Have you seen what I've seen? A young student tries to read an unknown word such as "cat" and says...
And you pause and wonder...
How am I supposed to answer THAT? Yikes!
THAT is the exact reason for this article about how to teach blending sounds to read words.
Blending sounds to read words is the process of translating letters to sounds...and then combining, or blending, those sounds to identify a written word. For instance, in the example above the child learning to read who is blending well would preferably say:
/c/ /a/ /t/.…../cat!/
And your teaching job would be easy.
The bad news is that a sizable minority of students--both beginning and struggling readers--do not rapidly pick up this blending skill. YET, blending sounds to read words is the MOST important strategy for learning how to recognize words.
The good news is that even though this Works-100%-Of-The-Time Solution is not widely known...it’s surprisingly simple!
So, whether you work with beginning kindergarten students who can’t blend CVC words, or you work with 4th graders who can’t blend words with multisyllable words, you’ll find The Solution here for all types of blending challenges...
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The Ultimate Guide to Teach Blending Sounds in Words
After having worked with hundreds of students that I have personally tutored, as well as thousands of teachers of reading, I realize that teaching blending is a vital pedagogical skill for quickly advancing any beginning or struggling reader.
Given all the pitfalls with decoding and blending that I’ve encountered over the years, I’ve designed this Ultimate Guide to Teach Blending Sounds in Words for you here. A little shortcut for you to avoid all the troubles I’ve dealt with!
First, I’ll dive right into the sure-fire solution to most every blending problem....
We call it Blend As You Read.
Then, I’ll elaborate more deeply on issues and research surrounding differing strategies for teaching decoding and blending sounds, as well as tricks for the toughest cases.
May a lifetime of questions about blending be covered here. 😉
A great page to bookmark!
Ready, then? Let’s dive in….
The Blend As You Read Approach to Teach a Child to Read
If a beginning or struggling reader you are working with doesn’t intuitively know what is meant by “Put the sounds together,” or “Blend the sounds,” or the ubiquitous, “Sound it out,” then try the Blend As You Read approach….
Rather than saying each sound separately until the end of the word is reached, blend sounds cumulatively, continuously, or “successively” to read the word, as Isabel Beck puts it in Making Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Whys.
Other reading experts and programs have advised this type of successive blending of sounds over the years, such as DISTAR, Open Court, Wiley Blevins, and even oldies like this one.
Back to the Blend As You Read technique: cumulatively add one sound after another...instead of waiting till all the sounds in the word have been segmented or spoken.
Hide the 3rd or 4th sounds in the word with a small card or your finger while the first 2 sounds are blended by your student.
If needed, model for the child how to put the first two sounds of a word together, i.e.,
Have her copy you:
(and hold, or sing, that short vowel sound for awhile)
Then reveal the last sound in the word and have her add the 3rd sound in the word,
“What’s the word?” you ask.
Notice how the child did NOT say each phoneme (or sound) first in an isolated manner (i.e., not /j/…./e/….../t/). Rather, she blended the first 2 sounds in the word, elongated the short vowel sound, and then deduced the word.
Watch how this Kinder with speech and reading difficulties implements the Blend As You Read strategy with the word, "slap." Notice that he does not segment each phoneme first, but he gathers together the sounds--from the very beginning of the word.
The Blend As You Read approach for blending sounds works for 2 reasons:
#1 Reduced Memory Burden
First, blending sounds successively reduces the burden on the child’s short-term memory. Remembering a string of isolated phonemes...
(i.e., /s/ /t/ /r/ /ee/ /t/ )
is a lot harder unless you hear or see the phonemes as part of a meaningful word.
You try it!
Can you say these sounds once, look away, and then recall all of them? Easily?
m r q i u v a
You may have to strain your brain (your short-term memory) a tad to recall these, even though you are an adult.
Because they are random letter strings….not ordered that way in written language. The disorder of the letter string prevents your ability to blend the sounds together to make a word at the end of “reading” them.
Just relying on short-term memory alone to attack a completely unfamiliar word is hard, especially for children with weaker auditory memories (one group of people who may particularly struggle with learning to read).
#2 Integrates Sound-Based Decoding with Meaning-Making
Second, when good developing readers read, they begin by putting sounds or chunks of sounds (syllables) together as they go. We can, thusly, offer this same strategy to our budding readers.
When we attack an unfamiliar word, such as
we say the beginning sounds or chunks of sounds and then successively continue adding sounds. [Even an 800 Verbal SAT student would not likely say each sound in isolation...
/p/ /o/ /l/ /ee//f/ /ie/ /l/ /oa/ /p/ /r/ /oa/ /j/ /e/ /n//i//t//i//v/
and remember the beginning sounds to attempt a word. Rather, the good reader builds or Blends the Sounds Together As She Reads.]
In the context of a sentence, many children can deduce a word after simply putting the first two sound together to hear a word.
The leaf floated across the ri_____.
Did you guess “river?”
The context and the first 2 sounds combined to help you know that the word was likely “river.”
This is exactly the strategy that we want developing readers to employ–sound-based decoding--supported by searching for meaning-making.
[I’m not saying we’re teaching guessing or relying on context to recognize words. However, we DO want decoding to interact with meaning-making. When a child blends the first few sounds and deduces the word, great! She will feel more successful with her reading and read more. The next time she sees the same word she may notice more about the interior parts of the word, increasing the likelihood that she orthographically maps the word.]
