Myla was in the second grade, yet she was at the kindergarten reading level. After she mastered simple short vowel and consonant digraph words like “fin, catch, mat, ship…etc.” she began to learn consonant blends. Myla’s school expected kids to memorize long lists of blends. Therefore, Myla spent her after-school hours memorizing “nt, sp, sm…etc.” a list of over thirty blends. Given that it had taken Myla over two years to learn the first 30 phonemes, how long would it take Myla to learn an additional 30? Another two years?
Consonant blends series
I’m proud to announce the release of my consonant blend book series.
What are consonant blends?
Consonant blends are two or more letter sounds in a row. For example, “sp” as in “spot” and “nt” as in “ant” are consonant blends. Unlike digraphs, consonant blends are a series of two or more sounds in a row. Here’s a list of common consonant blends: cr, cl, dr, fl, fr, br, bl, gr, gl, nd, ng, nt, pr, pl, sc, sk, sl, scr, spl, sw, tw, tr, st, spr, ask, ank, wr, sn, sm, thr, shr, mp.
How do I teach consonant blends?
Consonant blends should not be memorized. They are phonetic units that should be read sound-by-sound.
Consonant blends require phonemic awareness skills, or activities that allow kids to practice putting sounds together and taking them apart. When a child reaches consonant blends in the curriculum, he should have a long history of phonemic awareness activities behind him, activities that require him to link a series of sounds together. Here’s a sample phonemic awareness activity that would help a child read consonant blends:
TEACHER: Ssss-p-oooo-t. What is it?
TEACHER: Aaannnt. What is it?
The above activity is really simple, yet a failure to do such activities from the start of reading instruction can result in a classroom full of kids that really struggle to read consonant blends. The answer to “how do I teach blends?” is really: do phonemic awareness activities from the beginning of reading instruction and slowly increase the difficulty of such activities. If you do this, by the time your student reaches consonant blends in the curriculum, he’ll be well practiced in linking a series of letter sounds together.
How do most people teach consonant blends?
Reading Elephant is a strong advocate of systematic phonics instruction. Consonant blends, however, are not new phonemes and should not be treated as such.
The student Myla was asked to memorize a long list of consonant blends. She was given a chart and flashcards with consonant blends and she was asked to read them through rote-memorization, as if they were sounds to learn by “sight.” Thus, she spent time memorizing blends.
In addition, Myla was asked to read consonant blends worksheets that repeated the same blend. For example, “gl” was plastered on the top of one worksheet and she was expected to read a list of “gl” words:
Myla knew every word began with “gl.” Thus, she effortlessly read the “gl” blend. The above lists are common in reading instruction, yet they do not following the science of how we learn. Real learning is effortful and requires interleaving—a principle that means new material is woven into old material. If new material is woven into old material, the learner cannot guess at what comes next.
The allure of fake learning
Since the “gl” in the worksheet was predictable and guessable, Myla was NOT learning. She just knew to say “gl” every time. Since she said “gl” with ease, her educators assumed she was mastering “gl,” and they gave her the next consonant blend worksheet.
“Fr” was on the top of the next worksheet and she was expected to read:
Again, Myla knew that “fr” was at the beginning of all of the words in the worksheet. After all, the worksheet was highly predictable. We all know the sun will rise tomorrow morning because it has risen every previous morning. Myla knew “fr” was in the next word, because it was in all previous words. Thus, her educators assumed she was mastering the “fr” unit.
The worksheets also contained another problem: they were NOT systematic; they required her to read units she hadn’t learned yet, long vowel units like “ee” and “oa” and “ow” which should come later in instruction. Thus, Myla memorized many of the words.
By the time Myla memorized the “fr” words, she’d forgotten many of those “gl” words. Yet, since she read “fr” words with ease, she was given yet another consonant blends worksheet.
It appeared that she was learning. Yet, she was on a treadmill of meaningless busy work. She’d forgotten all the words she’d memorized. When Myla read books, she could not read consonant blends.
Yet, the above method of teaching consonant blends remains common.
How to teach consonant blends in a way that works
It would be unfair to criticize a bad way of teaching consonant blends without offering an alternative. Teaching consonant blends should include: phonemic awareness activities, sound-by-sound reading, holding continuous sounds, clipping stop sounds, interleaving, and decodables.
Phonemic awareness activities help kids learn to read consonant blends
First, as stated earlier, kids need phonemic awareness activities at the start of reading instruction. Consonant blends place great demands on the working memory of an early reader, because consonant blends require kids to hold and link more sounds together. For example, “fan” is easier to read than “splat” because “fan” has three sounds: f-a-n. “Splat,” a word with consonant blends, is much harder because it has five sounds: s-p-l-a-t. Phonemic awareness activities help kids link many sounds together. As stated above, here’s a sample activity:
TEACHER: Ffff-r-a-mmmm-e. What is it?
