Why is it that so many beginner readers struggle to read very simple, very short, very regular words?
Simple words like “mat”, “cat”, “sit” or “Sam”?
The most common reason is that they have problems blending!
Blending is the process where you take all the individual sounds in a word and push them together to smoothly and effortlessly read a word.
Many children seem to know their letter sounds, but for some reason they cannot attach them together successfully when reading words.
In this article, I am going to share with you 10 strategies you can implement if your child or student has problem blending sounds.
Make sure to stick around for strategies #3 and #5 because they are really effective… And not so-well known!
Strategy #1: Warm up to the sounds.
I am assuming that you are working with a child that already knows his/her letter sounds. However, it might be that that automatic reflex that you need to develop to actually say the sound of the letter straight away, without any type hesitation, without thinking about it, still isn’t 100% there.
So, with these readers, it is a very good idea to warm up to the sounds in the words that they are about to read.
Say your student/child is going to read the following words:
Write down the letters in these words (s, a, m, t, p) on a whiteboard or take your alphabet cards out, and go over the sounds of these letters first. You can do this more than once, if necessary.
We want these children having these sounds REALLY fresh in their minds.
After this, you present the words to them, and ask them to read them.
This simple ‘review’ before reading technique can be very helpful for students that, as I said before, know the sounds but haven’t developed the level of automaticity that is required for reading.
Reviewing before reading means that they have the sounds very fresh in their mind, and this can really help them out.
Strategy #2: Make sure your students are reading simple VC and CVC words.
VC words are formed by a Vowel and a Consonant, so the total number of letters is 2.
CVC words are formed by a Consonant + Vowel+ Consonant, so the total number of letters in three.
Don’t go over this number of letters!
In fact, if the child struggles with CVC words, try VC words first. Sometimes we skip these words, because there aren’t so many and because they don’t tend to hold a lot meaning.
Then are normally prepositions and conjunctions and things like that, so we think they are not fun words for kids. But, still, they can be great practice for children that are struggling to link sounds! Linking 2 sounds is so much easier that attaching 3 sounds together!
Some examples of VC words you can use are:
Strategy #3: Try continuous blending
There are two different types of blending: smooth or continuous blending and broken or choppy blending.
The most common type of blending that is taught to children is “choppy blending”.
Choppy blending is when the sounds of a word are sounded out individually without connection. For example, with the word “map”…
When we are choppy blending, we sound it out like this:
/m/ /a/ /p/
Between each of the sounds in the word map there’s a short pause, which will lead to a choppy blend.
With broken or choppy blending, we are not making a “connection” between each of the sounds. This can present problems for some children, as they are not able to figure out that there is an actual connection between the sounds.
In fact, there are many strategies out there trying to solve this. I am sure you may have heard of some, like moving your arms at the same time you are sounding out each individual sound, etc. And while all of this is well and good, it’s still not enough for many children.
The thing is that some children who have blending difficulties may know the letter sounds perfectly, but then when they are “choppy blending” they just can’t figure it out.
I repeat: This is because they have not grasped that there is actually a connection that needs to happen among all of those sounds. They hear a brief pause, and they think that they are isolated sounds, not a word!
And this is when smooth blending comes into play.
Smooth blending is quite the opposite of choppy blending. You sound out the words in a way that all the sounds are smoothly connected to say the actual word that you are reading. It’s actually all about stretching the sounds.
Still unsure about the difference? Watch this video! Starts at minute 10:28, watch until minute 11:45 to understand the difference!
So, since grasping the concept of making a connection among the individual sounds with choppy blending can be hard for many kids, you want to work on a mix of choppy blending and smooth blending.
And I would say focus a lot more of smooth blending.
Bear in mind that there are some letter sounds that cannot be stretched. If you do try to stretch them, you end up altering them.
These sounds are: B, C, D, G, J, K, P, T.
They are referred as stop sounds.
Don’t try to stretch up these sounds! Simply connect them as smoothly as possible to the next sound.
Strategy #4: Pick words that begin with continuous sounds
This strategy goes hand in hand with the previous one!
For many children it’s just simpler to read words that start with a continuous sound when they are at the beginning of their learn-to-read journey. That is because it’ll be much easier for them to use strategy #3 (remember: smooth or continuous blending).
So, when starting out, pick words that begin with a continuous sound!