Sound-Based Decoding--Coupled with Meaning-Making Comprehension
When a young reader waits till the end of a word to try to put the sounds together, she short-circuits her ability to both sound-based decode and rely on meaning-making.
Our intrepid readers can learn—early on, with smart instruction—how to integrate 2 complex cognitive tasks simultaneously. In one region of her brain she can Blend As She Reads (sound-based decoding) while another region of her brain is searching for a meaningful word that fits the context of the sentence (semantic processing).
See diagram below from Dr. Mark Seidenberg's excellent book, Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It, for how sound-based decoding (Spelling and Phonology) interact with semantics, or Meaning.
This flexible integration of 2 different word-getting processes is a beautiful, amazing accomplishment of the human mind. Some children deduce how to do both processes.
Many do not.
When to Use the Blend As You Read Decoding Strategy
Pack your teacher’s tool belt with the Blend As You Read strategy and teach it every time you see a child struggle with a CVC or CCVC word or when the child says each sound separately and waits till the end of the word to try to decode it.
Here are our 2 favorite usages of the Blend As You Read approach:
#1 Read It: One Activity to Bring Your Teaching of Blending (and Segmenting!) to the Next Level
First, teach Blend As You Read during the simple activity Read It. Read It is an activity that we use with developing readers and new struggling readers as often as we brush our teeth.
Here’s a quick example of Read It in action with a new group of 1st graders...
Here are the Read It steps:
Write a short word on a board or paper, most likely a CVC short vowel word, such as “map” for beginners.
Ask the child to try to read it. If she uses a segment, segment, segment=word approach, then teach her to Blend As You Read. Or, if she gets stuck or mis-reads the word, teach her to Blend As You Read.
Recall that this means we hide the back-end of the word and ask the child to blend the first 2 sounds of the word. Elongate and stretch out the sounds and have her copy you. Then uncover each successive sound and ask her to add it to the word.
Read It often culminates with the student writing the word again—either with the word still visible or not, depending on her level of development. Importantly, as she writes each sound, she says each sound: /m/ /a/ /p/
Finally, play the Erase Game--teacher and student erase each sound as they say each sound. The Erase Game is another reinforcement of phoneme segmentation, letter-sound knowledge, and the reading-spelling connection.
Notice throughout this Read It activity to improve blending sounds neither the teacher nor the student have said the Letter Names.
Say. No. To. Letter. Names.
Letter names are verboten!!
“What?!?” I hear you saying.
Letter names interfere with the sound-based decoding approach that a beginner needs to learn as she establishes her word identification foundation. (See this post to dive deeper into this issue of letter names vs. letter sounds.)
#2 Coach Transfer of Blending Sounds in Words During Guided Reading
Second, Blend As You Read can also be reinforced when a child is doing any type of oral reading. As the teacher guides her and listens to her reading, she offers this effective feedback when a child stumbles with a word.
Thus, this Blend As You Read coaching in the context of reading connected text leads to the glorious transfer every teacher dreams her instruction will cause.
We hear how quickly the Blend As You Read decoding strategy transfers to real reading all the time inside our Reading Simplified Academy--our paid membership for teachers and parents to learn how to teach anyone how to read.
Like Michelle P. who wrote on our member discussion board…
This past Friday I added Read It to my word work during Guided Reading with all of my First Graders…The exciting thing is later that day I was showing one of my little girls that struggles in reading how to find books for independent reading. As she was struggling with words I encouraged her to use the read it approach and it was wonderful to see the transfer.
Wonderful, indeed!! Don’t you want to see that for all of your hard work, too?
If you want to see more evidence about the efficacy of Blend As You Read, you can examine a small series of studies by Dr. Paul Weisberg and colleagues. He found that both for oral blending and for blending of sounds for reading, young students do better when they are taught to continuously blend sounds together, rather than say them in a segmented fashion (see here pg 19 and here).
Weisberg writes in one study’s conclusion,
Teaching beginning readers to decode words by saying the sounds without pausing between each one is a far more effective procedure than by pausing between the sounds. No-pausing training was associated with more familiar words being correctly decoded. The poor reading abilities of children originally taught by no-pausing between sounds could be overcome if they were remediated by not-pausing training. The extent of remediation can be expected to depend upon the length of prior, ineffective decoding training produced by pausing between sounds (p. 23).
Weisberg notes that many children did NOT naturally deduce a decoding strategy without instruction. This reminds me of the importance both of coaching during Word Work, but also of training in the context of students’ reading aloud….
More recently, in a prestigious journal, Scientific Studies of Reading, Gonzalez-Frey and Ehri (2020) demonstrated that "connected phonation" (aka Blend As You Read or continuous blending) yielded better outcomes than segmented decoding (i.e., "/s/ /t/ /o/ /p/"...."stop").
In an uncharacteristic statement in reading research, they noted,
"We were surprised that children learned to decode so quickly given that they could not decode nonwords on the pretest."
"We were surprised that children learned to decode so quickly given that they could not decode nonwords on the pretest." --Gonzalez-Frey & Ehri (2020), Scientific Studies of Reading
I hope you are finding time every day to listen to almost every child read aloud—at least briefly. Those readers in the bottom half of the class should especially be targeted for this daily reading support. Timely, specific, supportive feedback has a strong research backing (e.g. here and here).
