Phonics blending: An evidence-based literacy strategy

Phonics blending is a way for students to decode words. With phonics blending, students fluently join together the individual sound-spellings (also called letter-sound correspondence) in a word. With a word like jam, students start by sounding out each individual sound-spelling (/j/, /ă/, /m/). Then, they slowly blend those sounds together (“jjjaamm”). Finally, they read the word (“jam”).

You may sometimes hear phonics blending called sounding out, visual blending, or synthetic phonics. Students start with blending the sound-spellings in one-syllable words. From there, they can go on to read syllables or affixes in longer words.

Read: How to use phonics blending

Objective: Students will sound out unknown, one-syllable words by identifying the individual sound-spellings in words and blending them together.

Grade levels (with standards): 

  • K (Common Core Literacy RF.K.3.A: Demonstrate basic knowledge of one-to-one letter-sound correspondences)

  • K (Common Core Literacy RF.K.3.B: Associate the long and short sounds with the common spellings [graphemes] for the five major vowels)

  • 1 (Common Core Literacy RF.1.3.A: Know the spelling-sound correspondences for common consonant digraphs)

  • 1 (Common Core Literacy RF.1.3.B: Decode regularly spelled one-syllable words)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Small groups

  • Individuals

How to prepare:

Choose words to teach. For each instructional session, choose five to seven one-syllable new words to teach and five to seven words that need to be reviewed (for a total of 10 to 14 words). Use a resource like Phinder for a helpful list of decodable, one-syllable words you might use. To make the words relevant to students, invite them to help you choose the words.

Remember that students need to have other foundational literacy skills before they begin blending. For instance, make sure each word you choose only includes sound-spellings that you have already explicitly taught or that you are sure your students know. 

Double-check your words. For your first lesson, double-check that each word you choose is decodable (like jam) and not an irregular word (like does). You can include an irregular word in a later lesson. Use it as a chance to explain that not all words in English follow the rules of phonics. Explain that the strategy of phonics blending may not work for words that break the rules. (Instead, you can introduce a sight words strategy for those words.)

Work this practice into your daily literacy routine. Just five to 10 minutes of practice each day will help students use this strategy independently as they read. 

How to teach: 

1. Choose one word. Write it on the board and on a flashcard.

2. Model. Tell students that you’ll model how to say each sound, blend the sounds together, and read the word. For example, while pointing to each letter in the word sit, you might say, “The first sound is /s/, the next sound is /ǐ/, and the last sound is /t/.” 

3. Blend. Explain that you’ll blend the sounds together slowly without pausing: sssiiittt. As you do that, use your finger to scoop under each letter. Then, point under the word and say the word: sit.

4. Tell students it’s their turn to try. Support students as you work through an example:

  • Write a word (like mat).

  • Point to each letter and prompt students to say the first sound, next sound, and last sound.

  • Then, use your finger to scoop under each letter while telling the class to blend the sounds.

  • Finally, point under the word and ask students to read the word. (Consider recording this instruction in a video clip for students who want to watch the process again.)

  • If a student says an incorrect sound or pauses for too long between sounds, stop the lesson and model blending the word again. Or ask the class to self-assess how they said the sounds. Then, have them repeat the process on that same word before moving on.

5. Practice. Have students practice words on their own after modeling several examples. Some students might work on their own with flashcards and some might work with a partner. Use the corresponding prompts (“First sound, next sound, last sound; blend the sounds; read the word”) to build automaticity with the strategy. You can also display those prompts on a poster and chant the steps. Provide help if it’s needed as they practice independently.

Note: There is evidence that having students practice reading word families (like sat, mat, and rat) is not effective. That’s because students rely too heavily on auditory rhyming, which doesn’t help when reading words in context. 

Understand: Why this strategy works

Research has shown that phonics blending supports students’ ability to read unfamiliar words because it provides them with a consistent strategy for approaching new words. Students who have been taught this strategy are more likely to read words correctly, which is especially motivating for students who struggle with reading. 

Phonics blending can also help students avoid a common reading error. Have you ever asked students to read a one-syllable word like pit, but they read pig? Or they looked at the word bag and immediately said bat?

This is a common error because students (both young and old) who struggle with language or phonological processing may not have mastered all the sound-spellings. They will often say the beginning part of a word correctly, but then guess the rest of the word based on familiar words or sounds. Phonics blending will help students focus on each sound rather than just guessing based on the beginning of the word.

Over time, regular practice of this phonics-blending strategy will help students read with better fluency. That allows them to focus less on decoding and more on comprehending what they’re reading. 

For English language learners (ELLs): Phonics blending is especially important because many sounds in English will be new or different from these students’ home languages. Getting additional practice in forming and blending those sounds will help with their reading and language development. 

Tell families that you’re working on phonics with their children. Introduce them to phonics by sharing 15 phonics rules for reading and spelling. You can also share information about the difference between decodable and non-decodable words.

Research behind this strategy

“Put reading first: The research building blocks of reading instruction: Kindergarten through grade 3 (3rd ed.),” from the National Institute for Literacy

“Big ideas in beginning reading,” from the University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning


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