“He can blend and segment, but can’t decode”

Recently I was asked this question on my Speechie Teach Instagram account:
“My student can blend and segment CVC words orally, knows his letter-sounds, but can’t decode CVC words. How can I help?”

For people experiencing this same problem, I have a couple of questions and suggestions which might make it easier to identify where the breakdown is occurring:

  1. Does the student know the target phoneme-graphemes representations automatically? Or do they have to think about it for a moment? If it is not instant recognition, the child may not have the cognitive space to activate the graphemes-phoneme representation, and then hold these phonemes in their working memory and subsequently blend (synthesise) them to make a word. Ensure the student has automatic recall of the target letter-sounds/ graphs. (E.g. SATIM graphs prior to decoding the words Sam, mat, at, etc.)
  2. Can they ORALLY blend when there is a pause between the sounds presented, or are you presenting them as a continuous blending task? E.g. “what does mmmmmmaaaaaaaat make?” Vs. “what does mmmm….aaaaa….t make?”. The second presentation is much more difficult for the child (an increased step), as they is a pause between the phonemes presented. You need to ensure the student can orally blend when there is a pause between phonemes. Continuous blending tasks (without pauses between phonemes) are still very important and useful, as this is what we aim for the child to do when decoding. However, initially when they start to decode- they will often leave a short pause between the sounds and will then need to synthesise these to form the whole word.
  3. Do they know how to TRACK when reading/decoding a word? Can they independently point to each grapheme of the word and blend with the next sound? If not, herein lies the problem. They may be able to orally blend but have not learnt the skill of tracking graphemes while synthesising the phonemes (and activating the lexicon representation of the word). If they cannot do this, I would suggest modelling and guided practice of tracking the graphemes to decode the word- encourage them to use their fingers to point and blend the sound into the next one -e.g. sssssaaaaammmm (Sam) iiiisssss (is) ooooonnnnn (on) a mmmmaaaaat (mat).
  4. Another factor to be aware of in emergent decoders (or emergent readers) is the tendency for them to insert the ‘schwa’ sound following a stop sound. This can have a huge (detrimental) consequence on their ability to decode. Please see my post HERE about the troublesome SCHWA! The schwa becomes problematic during phonics or phonemic awareness tasks when teachers (and students) unnecessarily insert the schwa after stop sounds (AKA plosives). This is particularly prominent after voiceless stop/plosive sounds (e.g. t, p, k). It sounds a bit like ‘t-uh’ ‘d-uh’ and ‘k-uh’ instead of ‘t’ ‘d’ and ‘k’, when the schwa is inserted. When we are presenting these sounds to students as an oral blending task, we need to esure we are not slipping in the ‘intrusive’ schwa after saying the sound otherwise students will be trying to blend “t-uh….a…p-uh” for tap instead of “t-a-p”. This also applied when students are decoding a word- if they are trying to decode the word ‘pot’, but insert a schwa after the stop sounds, they will actually be attempting to synthesise “puh…o….tuh” instead of “p…o…t” or “po..t”. We need to teach students how to accurately PRONOUNCE phonemes (particularly stop sounds and voiceless sounds such as /p/, /t/, and /k/. As teachers and speech pathologists, we also need to be aware of how we are pronouncing these phonemes, to ensure we are providing an accurate articulation model.

I hope this is useful to those working with students who are beginning their decoding journey. Please comment below any other strategies you think are useful or factors to consider!

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