Additionally, the panel of reading research experts who wrote the U.S. National Reading Panel report concluded this about guided repeated oral reading, specifically…
A very thorough search for studies that evaluated the efficacy of various guided repeated oral reading procedures was made. Those studies provide a persuasive case that repeated reading and other procedures that have students reading passages orally multiple times while receiving guidance or feedback from peers, parents, or teachers are effective in improving a variety of reading skills. It is also clear that these procedures are not particularly difficult to use; nor do they require lots of special equipment or materials, although it is uncertain how widely used they are at this time. These procedures help improve students’ reading ability, at least through grade 5, and they help improve the reading of students with learning problems much later than this (p. 3-20).
Readers grow with reading practice. Primarily accurate reading practice.
So, an adult or more advanced reader is needed to guide the beginning or struggling student when he trips on a word.
Aside: the text should be challenging enough that some mistakes are made, otherwise the child isn’t really learning much about decoding. Shy away from student errors and you shy away from rapid progress.
In sum for this section about teaching blending sounds to read words via the Blend As You Read method…
- Don’t let students read words by isolating or segmenting each sound in the word and attempting to blend sounds at the end of the word.
- Rather, coach the child to Blend As You Read, which is cumulatively blending sounds together--from the beginning of the word--to identify the word.
- Teach the Blend As You Read decoding strategy both in the context of the activity Read It as well as through guided reading of actual text reading with supportive feedback.
If so, now you’ve got a powerful tool in your teacher toolbox for helping most every reader you’ll coach from here on!
By the way, if you’re looking for strategies for giving feedback when students make word-reading errors, during activities like Read It, or during guided reading, you may benefit from this article about giving feedback for common reading errors.
But wait, there’s more!
If you still don’t believe that this Blend As You Read technique is the best way....or, if you wonder about how to implement it with a variety of reading levels and even for super-tricky blending challenges, then read on...
Yer Reading Strategies Are Breaking My Heart...and Slowing Them Down
Can I share a story that kinda breaks my heart? It's a story that I hear over and over.
That's why it makes me especially sad.
We could do better....
Recently I met with a 1st grade girl for our 3rd tutoring session.
I asked her mom, "How has the new decoding approach been going?"
Her mom widened her eyes and said,
"Good! I can see it's making a lot more sense to her and it's coming along more and more easily.
We talked about this new blending sounds approach and she said,
'It's making so much more sense, Mom!
'But my teacher told me to look at the picture!'"
This is what breaks my heart.
Decades of reading research has revealed that young good readers study the print to attack unknown words, using a sound-based decoding approach.
(For example, see reviews from leading reading researchers across multiple continents, such as Beginning to Read by Dr. Marilyn Adams (1990), Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (1998), “Teaching Decoding” by Dr. Louisa Moats (1998), the U.S. National Reading Panel report mentioned above (2000), the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading (2005), the U.K. Rose Report (2006), Language at the Speed of Sight by Dr. Mark Seidenberg (2017), and this most recent review by leading researchers from 2018--to name just a few!).
In contrast, poor readers look at the pictures, make guesses, or skip words.
And, yet, mainstream reading programs encourage teachers to coach kids to do just that--make guesses, look at the pictures, remember the sentence pattern. (Emily Hanford's ground-breaking audio documentary "At a Loss for Words" is a must-listen about this weakness in mainstream instructional approaches.)
I was particularly grieved in this case because this child had a traumatic childhood before being removed from her biological family's home. Just learning to walk and talk have been huge challenges to overcome.
And for the last 2 years, she's been given directions on how to learn to read that sent her down a dead end. When I first met with her, she had very poor phonemic awareness and sound-based decoding skills, and almost no high frequency words.
Even though...just 2 lessons gave her the tools that she needed to turn all of that broken system around.
I know the teacher meant well. She's simply following the mainline guidance that I hear all the time, too.
But teaching a child to look at print and blend the sounds together to discover the word that makes sense in the context of the text, isn't as hard as the mainstream believes!
One reason many think learning how to blend to attack unknown words is so hard is because of the strategies we've been given to teach decoding or blending.
Keep reading to discover how the 2 mainstream techniques set us up for a lot more work downstream.
Since I’m busy...and fundamentally lazy ....I don’t want to adopt a strategy that won’t work with EVERYONE.
Teach Blending Sounds, Not Phonics Blends or Letter Blends: Work Smarter, Not Harder
I’ve already introduced you to my go-to approach for how to teach blending sounds to read words--the Blend As You Read strategy.
But what if you’re wedded to teaching phonics blends or teaching students to first say each sound in isolation?
I know these 2 strategies are deeply entrenched in many reading programs and classrooms, so I ask you to test me with the Blend As You Read strategy alone...and swap out these 2 mainstream practices...
...practices that make you work harder!
Would you like to discover what to swap out to save time?
First, many reading approaches suggest that we teach students to attack unknown words via an onset-rime approach.
In this type of classroom, students learn to recognize "onsets" such as "br" so they can more easily read by analogy words such as "brown," "broke," and "bright."These students also need to learn the ending "rime" units such as "ike" to they can read "bike," "like," and "Mike."
The long-running Between the Lions PBS literacy show for young children often coached the onset-rime approach as in this video:
The onset-rime approach has staying power because it sometimes works.
But....I work with lots of struggling readers for whom the onset-rime strategy does NOT work.
