Blending is the ability to push sounds together to make recognisable words and, in young children learning to read and spell from the beginning of their schooling and in children who have fallen behind, performance is often variable. That is to say that what they can do one day, they may not be able to do on another – sometimes a case of three steps forward and two back, making progress very slow. Usually, the answer to this is lots and lots of practice. Once they understand what the ‘game’ is, progress often moves forward in leaps and bounds. However, the practice they’re given must be of the right kind.
• Are you using words that begin with continuants? If you’re not sure what continuants are, they are the sounds it’s easy to stretch out or extend. For example, the sounds /f/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /r/, /s/, /v/, /w/ and /z/ are all sounds we can ‘hang on to’ and give the pupil we are teaching plenty of opportunity to hear and identify the sound. If stretch out the sounds in ‘sit’ or ‘mat’, for example, you can easily hear what the word is.
• If a pupil trying to read the word ‘mat’, says the sounds /m/ /a/ /t/ and then looks blankly at you or says another word not remotely connected to the word ‘mat’, you can use your gestures with your finger or, better, a chopstick by pointing to the /m/ and asking the child to say the sound until your finger moves on: ‘mmmmaaaaat’, ‘mmaaat’, ‘mat’’, for example? And, if you like, you can reverse this by asking the child to use their finger to make you say the sounds – a particularly enjoyable activity for the child! Get them to point, lingering over the sounds as you have to say them. Then ask the child what word they can hear. They actually love doing this because it gives them a bit of power of their own. If you try this, you’ll have to remember to take a deep breath!
• Another thing to ask yourself is whether you have first done plenty of word building with the words you want the child to read? You can do some word building first with the words you want the child to read. Build, say, three words – ‘sat’, ‘mat’ and ‘sit’. After building one of the words, write the word on a whiteboard and ask the child to say the sounds and read/listen for the word. Finally, ask the child to write it, saying the sounds as they write and then reading the words again sound by sound. Thus, you get, /m/ /a/ /t/, ‘mat’.
• Have you modelled what it is you want the child to do? Sometimes children just don’t understand what the ‘game’ is and you need to show them explicitly what you expect them to do. Doing this with a peer or even an available adult is useful for modelling what it is we expect.
• Do you do lots of oral blending?: For example, you can ask the pupil, “What’s the word when I say /m/ /u/ /g/?” And increase the complexity by moving from beginning continuant CVC words, such as ‘sat’ to words starting with a stop sound (obstruent), such as ‘tap’. Then continue to increase the degree of structural complexity to CVCC and CCVC. Here again, it helps to begin with words the pupil is going to find easy to hear. For example, words such as ‘film’, ‘slim’, and, at CCVCC level, ‘frost’ are going to be easy to stretch out and hear.
• Have you tried doing other things, such as putting down in front of the child three objects, all of which are spelled with CVC spellings. For example, you could choose ‘mug’, ‘hat’ and ‘pin’. Tell the pupil you are going to say some sounds and you want the pupil to identify the object from the sounds. You will of course need to say the sounds precisely and without adding an /uh/ sound to the consonants. In the word ‘mug’, you would articulate the first sound as /m/ and not as ‘muh’.
• Finally, have you got the pupil’s parent or carer to practise the same activities at home until they are coming out of the child’s ears (and mouth)? For many parents/carers it doesn’t take long to model the activity for them, though if you’re sending words home, you will need to be careful about the words you send. Asking a parent to choose can lead to disaster.
A point that’s worth making is this: If children can talk, they can blend sounds to form words. If they can’t blend when they’re learning to read, it’s probably because, for one reason or another, they need much more practice in connecting spellings to sounds.