Help! My student can't blend!
Updated: Mar 6
Notes on how to teach students to blend.
There are three basic foundations to word decoding:
You have to know that the squiggles on the paper represents sounds (alphabetic principle)
You have to be able to discern and break apart the sounds that are spoken (segmenting)
You have to be able to smash sounds together to create words (blending).
The ultimate goal is to be able to derive meaning from the squiggles on the paper, and to produce squiggles that convey your meaning.
These are oversimplified, of course, but they are foundational.
All three can be developed together, but it is nice to lay the foundation of the alphabetic principle and segmenting first. If a student presents with no foundational knowledge; do NOT wait until letter sound correspondences and segmenting are secure before you introduce blending. All three can be taught and reinforced in tandem. In an integrated manner, each of the foundational concepts and skills reinforces the other in a reciprocal manner.
Here are the major methods for teaching blending:
segmented blending: /f/…./a/…./n/…..”fan”. This is by far the most common. It works for most students but not all.
onset-rime: /f/…./an/…..”fan”. This requires learning the rimes. This is used by those that teach “word families”.
body-coda: /fa/…/n/…..”fan”. Some older programs use this and it is fairly effective. These programs usually drilled single consonant with all vowels as: fa, fe, fi, fo, fu, ta, te, ti, to, tu, (using short vowel sounds).
Successive blending: /f/…/fa/…./fan/…”fan”
Continuous blending: “fffffaaaaaaaaaan” shortened to “fan”.
Another method sometimes mentioned is reverse blending: /n…./an/…”fan”. I don’t know of any programs that teach this for all blending. This has been recommended by some for the situation that a student gets “stuck” on a word.
We want to give students good habits. We are training their brains. If we teach a student to look at the back of the word first (either in reverse or onset-rime blending), we are creating bad habits. We want students to work through a word from left to right noticing each sound. Directionality is important.
If we teach students to say each sound and then blend them together, we are encouraging an inefficiency. This involves an extra step that is not necessary. Also, this method is the most taxing on working memory. It requires the student to keep so many pieces of information in his head and then manipulate them.
Even students who process cvc words adequately often lack the working memory to process longer words. This then leads to the “necessity” to memorize the consonant blends. If you teach students to blend the sounds, it is unnecessary to teach them “the blends”. While you still need to teach segmentation of words with blends, you do not need extra time to teach individual “blends” for decoding.
A paper by Dr. Selenid Gonzales-Frey and Dr. Linnea Ehri, published in 2020 shows that continuous blending (Connected Phonation) is superior to the other forms of blending and allows students to read untaught and longer words more efficiently. The preprint of the paper is here.
Continuous blending is not something to try when you don’t have success with other methods. It is not the fad diet of the year. Continuous blending is the healthy habit you want to instill at the beginning. Do not “try it”; DO it. Many people start with other methods and “try” continuous blending when the students don’t advance. Unlearning a bad habit is so hard; would you introduce vegetables only after a child gets sick from eating fast food and candy? Would you only teach structured literacy after the students fail to progress in balanced literacy? Or would you teach the most effective methods to all students to prevent failure and lost instructional time? Teach all children to blend with continuous blending from the beginning; they deserve the best (no matter how cute the segmented blending slides are).
If students come to you with problems in blending, it is worth the time to fix the problems. I have never failed at teaching a student to blend. Even the most habituated sound-by-sound students have learned to blend continuously within three sessions. It takes longer to make it a habit, but all have been successful. Students like success and when they see their success, they are motivated to do more. Here is a video
of the first lesson in blending for a student who COULD NOT BLEND. I had assessed him and he could say letter sounds, but would then blend them into something completely different. He got less than half of the cvc words correct on a phonics survey. He also is unsure of vowel sounds so we had talked about the formation of the short vowel sounds in his mouth. The clip is long, but you can see the process, or you can fast forward to the end to see where he got to on his first day. (I noticed that I was not as patient and relaxed as usual; I can share my frustrations at the end.)
This clip is from the third time I saw this student. You can see the progress!
I have materials to help with hiding the last letter until the previous sounds are blended in my TPT store. But you can certainly do this process with other material or make your own. I have instructions to make all of these materials in my youtube channel. If you have any questions or need further help, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My frustration: This family has this delightful child in a private school at over $20,000 tuition per year. They were told that they needed a tutor to help him because he was not reading. If he didn’t improve he could not advance. I’m sorry…. what? How is it ethical to take that kind of money and absolve yourself of the responsibility to teach reading. I was fuming and ready to cry at the same time and I think my emotions and sense of urgency showed in the video. Sorry!