Most of the 2nd grade and up students who come to me for reading tutoring because they are behind in reading or have dyslexia, will attack an unknown word with a flurry of errors that reveal they’ve linked onsets such as “br” with “b” or “bl,” or rimes such as “ike” with “ite” or “ime.”
These struggling readers see a word like “black” and say “back.”
They see a word like “tack” and say “track.”
They see a word like “foundation” and say “frowndation.”
Problem #1 Onset-Rime Hides the True Phonemic Nature of Our Code
For the considerable minority of children weak poor phonological (sound-based) processing, the onset-rime approach to decoding blocks them from “seeing,” or perceiving, the true, phonemic nature of our code.
Our written language is a code for individual sounds (phonemes)--it’s not a code for clusters of sounds, such as “tr.”
In other words, struggling students in the onset-rime classroom learn to incorrectly link sounds and symbols because we’re teaching them un-truths about how our code works!
For instance, “tr” isn’t a unit. It isn’t an individual sound. It shouldn’t be taught on a card by itself.
Students who develop into good readers almost invariably move from processing how each individual phoneme (sound) matches up with specific graphemes (letters) as in this example:
If this miscommunication about how our phonetic code works isn’t enough, here’s the final kicker….(remember the "I'm lazy" comment?)...the onset-rime or phonics by analogy approach sends you down a path that requires you to work harder...
Let me show you...
Problem #2 Onset-Rime Demands More Memory Work...Much More
The onset-rime approach requires that you teach many, many onsets (over 50 beginning consonants and blends to memorize).
Note the long list of initial consonants and blends.
b, bl, br, c, ch, ck, cl, cr, d, dr, f, fl, fr, g, gh, gl, gr, h, j, k, l, m, n, ng, p, ph, pl, pr, qu, r, s, sc, sh, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, sw, t, th, tr, tw, v, w, wh, wr, y, z, sch, scr, shr, spl, spr, squ, str, thr
But that's not all!
You'd also need to teach hundreds of ending rime units.
For instance just for the /ee/ sound, you'd need to teach at least 29 rime units….
e, ea, ee, each, ead, eal, eam, ean, eap, ear, east, eat, eave, ee, eech, eed, eek, eel, eem, een, eep, eer, eet, eeze, ie, ield, ief, ies, and y
That's a LOT of information to learn.
And that's only the rimes for the /ee/ sound!
You've probably already noticed in the image below an alternative equation...
...Rather than teaching over 400 onsets and rimes, we could teach just the individual letter-sounds AND the skill of blending.
Much less information to memorize.
Much less time spent making activities.
Much less classroom time lost.
That's what I call working smarter, not harder!
"Ok," you're thinking, "that may sound all roses and sunshine, but teaching these onsets and rimes works for my students!”
Yes, I know it often works for many, many kids:
These are the kids who already have strong phonemic awareness. They already perceive each individual sound in these onsets and rimes. They know that “ct” is /c/ and /t/ combined.
They have strong phoneme segmentation. They are doing cognitive processing “under cover” that we may not explicitly observe.
BUT...what about the reader who does NOT have strong phonemic awareness? Are you really getting ALL of your students on the path to strong reading?
The onset-rime approach sets up those with poor phonemic awareness for failure...if not in Kindergarten or 1st grade, certainly by 3rd or 4th grade when they have to decode more and more sophisticated multisyllable words such as
unbelievable or extraordinary
...which depends on advanced phonemic awareness, or advanced phonemic proficiency as Dr. David Kilpatrick notes.
In sum, while the onset-rime decoding strategy can work for a sizable group of students,
It takes more time to teach all the onsets and rimes than it does to teach fewer letter-sounds and the simple skill of blending, and
Those students with poor phonemic awareness abilities are MOST likely to suffer with this approach.
Given these challenges with the onset-rime technique, I strongly recommend the Blend As You Read decoding strategy instead...
...when you have a sure-fire blending strategy, you've got the ticket for every student!
Avoid This Other Common Word Reading Strategy
Since you’re a die-hard teaching reading fan to stick with me this long, you probably want to know the OTHER super-common word reading strategy that blocks lots of readers.Even though I love both Between the Lions and Sesame Street, I’m going to pick on PBS one more time.
This little ditty from our dear friends the Muppets exemplifies the most common approach to teaching blending you’ll see in reading programs for both beginning and struggling readers. (Cute, catchy song!)
Do you remember it like me? I’m dating myself!
One muppet is teaching the other muppet how read a word like "man."
"You go /m/ ... /a/ ... /n/.
/m/ ... /a/ ... /n/
/m/ . /a/ . /n/
/m/ /a/ /n/
man, man, man, man, maaaaannnnn!"
In other words, the strategy here is to say each sound, in a segmented fashion, speed up the sounds, and then say the word. A phoneme segmentation approach.
I call this the Sound, Sound, Sound = Word blending method.
It works for lots of kids!
But NOT for a large minority!
I think that, as a result of blending frustrations with this Sound, Sound, Sound = Word approach, many teachers and teacher coaches have avoided teaching blending sounds and opted for other strategies, such as the "look at the picture" or “take a guess” approach.
But, as I mentioned above, the Sound, Sound, Sound = Word strategy is roundly ineffective for those who struggle with reading. Recall this isolated phoneme segmentation tactic requires more of our short-term memory, than does the Blend As You Read technique.
