

It was during the height of whole language's popularity that I attended graduate school to earn a teaching credential. My instructors never mentioned phonological awareness and none of my mentor teachers taught it in their classrooms. Therefore, when I landed a kindergarten job, I started with a big hole in my repertoire. When some of my students weren't “picking up” reading in an organic way like the whole language advocates promised they would, I felt like a failure.

Fortunately, we learned a lot from those decades when phonological awareness was pitted against whole language. Today, it seems ludicrous to imagine that they wouldn't co-exist and work together in unison.

In fact, the National Reading Panel now states that there should be five essential components of an effective reading program: phonological awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension. I'm happy to say that Zoo-phonics successfully combines all of these.

In this video, the co-creator of Zoo-phonics explains why it works so well for young learners.

It Emphasizes Letter Sounds

In a traditional kindergarten classroom, the teacher presents one letter of the alphabet per week. This, however, is an unnecessarily long and drawn-out process. Not surprisingly, the letters learned at the beginning of the school year are forgotten by the time z finally has its turn.

By the 26th week, the children may recall the names of some letters from the beginning of the year. It's unlikely, though, that they remember their sounds. It's those sounds, though, that are most vital when learning how to read. After all, knowing the names of the letters in C-A-T will not help them read the word. However, if they know the sounds they make—cuh-ah-tuh—it most certainly will.

Zoo-phonics is superior to the "letter of the week" approach because it emphasizes letter sounds over letter names. The sounds aren't learned in isolation, one at a time, but get reviewed every day as a unit. A child sings about Allie Alligator, Bubba Bear, Catina Cat, and Deedee Deer as they perform body movements called "signals." Allie Alligator opens and closes her jaw while saying ah. Bubba Bear reaches up to a honeycomb and brings honey to his mouth while saying buh. Catina Cat cleans her face with a paw while saying cuh.

By pairing a signal with a sound, a youngster gets phonemic information firmly implanted in their brain. In less than two weeks, they've learned the letter sounds. Then, they're ready to confidently move forward, forming consonant-vowel-consonant words like bat, fog, tan, and ham. Instead of it being a year-long ordeal, learning the sounds is mastered in a quick and efficient way.

I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.

— Chinese Proverb

10 Fun Facts About Zoo-phonics

  1. It presents information in an age-appropriate way, moving from the concrete (26 zoo animals depicted on large cards) to the abstract (sounds represented by letters of the alphabet).
  2. It teaches the lower case letters first because they make up the vast majority of what we see in print.
  3. The English language is regular and predictable and Zoo-phonics capitalizes on that. Three-fourths of our most commonly used words have regular spellings. Zoo-phonics is effective because it helps children see and understand the patterns in our language.
  4. By doing a body movement or “signal” for each animal, children secure the phonemic information in their memories.
  5. It teaches short vowels before long ones. This approach helps kids understand that some letters make more than one sound.
  6. It emphasizes patterns. Children begin by learning a group of words that are similar such as pig, wig, big, fig, and twig, not random words such as the, since, of, me, and it.
  7. It's fully incorporated throughout the day in all subject areas. There are dozens of familiar games that can be modified to teach it such as Mother May I and Red Light, Green Light.
  8. It improves spelling skills.
  9. It improves pronunciation.
  10. It maximizes learning. When children hear information, they remember 10% of it. When they hear, see and say it, they remember 40%. When they hear, see, say and do it, they remember 70-100%.

Final Thoughts

Whether you're homeschooling or supplementing your child's classroom learning, Zoo-phonics is a delightful program that gets quick results. In two short weeks, a youngster can master the names of all 26 Zoo-phonics animals and perform their signals and sounds. With that powerful foundation, they can move successfully into making consonant-vowel-consonant words such as man, hat, dog, and cat.

Best of all, a parent and child learn together in a way that is both playful and productive. Zoo-phonics makes discovering how to read a joyful experience and that's exactly what young children need.

Questions & Answers

Question: My grandson is six-years-old and going into first grade. He has been seeing a tutor that teaches the zoo-phonics, but the session is ending for the summer. He is not interested when I try to help with the program. Do you have any suggestions to help me get him interested in me teaching?

Answer: What a wonderful grandmother you are to help your grandson with Zoo-phonics! I'm assuming that he enjoyed working with the tutor, learned a lot, and is eager to discover more. If he knows all 26 signals and sounds, then he can teach you. It would be a marvelous way to re-enforce his knowledge and build his confidence. Then you and he will share your own special way to communicate.

