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Reading difficulties: Blocked blending

Here at Learning & Wellbeing Psychology, we have been talking about something new we have noticed - children who know all the phonics sounds, but who can’t put these sounds together to read words. For these children, each sound is read out loud then painstakingly put together to make a word, resulting in reading becoming laborious. At times, this can make reading so slow that it is hard for the child (or the person listening!) to make sense of the book.

This is different to our past observations – where children might have guessed a word from the context, or because it looked like one they knew, or who might have had a go based on the first letter. They might even have just said they didn’t know and ask us to tell them! However, in these cases, children often had gaps in their phonic knowledge and were reading books which used common exception words or graphemes that they had not been taught yet.

Reading is not just about using synthetic phonics to sound out words. Experienced readers use a variety of strategies to understand text. Eye tracking experiments suggest that our best readers may even achieve their speed of reading by working like an extremely complex predictive text machine - guessing the word from the context and their understanding of the text, and only going back and correcting their themselves if the word doesn’t match their expectation.

So how can we help our kids who have a block with their blending?

There are many things we might talk through in consultation. Here are a couple of suggestions for ways that might be worth a try to help kids with blocked blending:

1) Is the problem ‘schwa’?

Spoken language is not the same as written language. In fact, when we are fluent readers or writers, we may think a sound is there when in fact it is rarely articulated clearly in spoken language. Here, we can consider the schwa. A schwa is a vowel sound within an unstressed syllable, where the vowel no longer sounds like it usually would. Often, the vowel sound is replaced by an ‘uh’ pronunciation. An example might be the difference between ‘coruhnation’ and ‘coronation’, where the second ‘o’ has been reduced to an ‘uh’ sound when pronounced. The schwa vowel sound can stand in for any vowels. We can start to spot this sneaky little sound when we look at children’s phonetic spelling - they often write ulone for alone, pencol for pencil and takin for taken. This gives us some ways forward. It might be that we are not making the sounds in words clear when we model phonics for them to copy. When we model phonics, we try to make a pure sound – but that schwa can creep in as a little ‘uh’ at the end of the sound we’re modelling, so we say ‘muh’ not ‘m’. Alternatively, children may not recognise the word they are making when they sound out each letter of a word as it does not match with the word they are used to hearing.

2) Is the problem seeing the sounds represented by the letters as separate from one another?

A couple of things can help here. In the first instance, it can be helpful to practice linking together a consonant and short vowel (e.g. ja, pa, pe, so, ji), so that the two sounds run together. Then spend some time modelling and reading two letter words before stepping up to three letter consonant, vowel, consonant words. At this point it is important to continue the blend as you read approach by modelling saying the sounds cumulatively, rather than modelling them one-by-one.

Although these are not sure-fire ways to work around a block, they can be useful first steps. Remember the next step (up to 4 letter words) can be more of a climb as blending two consonants can be tricky for some children!

Our observations, assessments and consultations to teachers can provide even more targeted ideas and support. Explore our individual services listed on our website.

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