The difference between successively blending and Sound, Sound, Sound = Word may not seem that significant if you’ve never taught young, developing readers.
Perhaps an experienced teacher’s (Anne's) experience guiding a student from the Sound, Sound, Sound = Word strategy to the Blend As You Read approach will give you a sense of how big a deal it can be, however...
"I tried Read It yesterday with my sweet 2nd time-around kindergartener who knows nearly all of her letter sounds, only 4 letter names and is being referred for EC [Exceptional Children] services. She has NEVER been able to blend. Her typical blending has been like this: /b/ /e/ /d/ PUPPY!!!
I introduced Read It to her group and I was astonished by their responses. Every single one of them was blending and reading words, even my 2nd-timer! She was overjoyed at each success.
And I had an EC meeting with my 2nd-timer’s mom after school to schedule testing for intake into services. I showed the head EC teacher what 2nd-timer could do and she was in shock.
Then I showed mom. She cried. My principal wanted to know where I found this strategy. I bragged all about you.
This is life-changing, Marnie. Seriously life-changing. I don’t know how to thank you because 2nd-timer is now a reader. She believes and so do I!!!"
Anne's life-changing experience with just 1 of the core activities in the Reading Simplified system isn't that unusual, actually. Most teachers who try Read It with the Blend As You Read decoding strategy report success and delight at their students’ quick breakthroughs.
Despite successes such as Anne’s, I bet some of you are suspecting that Blend As You Read may not apply to YOUR students. Perhaps you think I’m only concerned about blending problems for the littles.
Yes, indeed, the strategy and the need may look a little different for the varying developmental stages. Yet, the underlying tactic for attacking unknown words works for everyone.
Indeed, I bet you, as a mature reader, are still using this tactic to this very day.
For instance, how to you attempt to read this rare word:
I wager most of us trying to read the above word, like me, did not find that it rolled right off the tongue, right?
If you had any success, you came close to pronouncing it like this:
/e lue ther oa may nee uh/
Most good readers would have slowly decoded each sound or syllable, one at a time, and blended them together as they went…
This is Blend As You Read--at the multisyllable level--at work!
Now that we’ve covered the optimal blending sounds strategy and why other approaches won’t meet all of our learners’ needs, let’s consider nuances of how to plan for good blending lessons...across a variety of developmental levels.
Crucial Phonemic Awareness Lessons for Your Planning
#1 First, Place Students Based on Level of Phonemic Awareness Difficulty
Ever heard a pre-school child say, “sgugetti” for “spaghetti?”
She is still developing her ability to perceive and to articulate the more challenging phonemic (individual sounds) aspects of our language.
So, “cake” may not cause a youngster much trouble. But, “spray” may sound like “play.”
Similarly, a young reader will have an easier time with words that do not have multiple adjacent consonants, such as “spray.”
Teachers label different types of word difficulties with CVC, CCVC, CVCC, etc. to describe this level of challenge.
Need help breaking the code?
In order of phonemic difficulty, here are various word types, from easiest to most challenging:
CVC = Consonant-Vowel-Consonant words = cat, map, sit
CVCC = Consonant-Vowel-Consonant-Consonant words = fast, lamp, send
CCVC = Consonant-Consonant-Vowel-Consonant words = stop, frog, plan
CCVCC = Consonant- Consonant-Vowel-Consonant words = crest, brand, stump
CCCVC = Consonant-Consonant- Consonant-Vowel-Consonant words = strap, split
CCCVCC = Consonant-Consonant- Consonant-Vowel-Consonant Consonant words = strand, splint
MS = Multisyllable Words = apple, fluffy, silver (with 2-syllable words being easier than 3, and 3-syllable words being easier than 4)
If this overwhelms, perhaps this visual which shrinks the concept to something more manageable:
Why this lesson now?
A teacher’s word choices while she teaches Blending As You Read may make the difference between a child’s success or failure.
The difference between dyslexia endured and dyslexia conquered.
Consider where your student(s) is on the above progression of phonemic difficulty.
Can he read or blend the sounds in a CVC word, such as “nap,” without your help?
If no, then stop right here and offer CVC words (i.e. “sat,” “map,” “mop,” “hid,” “hug”) during Read It and guided reading, so he can learn how to Blend As You Read with the optimal phonemic challenge.
However, if he can already tackle CVC words, then take a step up the progression and consider if he can read or blend the sounds in a CVCC word such as “fast.” If yes, continue up the steps until you find a type of word challenge that your student is not yet prepared for and select those words.
If he’s not able to blend CVCC or CCVC words, then stop right here and focus on words like that for Read It and guided reading.
Here’s a quick video example of the Blend As You Read in action at the CCVC level of a 1st grader who just began tutoring:
And in this example, notice how the more developed 3rd grade reader attacks the multisyllable word, “judicial.”
In sum, especially for Read It, match the level phonemic difficulty in the words you choose for instruction to the child’s current ability level. Keep expecting to increase the challenge, though, every day or at least every week.
Don’t camp out at the CVC level for 4 weeks! Few elementary-age kids need that much time to learn how to blend 3-sound words.
#2 Support Blending Sounds in Words for Kindergarten Students with Continuous Consonants, Initially
All consonants are not created equal.
Some consonants will usher your struggling reader into quick learning of the Blend As You Read method while others may block them.