The two of you can do it together or with the video that's in my article (there are also many more on youtube). Remember to move through all 26 signals and sounds every day. This is key. You want to master these so you can then move forward and make words.

Since your grandson is going in first grade, he should learn to make CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words with his Zoo-phonics signals and sounds: dog, cat, jam, kit, nap, win, sit, pat, bat, set, lot, pet, hug, fit, bug, hat, pig, etc. He should be able to do these quickly and efficiently. These are the building blocks for reading, writing, and spelling.

Once he has mastered CVC words, he should move on to making blends with signals and sounds: bl in blot and black, ck in clock and kick, spl in splash and split, and str in strict and strip. These are challenging but fun. He should also work on digraphs (two letters that make one sound) such as ch in chat and chick, th in that and this, sh in shelf and ship, and wh in what and whip.

When my son was little, I purchased the “Zoo-phonics Parent Kit” on It included a manual, an instructional DVD, a music CD (that we listened to a whole lot), and alphabet cards. I thought it was well worth the money, and my son loved it.

With Zoo-phonics you want to keep it light and fun. Don't hesitate to be goofy. Kids learn so much without even realizing what they're learning and how much they're learning. When I volunteered in second and third grades, I dealt with many kids who never mastered their letter sounds. That's never the case with kids who are taught Zoo-phonics; they have it wired in their brains for their lifetime!

Question: As a preschool teacher, how do I learn more about Zoo-phonics so I may teach my kids?

Answer: In addition to watching YouTube videos, you can check out their website at If you like what you see, you can sign up for one of their workshops. Attending one is a great way to get an overview of the program--its scope and sequence—and get excited about its infinite possibilities. You'll be ahead of the game if you master the signals and sounds before you go and have some sense of the program. I attended my first workshop years ago, walking in totally clueless, and felt pretty lost the first half of the day!

While Zoo-phonics has a whole host of products to buy, you don't need to spend a lot of money, especially when just starting. All you need are the letter cards and the CD (“Music That Teaches”) that kids love. As you get more into the program, you'll probably want to buy a new game or activity from time to time to keep it fresh. I recommend the rubber stamps, Zoo-Bingo, and the magnetic letters.

I collected little animals at garage sales and on eBay that resembled each of the 26 Zoo-phonics characters. I kept them in a big basket in my classroom, and the children loved playing with them. They used their imaginations but also incorporated a lot of what we had learned about the animals' diets, habitats, and behaviors.

Question: I looked around my town and couldn't find a preschool that teaches Zoo-phonics. Why is that?

Answer: I know of only one preschool in my town that teaches Zoo-phonics and only one kindergarten at a private school. It's a shame because Zoo-phonics is the ideal program for that age group and is so much more fun, invigorating, and effective than the tedious “letter of the week” approach that most preschools do. Yawn!

Why do so few preschools teach Zoo-phonics? The number one explanation is the extremely high turnover rate of teachers. Zoo-phonics takes training to learn, not a lot, but it does require some. Teachers need the practice to familiarize themselves with the signals and sounds and to get comfortable doing them quickly and efficiently. With teachers coming and going so frequently, most owners don't have the time and inclination to train them or to pay to send them for training. Therefore, they just stick with the “letter of the week” approach that requires no training at all but is largely ineffective.

But don't despair! At, there are materials for moms and dads who are motivated to teach Zoo-phonics at home. I used the “Zoo Parent Kit” with my son, and it included everything we needed: a manual, an instructional DVD, a music CD, alphabet cards, and much more.

When picking up my son from preschool, I'd take a few of his buddies to our home for a playdate. I started doing Zoo-phonics with them for 10-15 minutes each visit, and they loved it. They picked it up so fast, and their parents couldn't believe it. They learned more about letters and sounds (and animals) in two short weeks than they did in the entire preschool year! Plus, they had a blast doing it.

You and your child will have a lot of fun doing Zoo-phonics together and developing your special way of communicating. It will create memories to last a lifetime and a beautiful bond between the two of you.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on April 16, 2019:

False. Zoo-phonics is a kinesthetic approach while Montessori is a sensory one. In Zoo-phonics children are contorting their bodies to become animals while making the letter sounds. It involves group activities: dancing, singing, playing games, and moving through all 26 letters each day. Montessori is a sensory approach with children largely exploring the letters independently. They trace the letters in various materials (most notably, sandpaper) and use the movable alphabet. Both Zoo-phonics and Montessori phonics, however, stress learning letter sounds over letter names.

Ogechi on April 16, 2019:

I observed that the zoo phonics is not different from the Montessori phonics. It's Montessori with a different label. True or false?