Decoding and encoding consonant blends is among the most important concepts you teach your beginning readers. This is a skill they will use across multiple syllable types, in both single syllable and multi-syllabic words and even in reading and writing Latin roots and Greek combining forms.
Your students may come to you already confident with some types of consonant blends, or without any knowledge whatsoever. One of your early teaching decisions needs to weigh their knowledge and needs about blends, and create a pace of instruction that meets the needs of each learner. I have a few general guidelines and consonant blends activities which you may find helpful. The following tips and activities are going to work well for lots of your Orton-Gillingham lessons or other structured literacy lessons. You and I are always seeking tips and fun and engaging Orton-Gillingham activities, right? Well, let’s get started!
1. Make sure to build a common understanding of what blends are. Sometimes, consonant digraphs are inaccurately referred to as blends. For clarity, I define blends as 2 or more consonants that each make their own sound but we say them very close together. The sounds blend, but can be separated. Some examples of initial blends are bl, cl, fl, gl, pl, sl, br, cr, dr, fr, gr, pr, tr, sc, sl, sm, sn, sp, squ, st, sw,and three letter blends such as spr, str, shr. Ending blends include such consonant combinations as ld, lk, nd, nt, and ft.
2. Use motions to provide students with a kinesthetic definition. For example, put two hands up. A blend is two letters who come together (hands side by side) but each making their own sound. Gestures are a particular powerful tool for triggering memory and recalling learned information.
3. Be sure to attend carefully to phonemic awareness skills surrounding blends. For decoding and spelling purposes, it is really important that students be able to accurately segment words with blends into their individual sounds. Blends can play a role inphonemic awareness activities at the segmenting andblending level with short and long vowels and also at a variety of levels manipulating the phonemes in the blends. A student who has truly mastered blends will be proficient not only with reading and writing words with blends but also completing advanced level phoneme manipulation tasks with them.
4. Make it multisensory. Use sand trays or other tactile surfaces to trace blends or use objects to touch and push as the student segments the sounds. The use of snap cubes, Elkonin boxes and poker chips are all examples of helpful hands-on multisensory techniques. Be sure students are saying the sounds at the same time they move the manipulatives.
5. Move from simpler and shorter words to more complex and from a higher degree of support to less support. Introduce words with initial blends only of 4 sounds. When students are ready, introduce final blends still with only 4 sounds before finally tackling words with initial and final blends and three letter blends at the beginning. Eventually students should be able to read and write syllables of 5 and 6 sounds. Initially students may need quite a bit of support, particularly segmenting the sounds for writing. I have found it helpful to provide a high level of scaffolding initially by modeling the task with explicitness about the task, segmenting the sounds together and then having the student repeat the word sounds independently. Following this I do, we do, you do procedure often leads to a marked increase in independence with this task within a single lesson.
6. Be thoughtful about the sequence in which you introduce blends.An older and more proficient reader may be able to handle all the 2 letter initial blends at the same time. For a student requiring more practice introducing l blends, r blends and s blends separately may be most beneficial. It is very rarely necessary or desirable to introduce blends one at a time doing a whole lesson each on tr, br, cr, dr etc. Rather than a list to be memorized it is important that students understand how blends are formed and how they work so that when less common blends such as tw and gw occur, students will have a strategy for solving them.
7. Take into consideration an individual child’s speech patterns and difficulties. Using a mirror to see how the blend is formed as well as feeling the formation and correct mouth position can be helpful for segmenting. This is difficult for some children, particularly with r blends. If a student has difficulty with a particular blend pattern, it is often helpful to help the child develop an awareness of their tricky blends. I will often encourage them to listen carefully to how an adult model says the word.
8. When tapping, segmenting, and blending, use one tap, object or box for each letter sound in the blend. So a word like stop would have 4 taps, sprint would have 6 taps and shred would have 4 taps (one for sh, and one each for r, e and d). This is something about which there is some disagreement in the teaching community. Some trainers keep blends together, but in the interests of flexibility and the development of fluent advanced phonemic awareness skills, separating a blend into its individual phonemes is most beneficial.
9. Practice, practice, practice. Blends are a skill that it would be difficult to overlearn. One way to support mastery is to play lots of games that have reading words with blends as an objective. Games such as concentration and Go Fish are particularly well suited to decoding tasks. Play spelling games as well such as rolling dice with blends and rimes. It may be helpful to combine reading and spelling when a child is ready. Fortunately, there are quite a few commercial games available that practice consonant blends. For more phonics games, GO HERE.
10. Pacing and Review. Blends arise continuously as the student reads more and more words. It is important to pace this skill carefully and watch for mastery as blends are reviewed over time. This is not a concept that we can let go without strong skills.
Although the concept of consonant blends is easy to understand, the underlying skills of auditory memory, sequencing, segmenting, and blending may be rather difficult for some of our students. In addition, these skills may lead to spectacular reading growth. Knowledge of blends means the difference between reading words like bed and pat and blend and plant.
If you are seeking consonant blends activities, here is one you may want to check out. I take special care to separate the different blends. GO HERE to find it.
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