Since I assume you’ll likely be using CVC words, the second sound is also going to be a continuous sound (all vowels are continuous sounds). This will facilitate your child’s job.
Some examples of words you can use are:
By the way, you can download a cheat-list of continuous and stop sounds for free here!
Strategy #5: Read a maximum two letters at a time
This strategy goes a little bit in line with strategy #2, which was all about starting with two-letter words instead of three-letter words.
So, how to go about it? How can we read a maximum of two letters at a time?
Ok, say, we have again a CVC word. For instance, “mat”.
These are the steps to follow:
- We cover the last two sounds in the word and ask our child to say the first.
- We uncover the next letter, and ask our child to say the sound and immediately blend those two sounds.
- We then uncover the third letter, say the last sound and immediately blend that last sound with the first two blending sounds.
Still unclear? Watch this video for a demonstration (from minute 07:39 until minute 08:08)
Another way to go about this strategy is to present words like this:
Who is this strategy good for? Especially for those children that, by the time they get to the last sound of a word, they have forgotten all about the first one.
Sounds familiar? It happens a lot!
Children are putting a lot of mental effort onto this, and the first sound occurred an eternity ago for them. They simply can’t remember that first sound.
This strategy takes different names, being “successive blending” one of the most popular ones. Other popular names are “additive blending” and “final blending”.
If want to know more about “successive blending” and/or are interested in a curriculum that was built around this strategy, check this other article on our blog!
Strategy #6: Use special flashcards.
These flashcards have special symbols to represent the number of sounds in the targeted word, and an arrow to remind us the direction in which reading happens.
You can use simple dots, like this, to represent the sounds. Nothing fancy, nothing extravagant!
As your child says the first sound, s/he needs touch the first dot. As he/she says the second one, s/he needs to touch the second dot. As he/she says the third one, s/he needs to touch the third dot.
Then, get your child to move his/her index finger along as he/she pushes the sounds together to read the targeted word.
If you want to make this more tactile (maybe you’ve got a kinetic learner), you can use manipulatives, like counters or playdough balls instead.
You also can do this on a whiteboard using magnets. You can totally play with this concept to adjust to your child’s learning style.
Strategy #7: Avoid cognitive overload
To be honest, the strategies we’ve seen have already taken this consideration, but I would go a step further and say…
If your child has problems blending simple CVC words, be careful with the introduction of irregular high-frequency words!
Maybe forget about them all together until he/she has mastered blending regular CVC words. We first need to get to that milestone!
Why is it?
Well, we may need to use other strategies to read these words successfully. Imagine how confusing this can be for your child, and how easily it can end up in cognitive overload.
Once your child has mastered blending CVC words, we can start to introduce them slowly, being very strategic with the order that we follow, with how we group them together, with the number of sight words that we introduce at a time. Remember, again, cognitive overload!
Anyway, I don’t want to go off topic. If you want to understand more about this specific topic, I recommend you read this article.
Strategy #8: Introduce movement
I’ll show you some examples on the video below. Starts at 11:05 . Watch until 11:35
The three movement techniques I’ve shown you are:
#1 stretching hands technique
#2 shoulder, elbow, wrist technique
#3 pointer, middle, ring finger technique
Strategy #9: Read and pick the right word
Resort to this one if your child is still really struggling after trying all of the previous strategies.
Create worksheets like this one:
The target word in this example is “mug”. Your child has to read this word and pick the right image.
Important: Notice how we also have picked other words starting with the /m/ sound (mat, moon, man). This is very important, so your child won’t be able to just guess based on the first sound in the word.
Strategy #10: Repetition
The key to master blending is repetition.
Some children need more repeated practice than others, but they all need some degree of repetition, and continuous exposure to words and reading!
Children are not born with an innate ability to read words, and, as with everything in life, we only become masters at something once we’ve practiced enough times. Think about any complex ability you can do: from playing an instrument, to driving a car, speaking a second language.
At some point these abilities, when practiced enough times, they can become second nature, and we do them without thinking.
But, what is enough times, exactly? Well, it really varies from person to person, right?
But we need to be constant and practice if we want to be good at something.
Remember humans are not wired for learning to read as we are wired for learning to speak.
So, do not despair and repeat until your child develops automaticity in decoding and word repetition!