The English Alphabet is a code that represents the 44 spoken sounds in the English language. The majority of the code (written words in the English language) is made up of 175 spellings. A small percentage of words contain unique spellings, such as the spelling of /t/ in yacht, and unusual spellings, such as the spelling of /ee/ in Phoebe and phoenix.
Decoding is converting a coded message (spellings) into language (sounds). Encoding is is converting language (sounds) into a coded message (spellings). Decoding is reading and encoding is spelling, and there are three skills necessary for fluency in decoding and encoding.
Blending is the skill of putting sounds, or syllables (where necessary), together to read words.
To read a monosyllabic word, like ‘bend’, a child will say the sounds /b/ /e/ /n/ /d/ then blend those sounds to read ‘bend’.
To read the polysyllabic word ‘flowering’ a child will blend sounds until they hear a syllable then blend each syllable until they hear the word. /f/ /l/ /ow/ ‘flow’ /er/ ‘er’ /i/ /ng/ ‘ing’ … ‘flow’ ‘er’ ‘ing’ … ‘flowering’.
Segmenting is the skill of breaking words into syllables (where necessary) then sounds. Think of separating an orange into segments.
To spell a monosyllabic word, like ‘frog’, a child will segment frog into the sounds /f/ /r/ /o/ /g/ and write the corresponding spellings for each sound.
To spell a polysyllabic word like ‘isosceles’, the child will segment the word into the syllables i|so|sce|les, then each syllable into sounds /ie/ | /s/ /o/ | /s/ /e/ | /l/ /ee/ /z/ and write the corresponding spellings for each sound.
Segmenting is often thought of as a skill primarily for spelling. However, children need to be able to segment polysyllabic words into syllables to be able to read unfamiliar words.
When the word ‘fraction’ is unfamiliar to the child, they will need to segment the words into syllables then blend and read through the word. /f/ /r/ /a/ /c/ ‘frac’ /sh/ /o/ /n/ ‘tion’ … ‘frac’ ‘tion’ … ‘fraction’.
When readers develop conceptual understanding of the way the English Alphabet Code works, they understand that one sound can be represented by more than one spelling and that one spelling can represent more than one sound.
Take the word ‘brown’. The spelling represents /ow/ as in cow. However, in ‘snow’ it represent /oe/ as in ‘grow’. A child may misread the word as ‘br-oe-n’ and the skill of manipulating will allow the child to swap out /oe/ and swap in /ow/ in their search for meaning.
This is the skill that I think we are most consciously aware of as skilled reader, yet it is often the skill that is neglected in phonics lessons.
There are several ways to develop skills in phoneme manipulation. I like to use sound swap and sound deletion games, orally or whilst word building.
It goes without saying that these skills need to be explicitly taught. Howver, developing these skills to the single syllable level will not prepare children for phonic fluency. The skill of blending sounds into syllables then syllables into words, and segmenting words into syllables then into sounds, must be explicitly taught; this work can begin in Year 1/Key Stage 1, but should continue well into Key Stage 2.
As expert readers, it is hard to emphasise with early or unskilled readers. So, here’s a word for you to read:
…perhaps the segmenting and blending felt a little less automatic?!