Can you guess which of the following words would be best to use when you begin teaching Blend As You Read?
Hmmm…Both are concrete concepts. Both would be well known to most young learners. Both include the short “a” sound, a common intro-level letter-sound.
What’s the significant difference?
Try to stretch out the sounds as long as you can. Or, try to sing them.
Where are the points in the words where you can stretch for the longest?
The short “a” can be sung or hum for a long time, right? How about the /s/ sound vs. the /c/ sound?
One can be stretched out, sung, or hummed.
The difference is that one word begins with a Continuant Consonant (/ssssss/) and one word begins with a Stop Consonant (/k/).
After the “c” in “cat, your voice has to stop—you can’t elongate, stretch, sing or hum a /k/ sound. If you are, you are actually humming or stretching out an /u/ sound that’s not truly part of the /k/ sound itself.
You students likely do not need to learn these Continuant/Stop Consonant labels, but you should know which consonants are easier for absolute beginning readers to blend and which are harder.
When a word begins with a Continuant Consonant, it’s easier for a child to blend, segment, and manipulate.
What does this mean for instruction?
When planning a beginner’s lesson, select words that begin with Continuant Consonants (s, m, f, n, v, r, l, z), or those you can stretch or elongate, such as
sat mop fit sun mat nap vet run sit lip zip
And avoid words that begin with Stop Consonant (i.e., c, b, d, p, t, g), such as
cat big dog pop tap get
These types of word choices are especially important for the youngest readers, age 3-5, who may be less developmentally ready to blend sounds to hear words.
But even the littles can learn to blend CVC words when you give them edge by selecting words beginning with continuant consonants!
See below for a little visual to help your memory about which words to select.
Thumbs down for the words that begin with stop consonants, such as “cat” or “top.” Thumbs up to the words that begin with continuant consonants, such as “mop” or “sat.”
However, after your beginner has developed the ability to Blend As He Reads some of the time, please do begin to include words that do begin with Stop Consonants.
Even after one or two days, and certainly after 1 or 2 weeks, fold in words with both Continuant and Stop consonants. Usually, by choosing CVC words that begin with Continuous Consonants, most students begin blending and are off the races.
However, some still Just. Don’t. Get. It.
Don’t panic if your student can’t blend 3 sounds together to read a word!
I’ve encountered this trouble many times...especially with PreK students, those with learning difficulties, those with weak phonological processing, or those who have developed a confused notion about how our written code works.
And I’ve always been able to see them over the blending hump with 1 or more of these 3 tricks….
3 Tricks for the Toughest Blending Words Challenges
Here are 3 sure-fire solutions for every blending dilemma I've ever seen....
#1 Teacher Model & Student Copy
First, model how to blend and have your student copy you.
If you're covering the "p" in "map," and you ask your young student to put the first 2 sounds together, but she can't, THEN...
a) simply model how to do it correctly, and
b) have your student copy you...
"Ok, here's what I hear when I put these 2 sounds together: /mmmmma-----/.
Can you say those sounds too?
And hold this sound (tapping short vowel)."
Then you lift up the card to reveal the 3rd sound, in this case /p/.
At that point, the child may be able to add the final sound and correctly identify the word.
(It's easier to blend the ending sounds in a word, as compared to tacking together the first 2 or 3).
If not, simply blend the whole word for her and, again, have her copy you.
This routine of Teacher Model and Student Copy make take as few as 1-5 times or it may take a week.
However, it should not take weeks.
I've worked with some pretty tough blending cases and the initial first stage of blending has almost always been accomplished within 2 weeks with these tips.
So, be sure to fade out this scaffold as soon as you can.
Your student may surprise you!
#2 Exaggerated Multi-Sensory Cues
Second, ensure that all multi-sensory cues are being demonstrated by you and practiced by him. In other words, align visual and auditory cues, especially.
Are you pointing carefully to each sound as you speak teach precise sound? A pencil can more precisely indicate each letter-sound as compared to a finger.
Or, a small card can reveal exactly one sound at a time—as you are speaking that precise sound.
This process is implicitly revealing the alphabetic principle (that letters are symbols that represent sounds in words) to your student every time you practice it.
Similarly for the child, is he really looking at the word? Watch his eyes. Make sure your student is connecting his eyes to the print exactly as he says each sound.
And make sure he is stretching out the sounds in each word. You may even ask your student to hum the vowel so it gets emphasis. And for the fun of it!
Finally, for some of the most resistant students to blending each sound as they go, I've sometimes been more dramatic with the card-covering, as in this envelope-like version....
#3 Offer a Multiple-Choice Prompt for Challenging Cases
Third, if the above doesn't work, then present a multiple choice option to the student along with the blending sounds task.
When the above strategies still seem ineffective, it may be that the concept of what you're asking her to do is too vague.
A multiple choice paradigm is a simple support that might give her a revelation or “aha!” about what you're asking her to do.
Here are two easy ways to scaffold your young learner towards independence in how to blend sounds in words:
First, write 2, 3, or 4 similar words on a board or paper. Ask your child to select a word you call out from among this selection.
map mop sop mom
Which one of these is “mop?”
This multiple-choice presentation reduces the challenge of the task. Only use this support as long as necessary.
Every day you should try to see if your student is ready for independence on this strategy of Blending As You Read.
Or, try this other even more explicit approach to helping your student discover the blending concept...
