Helping the Blending Penny Drop!

blending-header

I’ve pushed the learning of letter sounds all year, but the penny is not dropping on blending.


Blending has been a challenge and the kids are getting frustrated with it. We‘ve decided to go back to the letter sounds.


When I hear things like this my answer is always “Blend! Blend! Blend!”

I say this because I don’t believe we do enough of it. Is it because we feel it is too difficult for young children to achieve? Or is it just easier for us to allow children to simply over-learn the letter-sound correspondences in isolation?

Either way, it can’t be overlooked; blending is a crucial skill that every child needs to start reading unknown words. It’s so critical that in England, the Year One Phonics Check gives children nonsense words to assess if the child can (or probably more accurately – check the teacher has taught the child) to blend. Australia is also looking at introducing the Phonics Check, but so far, South Australia is the only state that has mandated this assessment. More on the Phonics Check here.

What is Blending?

Blending is the skill that helps us read especially when confronted with unfamiliar words. For young children, most words are unfamiliar and they will need to blend many of the words they encounter. It involves pushing together the sounds of the letters in the word in order to create the whole word. For example, a child trying to read the word ‘fish’, will isolate each of the letter sounds. When these three sounds are said in sequence the word ‘fish’ is spoken.

'An example of how to tackle unknown wordsHow a child should tackle unknown words for reading.

Blending is not a difficult skill to master. It simply requires PRACTICE and lots of it. It’s critical to introduce children to the phonemic awareness skills of oral blending at an early age. Modelling how to orally blend to create a spoken word and how to break a word apart is how to start a child’s blending and segmenting journey. Once children can blend at an oral level, the blending of words in print becomes a lot easier. There is a great blog post on oral blending and segmenting here.

Below is a child who began his reading journey at 3.5 years of age. While it is not fluent, it is a start. Keep watching the footage as we see the same child 6 months later.

The difference in only 6 months!

The key is to ALWAYS incorporate blending activities when teaching letter sounds. Do not wait until all the sounds of the alphabet are done. After a handful of sounds have been learned, words can be blended. Take the following group of letter sounds:

the first 8 sounds: s a t p I n m d

After only these 8 letter sounds are taught, we can begin teaching children to blend words such as sat, pan, tap, mad.

'All the words that can be blended from only 8 sounds.28 opportunities for practice with only 8 sounds!

Top 5 Tips to Help the Blending Penny Drop

1. Immerse the children in oral blending as early as you can.

A three year old practising her oral blending.


This can be done through games such as:
  • I Spy. E.g. “I can spy with my little eye a h-a-t.”
  • Lesson breakers – while giving an instruction break one of the words into isolated sounds: “Can you please put this in the b-a-g?” or “Put the c-u-p on the table.” My children loved hearing me do this. What I was doing was modelling the spelling strategy while they were practising blending.
  • Oral bingo – my children developed blending because they became proficient at oral blending. Download my oral bingo game here. I also like to use this with older students who are having difficulty with the blending strategy.

2. Grab some magnetic letters and physically show the letters crashing into each other as you blend the word. This visual representation of blending can often be that ‘light bulb moment’ for a child where blending starts to make sense.

Blending - physically push the sounds together Physically show blending with the magnetic letters being pushed together.

3. Always have pictures displayed ready for the words the children are blending. These pictures are not there to encourage guessing but as confirmation after blending. This will help them blend easily because they can see the spoken word that has been formed through the pictures. Eventually, blending becomes automatic and pictures will not be needed. Our reading worksheets are a great tool to help you practise with pictures (teachers access them here or parents can purchase them here).

'A child matching the words and the picturesA child matching the words and the pictures.

4. If children are not saying the correct word when blending isolated sounds, try these other blending techniques:
  • Isolated blending – say the first sound the loudest and then get softer as you get to the end of the word. Children do tend to start blending with the loudest sound they heard. So make sure your first sound is the loudest.
  • cat-isolated

  • Final blending – blend the first two letter sounds together and then snap it with the final letter sound. For example:
    cat-final

    This helps with children who are not following through with their blending or with those who just cannot hear the spoken word being formed.


  • Successive blending – stretch the word in a continuous flow of sounds. For example:

    cat-successive
    I find that most children who struggle with blending get it with this technique.

In this short video I demonstrate these three blending techniques:

3 blending demonstrations: isolated blending, final blending and successive blending.

5. Blend! Blend! Persevere! Blend! Blend! These skills of blending and segmenting do not develop automatically. They must be modelled and explicitly taught. Don’t give up and your students will reap the rewards of your perseverance.

Older Children who are Struggling with Blending

It can feel like a real challenge for a Year Three teacher who has students who can’t blend ‘cat’ and also those who are reading chapter books! For these older students it’s often the same issues the beginning reader is having.

In this instance, firstly, don’t soldier on with learning more complicated sounds (two letter digraphs or three letter trigraphs), you will be overloading a child’s working memory. Go back and start with the basic single letter sounds.

Next, check their phonological and phonemic awareness skills. These are the underlying skills that a child needs to make the ‘blending penny drop’. Read this blog post on assessment.

Go back to the basics. You might need to stop blending with letters and go a back to oral blending. It may feel like you are going backwards if the child is much older but this skill needs to be firmly embedded. Ask yourself, are you teaching where they are at, or where they should be?

For 99% of children the blending penny will drop – it just needs lots of modelling, repetition, practice and a steadfast determination that every child will learn to read!

Author: Santina DiMauro

Santina is a teacher and phonics consultant. She has taught in schools for over 30 years and has trained teachers across Australia and Asia for 20 years in the area of literacy, in particular, Synthetic Phonics. If you are interested in Santina as a literacy trainer for your school, drop the team an email on info@phonicshero.com.