TEACHER: G-lll-uuu-t. What is it?
The above activity has NO print. The student only focuses on hearing and linking the sounds together. Be sure to teach phonemic awareness during spelling as well:
TEACHER: Sat. The cat sat on the mat. What sounds are in sat?”
TEACHER: Write sat.
[The student writes sound-by-sound.]
TEACHER: Frog. The frog sat near the pond. What sounds are in frog?”
TEACHER: Write frog.
[The student writes sound-by-sound.]
If you teach spelling in this way, kids will develop phonemic awareness and they’ll be able to blend words with 4 or more sounds.
Do not teach kids to memorize consonant blends
Consonant blends are phonetic. They should be read sound-by-sound. Teaching kids to memorize “sp” in one utterance will cause struggling readers to confuse a wide array of sound units. For example, they’ll start guessing “sp” for “sn” and “sh.” Instead, teach them to discriminate between these visually similar units by analyzing the word sound-by-sound.
Thus, teach consonant blends as a skill, not new units. Describe that they are just two or three letter sounds read in succession. Start weaving a wide variety of consonant blends into instruction at once. With sound-by-sound reading, kids can read all thirty of them!
Dr, tr and wr are the only exceptions. These ones do have to be memorized. They break the phonetic cod. “Dr” as in “drive” takes on the /j/ sound. “Tr” as in “track” takes on the /ch/ sound. Lastly, the “w” in “wr” is silent.
After you teach the concept, correct kids in a way that promotes sound-by-sound reading. Here’s a sample:
The book says: The frog was at the pond.
STUDENT: The frog was at the pod.
TEACHER: pond [Teacher underlines “nd”]. Let’s say these two sounds in order.
TEACHER: [Points back to the beginning of the word]. Read?
Holding continuous sounds helps kids read consonant blends
Also, from the start of reading instruction, teach kids to hold continuous sounds. A sound is continuous if you can hold it for a long time without distorting the sound. For example, /s/ is continuous. You can say, “ssssss” for a long time without adding an “uh.” In addition, m, n, l, f, v, z and short vowels are continuous. Make sure your student holds continuous sounds in EVERY literacy activity. If she does, she’ll learn how to read consonant blends with far greater ease.
Clipping stop sounds helps kids read consonant blends
Teach kids to clip stop sounds. These are sounds that cannot be held for a long time. For example, if you try and say /d/ for a long time, you’ll add an “uh.” Make sure you clip off the “uh” component. This takes some practice. Some other clip sounds include b, c, g, j, k, p, q, t, w, x, y. Make sure your student says these sounds quickly as not to add an “uh.” If your student clips stop sounds, she’ll read blends like “cl” with greater ease: c-lll.
Interleaving helps kids read consonant blends
In reading lessons, be sure to incorporate word lists. When kids read lists, they’re forced to read sound-by-sound. They can’t rely on context, pictures or repetition. Thus, word lists allow kids to build decoding skills.
How do you create a word lists? In the above samples, the word lists started with the same blend. They were guessable. They were also unsystematic.
By the time your student learns consonant blends, she should be familiar with short vowels and consonant digraphs. Thus, incorporate all of these word types in your list and give each category equal weight. In sum, about 30% should be simple short vowel words, about 30% should be consonant digraph words and about 30% should contain consonant blends. Here’s a sample word list:
Make a similar word list each lesson, but vary the words. Never repeat words across lessons that occur within close proximity. This way, your student cannot memorize or guess the words. Incorporate a wide variety of consonant blends in all reading activities, including the list. Soon, your struggling reader will be able to read consonant blend words well.
Consonant Blends Words
Here are some short vowel words with consonant blends to help you design your lessons:
ant, ask, clip, trip, rest, slap, desk, snap, bump, cross, stop, skill, drop, frog, jump, stuff, scab, class, dent, nest, trim, grip, flop, mend, silk, trust, stamp, end, slid, swim, club, last, rust, mask, send, smell, glad, flat, just, drum, press, ramp, pluck, plop, felt, stem, brim, swell, test, fast, gasp, slack, limp, left, spell, grill, twin
Remember to weave in short vowel words and consonant digraph words too.
Phonics books help kids learn to read consonant blends
Kids need to apply all those skills they accrue. Ultimately, students need to practice reading consonant blends in phonics books. Watch their eyes glisten and their lips part in a smile as they read a “big word.”
Reading Elephant offers consonant blends phonics books.