Consonant Blends: Why Children Should Be Learning Blending, Not Blends



Some teachers devote many weeks of reading and spelling instruction to teaching ‘blends’ but it would be much more time-efficient – and empowering for their students – for them to teach ‘blending’. In this blog, I will explain why, in phonics instruction, thinking of ‘blend’ as a verb rather than a noun will improve your effectiveness as a teacher.

What Is the Difference Between Consonant ‘Blends’ and ‘Blending’?

When the word ‘blends’ is used in the context of reading or spelling, it is typically a short-hand for ‘consonant blends’. A consonant blend is a unit comprised of two or three consonants adjacent to each other (not separated by a vowel), with each consonant representing a different speech sound (phoneme) e.g. the consonant blend ‘st’ is /s/ blended with /t/.

The consonant blend ‘st’.

Blending is the process of ‘pushing’ individual speech sounds together. e.g. /s/ blended with /t/ is ‘st’. Blending can be a simple oral task. In a reading task, it follows the mapping of sounds to letters and allows the learner to decode a written word. In reading words, consonant sounds are blended with vowel sounds and also with other consonant sounds.

Blending the phonemes /s/ and /t/ together.

Using more accurate language

Because the blending of a consonant sound and a vowel sound (e.g. blend together /b/ and /a/, and you get ‘ba’) results in a blend in the same way that the blending of two consonant sounds results in a blend (e.g. ‘st’), the combination of two (or three) adjacent consonants (e.g. ‘str’) in which each consonant represents a different sound would be more accurately explained to learners as a consonant cluster.

A consonant cluster which includes three sounds.

It must be pointed out that consonant clusters are different to double consonants, like ‘ll’, ‘ss’, ‘ff’, ‘zz’, ‘dd’, ‘gg’, ‘mm’, ‘nn’ and ‘tt’ where two identical consonants together represent only one sound and consonant digraphs, like ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘th’ and wh’ where two non-identical consonants together represent only one sound.

The digraph /ch/ is made of two non-identical consonants which represent one sound.
Double consonants such as ‘mm’ or ‘ss’ represent only one sound.


Blending, Not Blends

In synthetic phonics instruction, students are taught to pay attention to each letter-sound correspondence from left to right, and all through the word (so the ‘n’ of ‘sun’ is given as much attention as the ‘s’). Consequently, consonant (e.g. d, f, g), double consonant (e.g. ss or ff) and consonant digraph (ch or sh) letter-sound correspondences are explicitly taught. ‘Consonant blends’ (e.g. st or str) are not taught. Blending with, and of, consonant sounds is taught as those sounds are introduced. For example, in Phonics Hero, Level 1 (s, m, c, t, g, p, a, o), some words requiring consonant blending include ‘camp’, ‘stop’, ‘spot’, ‘cost’ and ‘stamp’.

You won’t see any consonant blends in our Phonics Lessons! We use sound buttons to show the individual sounds in more than 3,000 differentiated words.

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Why do so many teachers give ‘blends’ special attention?

It is generally agreed that there are 27 or 28 consonant clusters that come at the beginning of syllables (e.g. bl, str) and 48 or 49 consonant clusters that come at the end (e.g. nd, mpt). Three can be found in either position: sk, st and sp. Because every word must have a vowel sound ALL consonant clusters must be blended with a vowel sound.

So why are consonant sounds blended with other consonant sounds given so much special attention in some phonics programs? Here are my hypotheses:

  • Perhaps because attention to these is part of an onset-rime decoding strategy taught to students in a whole language approach. The “onset” is the consonant(s) before the first vowel in a word. The “rime” refers to the letters that include and follow that vowel) e.g. cl-ock. The rimes are often taught as word families (e.g. bat, cat, sat). This approach is not consistent with synthetic phonics instruction as it has a visual letter-string focus rather than phoneme focus.

  • Perhaps because young children often have difficulty spelling words with adjacent consonants and the belief is that giving these more attention in phonics instruction will improve that situation. In fact, constantly presenting blends as a unit only increases that spelling difficulty. Phoneme deletion activities would be much more helpful.

  • Perhaps because there just isn’t enough emphasis on the research on the most effective literacy practices and educators tend to teach as they’ve been taught.

Why you should NOT teach consonant blends as units

  • There are approximately 176 spellings for the 44 sounds of English for learners to remember.

    Here are just 8 of the many spellings for the /ay/ sound!

    When children are taught blends as units, they are being asked to learn and remember separate pieces of code knowledge in addition to the spellings of individual sounds. This increases the amount of information students must commit to memory and the likelihood of cognitive overload.

  • There are 74 consonant ‘blends’. I doubt that any teacher explicitly teaches all of these. Consequently, when you teach just a select few of the blends, you are only giving learners part of the picture. How will they spell the ‘blends’ they haven’t been taught?

  • Teaching consonant blends as units makes spelling more difficult. Segmenting is a more difficult skill to learn than blending. If it is hard for a student to hear the component elements in a consonant cluster, it will be even harder if the student has been trained to think of adjacent consonants as a unit.

Teaching Blending

If you are not sure about how to teach blending, you can read some clever ideas in the Phonics Hero blog post Helping the Blending Penny Drop. The basic principles are:

  • Start with oral sound blending before learners see letters.

  • ALWAYS follow teaching of letter-sound correspondences with blending activities. The second step in the Phonics Hero games is Reading, in which learners play games which practise blending the taught letter-sound correspondences to read words.

    One of over 150 single-word blending games from the Child Accounts.
    Get Your Class Started on a 30-day Trial of Our Child Accounts

  • Remember that blending with continuous sounds such as /s/ and /m/ is easier than blending with stop consonant sounds like /t/ and /k/. Both teachers and students sometimes insert a schwa sound after stop consonant sounds (e.g. ‘tuh’ instead of /t/). This adds a sound to the word that should not be there (you wouldn’t sound ‘tap’ out as ‘t-uh-a-p’!). Start with the more easily blended sounds.

  • Re-purpose those consonant blend flashcards and posters. The consonants making up the ‘consonant’ blend on the flashcard or poster can be shown in different colours to make explicit the concept that each is still making its own sound – trace over the printed letters in pen.

    repurposed consonant blends flashcard

    You can also add sound dots underneath the letters on the card/poster to indicate that each consonant is representing a different sound, as demonstrated in the example flashcard above. Now use the cards/poster to teach blending.

Follow these tips to save yourself and your students the time you would have spent unnecessarily teaching ‘blends’. Reap the benefits of the time you can now spend on blending activities.

Author: Shirley Houston

With a Masters degree in Special Education, Shirley has been teaching children and training teachers in Australia for over 30 years. Working with children with learning difficulties, Shirley champions the importance of teaching phonics systematically and to mastery in mainstream classrooms. If you are interested in Shirley’s help as a literacy trainer for your school, drop the team an email on info@phonicshero.com

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