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Sounds in words

Thinking about the sounds in words is not natural, but it can be fun. Here are some games children can play to develop phonemic awareness, as well as a method for segmenting words that prevents children from distorting the pronunciation of the phonemes.

Thinking about the sounds in words is an unnatural act. From our earliest experiences we learn to “see through” the sounds of language to think about meaning. For instance, we learn to focus not on the sounds /mä/mē/, but on that warm, cuddly person, Mommy. But to learn to read, children must refocus on the sounds of words, a “metalinguistic shift.”

Onset-rime blending

To help children think about words as sound, we can help them break words into smaller parts. One way to break down the syllable is into onset (everything before the vowel) and rime (the vowel and everything after it). For example, sleep could be broken into /sl/ and /eep/.

Rhyming means blending a new onset to an old rime. Before children can produce rhymes, they need a great deal of experience recognizing rhymes. Listening to rhyming stories, reciting rhyming poetry, and singing rhyming songs should be daily activities in the early childhood classroom.

Children can first try making rhymes by blending a single onset to a variety of words. For example, they could play Silly Sally, where they blend /s/ to the rime of each word. The teacher names an object (e.g., cup), and the children change the onset to /s/ (e.g., sup). This might make sense (meseebitesight) or nonsense (mousesousebikesike). Any phoneme could become the onset in such a game. You can play Silly Billy, Silly Curly, Silly Dolly, etc.

Body-coda blending

The vowel is the loudest part of the syllable (the peak). You can always stretch the vowel and say it out loud. Children find it fairly easy to break a syllable on either side of the loud vowel. For instance, they might break the wordflight into fl-ight or into fligh-t.

When we talk about the body of a syllable, we are referring to all of the phonemes through the vowel. Any consonants that come after the vowel is called the coda. For example, in the word dream, /drE/ is the body of the syllable and /m/ is the coda.

Here are two ways to break up the word blast:

  • Onset (bl) – Rime (ast)
  • Body (bla) – Coda (st)

There is an important payoff for this new terminology: Body-coda blending is easier than onset-rime blending. This is because onsets are often highly distorted during blending.

For example, if we ask a child to blend d-ice, it is very difficult to pronounce /d/ without considerable distortion. Because /d/ involves the vocal cords, it takes some vowel to pronounce /d/ (we usually add a schwa /u/), and this artificial voicing interferes with blending in the actual vowel. However, there is no distortion of consonants in the coda. Thus, di-ce is a very easy blend.

In general, the easiest way to blend in decoding is body-coda, e.g., swee-t. Onset-rime blending (sw-eet) is usually harder, but at least there are only two parts to blend. Phoneme blending is harder still, because there may be three, four, five, or six phonemes to blend in a single syllable. Thus, a natural progression is to begin with body-coda blending, progress to onset-rime blending, and finish with phoneme blending.

Ways to practice blending

One way to practice blending is to play a guessing game called Secret Code. The teacher could turn an illustrated word face down and say its body and coda, e.g., ha-t. When a student blends the phonemes and guesses the word, the teacher shows the picture.

This game also works well with riddles, which don’t require pictures. For example, the teacher could say, “I’m thinking of the animal Bo Peep lost. It’s a shee-p.” Note that these examples are especially easy because they feature body-coda blending, the easiest kind. Later the teacher could give onset and rime (sh- eep), and for the final challenge, all the phonemes (sh-ee-p).

By: Bruce Murray