On a dry erase board, draw 3 pictures of concrete objects or actions that all begin with the same sound. Only one of the pictures should match the word to be blended which you also write on the board.
For instance, say the word is "sit" as in the image above.
As you draw the 3 images on the board, tell your student what these images are (sun, sit, and snake).
Let her know that 1 of these images will be the word she's about to read.
Then help her to read the word "sit" using the Blend As You Read strategy.
Having the visuals and the prompt of the words ahead of time may make the blending process more manageable for her.
Try this a few times or a few days and I bet your student will get the hang of this Blend As You Read thing.
Sometimes this 3-picture presentation sparks a light bulb moment for my students!
Finally, remember that phoneme blending is a developmental accomplishment. In addition, blending sounds to read words relies on an understanding of the alphabetic principle and letter-sound knowledge. If all the above actions fail to spur independent blending for her, you might just emphasize other activities that build reading sub-skills, such as Build It, Switch It, or Write It, for 1 or 2 weeks and then try Read It again after a couple of weeks.
Teaching Blending Sounds and Syllables in 3rd Grade and Beyond
While I’ve given a lot of attention to negotiating how to teach blending sounds to read words for those at the beginning of the developmental continuum, blending challenges typically persist for those who aren’t above grade level in reading of ANY age.
Multisyllable word reading, in particular, trips up lots of readers of all ages.
How many readers have you seen come to a multisyllable word, such as “humiliate” and say something like
huge il ee ate?
Imprecise blending of each syllable leads to these types of reading errors.
But a simple series of Read It activities (coupled with coaching for blending during real reading) will resolve a lot of these errors rapidly).
- Challenge these students with taxing CCVCC or CCCVCC words for Read It, such as “spend” or “splint.” If they don’t make any mistakes or move slowly with this level, then try a few nonsense CCCVCC words, such as “splust” or “scrind” in order to challenge them.
Nonsense words will reveal if they can implement the Blend As You Read strategy and is quick, easy practice for improving decoding skill.
- After a one lesson or more at the advanced, one-syllable level, add in Sort It. Sort It is the core Reading Simplified Word Work activity for teaching Advanced Phonics, such as long vowels and sounds such as /er/ and /ow/.
Some multisyllable word reading errors are related to blending weaknesses, but many of them are from limited phonics knowledge. Sort It and related activities will quickly improve phonics knowledge, making multisyllable word reading easier.
3. Finally, begin coaching your student to try Read It at the Multisyllable Level. For readers at the first or second grade reading level, this type of Read It lesson is likely best after 3-6 weeks of Sort It lessons. These lessons will expose young readers to a significant array of Advanced Phonics and allow them to break into harder and harder multisyllable words.
For readers at the 3rd grade reading level or above, we often begin Read It at the Multisyllable Level simultaneously with Sort It. Students can sort words of a given sound, such as /oa/, but with multisyllable words, such as
hello, yellow, smoking, or following
Directions for Multisyllable Reading: Blending As You Read—by Chunks
To read words with more than one chunk (i.e., syllable), your student needs to continue to use the Blend As You Read method, but adapt it slightly.
Here are directions:
- Coach your student to blend the first chunk of sounds (i.e., “re”). (Cover up the end chunk(s) with a card or your finger.)
- Then ask your student to blend the second chunk of sounds (i.e., “wind”).
- Finally, have him blend the two separate chunks together (i.e., re-wind, rewind!).
re + wind = rewind
These steps may seem so simple as to be irrelevant, but you can actually save your student a lot of inefficient reading attempts if you teach him to use this strategy independently.
Some children will see the word “rewind” and try this:
/r/ /ee/ /w/ /i_e/ /n/ /d/.
If they are not fast enough at the process, they will forget the beginning of the word before they reach the end! And blending continuously chunk-by-chunk is what good readers do, as we’ve already covered with those funky words like polyphiloprogenitive and eleutheromania.
Finally, from now on, instead of writing by segmenting, or separating, every sound (phoneme), your student will write and say sounds in chunks.
For example, instead of saying and writing the word “happy” like this:
/h/ /a/ /p/ /ee/,
...she will say it in chunks, like this /ha—p/ /ee/.
So from now on, both reading and writing, should mainly be done by chunks: one chunk of sounds at a time. Teacher, remember to cover up the second chunk (or other chunks) until your student has read the first chunk.
Whew! We’ve covered a huge amount of territory with the concept of teaching blending sounds to read words.
Who would have thought there could be so much complexity with such a seemingly simple cognitive process?
Look at all that you’ve learned in this Ultimate Guide to Teaching Blending!
- How to coach students to develop the Blend As You Read decoding strategy,
- The Read It Word Work activity for building blending and decoding skill,
- Why the more popular onset-rime and Sound, Sound, Sound = Word approaches are inefficient at best, and confusing for many,
- How to plan and select words for instruction in consideration of phonemic awareness,
- 3 tricks for the toughest blending challenges, and
- How to support blending for more advanced readers, including multisyllable word reading.
As this Ultimate Guide comes to an end, I encourage you to pair your Read It instruction with another pivotal Reading Simplified activity, Switch It.
