Can’t blend, won’t blend

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.

In cases where children are having trouble blending, here’s a quick checklist of what to try:

• 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 spelt 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.

5 thoughts on “Can’t blend, won’t blend

  1. Love this John and I'm going to bookmark it for my "Gin & Phonics" parents evening.

    Has anyone figured out the optimal age for children to learn to blend? I hate seeing parents panicking because their 5 year old isn't blending when they will probably be just fine in a year or even two. In say that partly because there haven't been many learners in all the years of That Reading Thing who haven't been able to blend almost instantly and we've worked with very low ability students.

    Do we worry about not being able to blend too early in the UK? I want to be able to get parents to strike a balance between accepting that some children take longer to grow into reading and getting early intervention when necessary.


  2. Hi Trish and thanks for your comment.
    I'm so glad you like the post. It's always appreciated when a good, fellow professional approves of a post.
    Now, as I said, blending spoken language comes naturally and doesn't need to be taught. However, once children have learned to talk, almost invariably they lose consciousness of the fact that words are comprised of individual sounds unless this fact is made explicit to them. One way to do this is through word building exercises with simple CVC words at the start of their schooling. Another, and one I used with my youngest daughter, was to play oral/aural games with her from an early age. At two-and-a-half, I started asking her what the word would be if I said things like /m/ /u/ /g/ and such like. Once she'd got to know how the game is played, the words got longer and longer until she was better at it than I was. At the age of three, we started to play segmenting games, still doing al this without looking at letters at all.
    So, as you can imagine, when she got to four and we got through teaching the Initial Code sound-spelling correspondences, she could read and write three-, four-, five- and six-sound words with ease.
    As I don't believe that there was anything special about her, I honestly think that any parent/carer could easily prime their children in the same way.
    Having said that, there is no doubt that some children take longer than others to do all sorts of things. The key is good quality instruction, lots of practice and patience.
    And just before loads of people pile in to say we should have been reading to her, etc, etc. We did that, too.
    All the best,

  3. Great post, thankyou. As a parent with a young child who is reading sounds write books i came to your site ro find out more and see your note to teachers was to choose words carefully. My daughter is 5 and knows the sounds of letters but seems to 'panic' when faced with words in a book. She curently has the book 'sit' from unit 2 and 'the can man' unit 3. So what sort of words do you suggest to practice over the holidays?

  4. Hi, Here's the good news for you. I've just published a free, online course here: https://www.udemy.com/help-your-child-to-read-and-write/
    If you enrol in the course, it takes you through, step by step how to teach your daughter to read and write. The course will also show you how to teach sentence reading and dictation. I hope you have the time to do it. Do get back to me if you have any questions.
    Best wishes,

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