Understanding that words are made up of sequences of individual sounds, or phonemes, is a building block for learning to decode, or sound out, individual words. Two important abilities that students must develop are blending and segmenting.

Blending involves pulling together individual sounds or syllables within words; segmenting involves breaking words down into individual sounds or syllables. Both processes require a student to hold the individual elements in mind as the word is created or taken apart. This ability to hold sounds or syllables on a ‘thinking counter space’ is facilitated by a student’s active working memory.

Here are some strategies to help students develop their ability to decode words by focusing on blending and segmenting.

Helpful Hints

  • Use pictures to develop students’ blending and segmenting skills. Provide students with a picture (e.g. a cat) and have them sound out the name while placing marbles, drawing marks, or tapping their fingers for each of the individual sounds in the word (e.g., /c/…/a/…/t/ is composed of 3 sounds, thus the child would use 3 marbles, marks, or taps.) (This approach is known as the Elkonin technique.)  
  • Let students practice counting syllables by clapping or using their fingers to tap out the number of different sounds, or phonemes, in a word. 
  • Follow a systematic sequence for teaching blending and segmenting activities to students. Use modeling to introduce the skills and guided practice as students develop mastery.  
    • Begin with compound words (e.g., /snow/ — /ball/). First have students repeat the components of a compound word slowly, and then put them together to form one word; As a next step, ask students to quickly repeat a compound word, and then to break the word into its component parts by repeating it slowly.  
    • Next, move to syllables (e.g., /ev/ — /er/ — /green/). Following the above model, have students first put together syllables to create words, and then break words into syllables. Move from two syllable words to three, four, etc.  
    • Finally, move to phonemes (e.g., /s/ — /a/ — /t/). Have students put together phonemes to create words and break down words into phonemes. Move from consonant-vowel-consonant words (e.g., fat), to consonant-consonant-vowel-consonant words (e.g., flat).  
  • Give students various opportunities throughout the day to practice blending sounds to create words, and segmenting words into sounds or syllables. For example, sound games can be played while driving in the car, shopping in the grocery store, etc. 
  • Provide reinforcement for learning consonant blends that are particularly challenging to students. For example,  
    • Students can play blend bingo where students match words chosen from a deck of picture cards or called out to them with the blends written on their bingo cards, e.g. sl, sm, sn, sp, etc. 
    • Play a “How Many Words Can You Make” game: Students make words by combining consonant blends and digraphs (consonant combinations that make a single sound), such as /sh/ and /th/) with a variety of word endings. 
  • Students who are skilled at blending and segmenting words can benefit from additional practice manipulating sounds and syllables within words. For example, students may enjoy sound omission games where they remove sounds from words in order to create new words. For example, removing /sun/ from suntan leaves /tan/, while subtracting the /t/ from tray leaves ray. Begin by asking students to take out initial sounds or syllables, then have them remove ending sounds/syllables, and finally, ask students to pull out middle sounds/syllables.