Switch It is a multisensory game where students are challenged to discover which sounds to switch as words are (usually) changed just one sound at a time. Switch It picks up some of Read It’s slack by producing fast processing in these sub-skills:
- The concept of the alphabetic principle,
- Phoneme segmentation,
- Phoneme manipulation,
- Letter-sound knowledge (especially mastering the short vowels),
- Early decoding, and
- Early spelling.
Indeed, Switch It and Read It go together like PB & J. Head here to learn more about Switch It. Or, learn more about Switch It and Read It fit together to especially help beginning or struggling readers overcome poor sound-based decoding with this 10 minute professional development training...
Even better yet, you’re welcome to participate in our on-demand, online workshop 3 Activities a Day to Keep Reading Difficulties Away. This complementary presentation will demonstrate our 3 foundational Word Work activities,
Read It, &
which form the core of how we teach any beginning or struggling reader of any age! Just head here to register for a time to join in the 3 Activities workshop.
24 thoughts on “How to Teach Blending Sounds to Read Words”
Thank you for confirming what I’ve learned in my career. As an interventionist, it infuriates me when I hear teachers teaching students to use the pictures to help them decode…especially when I’ve been working hard with the student to read the sounds and blend as you go. It’s what it is but I keep on plugging on. I have one issue I am facing right now.l My students are clearly able to blend as they go and know all the consonants, short vowels and digraphs, but reading is laborious as if the words they read are new and have never been read before. My thinking is to take time to work on the fluency at this point with students having the basics down. Once students are better with more fluent reading, I plan to move along into long vowels and more difficult graphemes. Advisable or not advisable?
Pua, yes, I know that pain! One day this confusion will be a distant memory.
It’s hard to predict based on the limited info. Have you tried Switch It? It’s a great activity for assuring that students have strong sound-based decoding skills, which are necessary for getting words to “stick,” or to orthographically map.
Beyond that, I do find Advanced Phonics knowledge, including long vowels, is important for rapidly recognizing a lot of high frequency words that are essential for fluent reading. I talk about the 300 most frequent words in this post.
Finally, if you’re establishing that groundwork solidly, then a bigger emphasis on fluency-building may be warranted. I share about an approach to re-reading that we recommend here.
Thank you so much. I can’t wait to try this with one of my struggling blenders.
In the pyramid of blending words, where do CVC-e words fit in?
Meg, glad this sounds promising to you!
We usually teach the Vowel + e pattern at the Advanced Phonics level (i.e., long vowels and other complicated vowel digraphs, etc.). We teach that through our Sort It activity. By then, most students are pretty good at blending sounds in words.
It is helpful to understand the step by step process of introducing CVC, CVCC, CCVC, CCCVC words in sequence.
Most of all the duration of time the average child takes to blend the beginning CVC words you mentioned are highly useful information to share it with parents.
My pleasure, Anitha. Thank you! You may find this short video helpful for parents too.
This process for teaching reading is so simple and easy!
Plus this is the answer for remedial or special ed students!
It makes sense!
This makes perfect sense for learning to read, but what about learning to spell? When spelling, students need to identify the individual sounds in a word and then represent each sound with a letter/s, so wouldn’t it make more sense to teach students to say each sound separately when encoding to spell, or would that confuse students?
Yes, segmentation is helpful for spelling. We fold it into our Read It activity at the end. Thus, the child begins with blending to read a new word. Then she Writes and Says each sound in the word. The final step is to erase each sound as she says each sound. Here’s more about the Read It activity.
Our other core Word Work lessons that reinforce segmentation are Build It, Switch It, Sort It, and Write It.
This blending technique has been AMAZING in working with a 2nd grader struggling to read!!!!!! It’s pretty much blown my mind. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the advice! Do you have any other ideas for CVC word activities to do using the Blend As You Read strategy, other than Read It?
Yeah! So glad to hear this Sydney. Another fun version of Read It is Act It Out. Have students draw a word card out of a hat. They read the word silently to themselves and then act it out. Others try to guess the word. So it’s basically charades. I choose active verbs like “hop” or “jump” that are the relevant phonemic difficulty (i.e., CVC or CCVC etc.) for the group’s level. They could perhaps write the words afterwards, but if not it’s still good reading practice.
Thank you so much! I love how that idea encourages the students to try reading it silently, too. We’re still working on that 🙂
I have a student who sometimes makes long vowel sounds when blending a word (i.e. hi-d; go-t). Do you have a suggestion as to how to clear up this confusion? Thanks!
The activity Switch It paves the way for flexibility with sounds in words. Then prompt the child during reading, “Yes, it could be. What else could this be?” Another good activity is sorting words with the same spelling into 2 or 3 columns based on sound. For example, sort “e” words into /e/ and /ee/ columns.
Hi! I work as a BCBA, working with children with autism. I am currently teaching consonant blends, specifically CCVCC words (initial and end blend). How would I prompt the child to say the word if he/she errors? Words like Twist, Branch, Print, Spring, etc.
Tell the child what she is missing (or added) and tap the spot where the error occurred. Cover up the end of the word so she can focus on the initial consonants and/or up to the vowel.
very help full
Wonderful! I have been using Successive Blending ever since reading Hazel Loring’s Reading Made Easy with Blend Phonics for First Grade with Blend Phonics (1980) in 1999. She learned the technique from the Beacon Reading Method published back in 1913!
A reading education historian to the rescue! 😉 Thank you Donald. The earliest example I was sure about was DISTAR. It’s fascinating how good reading a few reading programs were, back in the day.