Is Teaching Consonant Blends to Kids Worthwhile?

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Holly (Teach Starter)

Written by Holly (Teach Starter)

Consonant blends are defined as two or more consonants blended together, however, each sound may still be identified (eg. tr or fr). Blends are not to be confused with digraphs or trigraphs, where two or three letters come together to represent one sound (eg. sh or th). The teaching of consonant blends has always been a step in the phonics journey of young children, however, some teachers are now questioning the purpose of adding an additional layer of complexity to this learning journey, when blends can be decoded based on individual sounds.

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“Blends are not helpful because they add to the cognitive load and can be very confusing.” – Clare Wood (Literacy Specialist)

When you consider how we teach children to decode using the smallest unit of sound – this concept makes sense. Let’s take the word frog as an example, it has 4 letters and 4 sounds (f/r/o/g).  If children already know /f/ and /r/ they do not need to be taught (fr) as one unit.

Child holding magnetic letters in their hand

Shutterstock.com / graja

‘Blend’ as a Verb, Not a Noun!

To segment and blend letters together is a necessary skill that needs to be explicitly taught to young children. Looking at the word ‘blend’ as a verb rather than a noun is something that John from The Literacy Blog explains. He also believes that teaching adjacent consonants as ‘blends’ is brushing the problem under the carpet. He goes on to say that students who can’t initially segment and blend sounds in words can be taught this skill through word building, word reading and phoneme manipulation games rather than introducing blends separately.

Word Building Activities

“They (blends) are decodable – but the encoding is a bit tougher. Kids need to hear the 2 sounds in the blend. I use oral phoneme deletion activities (Kilpatrick – Equipped for Reading Success) as well as Words Their Way-type activities. For example: Say slight. Now say it again but don’t say /s/ (light).” – Amy from Science of Reading Facebook page

Kids manipulating letters in words

Shutterstock.com / Rawpixel.com

So, basically, some teachers are scrapping teaching of all of those blends and focusing on blending and segmenting activities.

If children struggle to blend words, concentrate on words that start with continuous sounds. Sounds you can hold such as ‘m’ and ‘s’. Other continuous sounds are f, l, n, r, s, v, z. These sounds can be held without distorting their sound.

Consonant Blends Like Coffee Beans + Wine

Another fantastic article I have come across is by Lyn Stone, who uses research, evidence and linguistics to produce programs, methods and texts for students, teachers and educators worldwide. Her article called ‘Round the Blend’ adds another element to this topic that I found interesting, as it includes two of my favourite past times – wine and coffee! She uses the analogy of consonant blends being like blended coffee beans or blends of wine. However, the difference between consonants, coffee and wine is that the consonant blends can be pulled apart again. It’s this pulling apart, or segmenting that is just as important as the skill of blending!

Shutterstock.com / ADISAK.SHUTTER

Is There Still a Place for Blends?

While this research might make you reconsider the teaching of consonant blends, it’s important to consider how this may impact children who have processing difficulties or poor working memory. The strategy of chunking words into natural sound patterns like onset-rime and syllables can help these children ‘hang on’ to all the sounds more easily. Other teachers are still finding the teaching of blends helpful in their classrooms, in a modified way.

“Some blends don’t maintain their individual phonemes – /dr/ and /tr/ in particular. These can be very hard for children – particularly to encode – if they don’t get explicit practice with them.”Sarah

“It’s not about decoding, but pronunciation and encoding. Many children don’t articulate words correctly when they contain consonant blends – so explicitly teaching that, along with phoneme manipulation tasks and spelling is most beneficial.”Michelle

“I noticed that I had to explicitly teach the blends or else the students would pronounce them incorrectly, thus spelling words incorrectly. For example /pl/ can get pronounced pullll or pul-luh” – Kristin

It’s certainly some food for thought! But, if I was back in the classroom – I would most certainly reconsider the teaching of blends in my classroom!
Share your thoughts over on our Facebook Group – Teacher Talk.

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Comments & feedback

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Annie

Great read thank you. We use sound waves at our school.

Annie · May 6th, 2021

Trish (Teach Starter)

That’s our pleasure, Annie!

Trish (Teach Starter) · May 6th, 2021

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