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.
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/.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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:
There are approximately 176 spellings for the 44 sounds of English for learners to remember.
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.
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:
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.
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.