Single sounds, not larger chunks

I've been going through a lot of catalogues from educational suppliers, trying to find good teaching resources to add to my resource lists.

The category "phonics" in these catalogues contains all kinds of stuff, from really excellent things to things I wouldn't take away if someone paid me. So if you don't have a clear idea of what you're looking for, the task of choosing resources can be pretty overwhelming.

Because this website is about teaching the building blocks of words, I'm sticking pretty strictly in my resource lists to materials that focus on individual sounds (phonemes) and the spellings that represent them, which are our language's fundamental building blocks.

Larger chunks than single sounds

The larger chunks that "phonics" resources often focus on instead of drilling down to single sounds are most commonly:

  • Consonant clusters, so that things like "pr", "st", "mps" and "nk" are taught as though they are separate sounds,
  • Rimes, so things like "op" and "ing" and "ust" are taught as though they are separate sounds
  • Syllables, so that children are taught about word chunks like "ba"-"na"-"na" and "hos"-"pit"-"al"

Occasionally there are also resources that teach things like "ba" plus "t" equals "bat".

Using these resources is like getting children to pack up their lego by pulling it apart into clumps, instead of individual pieces. It makes it less compact and reusable.

Representing half-a-sound?

Another type of resource I actively avoid is one that breaks up spellings that represent a single sound, and thus should be taught as chunks. You don't cut your lego blocks in half.

Typically these mix up consonant blends like "br", "sm" and "lk" (two sounds), and consonant digraphs like "ch", "sh" and "th" (one sound, two letters).

These resources are created by people who clearly do not understand about how letters represent sounds, and are simply focussed on the letters.

Once they've mucked up consonants, they move on to vowels. For example, the spelling "oy" represents a single vowel sound, as in boy, toy and soy milk. Two letters, one sound.

Yet a major educational supplier still sells flip books where consonant-vowel-consonant words like c-a-t and b-i-g are mixed up with consonant-vowel words like boy and toy, and the "y" at the end is treated as a consonant.

The consonant sound "y" as in "yellow" is only used before vowels in English, it simply doesn't go at the end of words. The letter "y" does go at the ends of words, but represents different sounds – the "I" sound in "by" and the "ee" sound in "silly".

Single sounds are more compact and reusable

If I teach a learner "ing", then they can work with "ing" words, of which there are a lot, because this spelling is how we make the present participle, as in "running", "tricking" and "hoping".

However, if I teach learners how to blend the vowels "a", "e", "i", "o" and "u" with "ng", then they will be able to tackle words that end not only in "ing" but also "ang" as in sang and rang, "eng" as in Chinese names like Deng and Cheng, "ong" as in song and gong and "ung" as in mung beans and hung-out washing.

So you get much more bang for your buck, and less redundant stuff to remember, if you drill down to single sounds.

Blending can be hard, but that doesn't make it optional

Adults watching learners struggle to learn to blend, and who don't understand what a critical skill this is for reading, can be strongly tempted to bypass this step and blend lots of sounds for learners, which I think is why they give them bigger chunks like "str", "op" and "ba".

Sometimes when a child can blend two sounds but not three (for example they look at the word "can" and say "ca-cat", so they are just guessing the last sound), I do blend two of the sounds together for them and then get them to blend my "chunk" and the final sound.

However I'm very careful to be clear about what I'm doing, e.g. I say, "OK how about I do the first two, and you add on the last one? c plus a is ca, now you add this n, ca-n".

I also mix up blending the first two and the last two sounds, and talk about what I'm doing with the sounds, so children don't think I'm introducing new sounds like "ca" or "at".

We don't have thousands of sounds in English (whereas we do have thousands of blends, rimes and syllables). We only have 44.

My learners, who are all strugglers, need to know that our system for writing English is compact and learnable, that I understand it well, and that I am going to teach it to them quickly, systematically and clearly, without over-simplifying or over-complicating it.

Part of that is sticking to teaching materials that focus on single sounds and their spellings, not less compact and reusable chunks.

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