Word Blending Strategies for Struggling Learners

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Every year about this time, many teachers ask for advice about the skill of word blending. I’ve also worked with students who have deficiencies in learning including blending. Here it is, we’re nearing spring break, and the end of the school year is right around the corner. How do we teach blending to these struggling learners?

The first thing I want you to realize is that blending can be a tough skill to master. We sometimes forget how hard it is for our new readers. Also, blending a three letter word involves several skills; it isn’t a standalone skill.

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Blending is like spaghetti.

I’m hungry right now, and I’d love to have a plate of spaghetti. (Which is so not on my low carb diet!) Preparing spaghetti is a lot like word blending. You have to cook the noodles, meatballs, and sauce. Then you put it all together to get this wonderful carb-filled dish that I would love to have right now.

Blending is like that. It takes several skills that must be completed and then put together.

First, there’s a lot of phonemic awareness that is needed before students can blend. If you don’t have consistent phonological and phonemic awareness in your day, this may be the problem. If students cannot orally hear sounds and blend them, how can they possibly take the letter version of those sounds and blend them?

Also, there’s letter identification and letter and sound fluency. Lots of teachers don’t put enough focus on letter fluency. Students may recognize the letter and be able to produce the sound eventually, but how fluent are they at retrieving the sound from their memory and saying it out loud?

For more on letter fluency, I highly recommend you go way back to Episode 6 on the PODCAST or the blog POST where I share the key to increasing letter and sound fluency. I shared a free resource there that can help you as well.

Back to our spaghetti, in order for our students to see and blend a word well, they have to have a great foundation in all three of those areas. You can know for sure that they’re prepared in those areas by doing some quick assessments, looking back at the ones you’ve completed, or observe as they attempt to blend a word and get a little understanding of which of those areas they need the most help in.

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What to do?

If they’re making all of the sounds correctly but cannot blend them, I’m going to point you toward the area of phonological and phonemic awareness. If they cannot tell you the letter sounds, we know it’s a letter identification problem. If they are just making those sounds at such a slow rate they are unable to bring them all together, maybe they even forget the first sound by the end of the word, I definitely recommend looking at their letter fluency.

We, as their trusty guides in this adventure of learning, must be like private investigators. We have to look at our assessments and the behaviors of our students and figure out just how to help. The hardest part about that is sometimes we recognize that they just aren’t ready to blend. They don’t have these four foundational skills. Their noodles, meatballs, and sauce just aren’t ready to make spaghetti.

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Blending Strategy #1 – Kinesthetic Procedure

The first strategy I’m going to share is to give students a kinesthetic procedure to blend the word. Just looking at the word and trying to sound it out hasn’t been effective for these students. But using a kinesthetic procedure that is very consistent that we use every time we come across one of these words will really give your students a tool that they can rely on.

I’m all about movement and the benefit it has to our learners, so I’m begging you to add a little movement in there with this procedure. Tell your students every time we see a word we don’t know, this is what we will do. The kinesthetic procedure you use can be whatever you want it to be. It just serves as a reminder of how to spell and blend a word.

Finger and Arm Spelling

I have used finger spelling. For the word “cat,” students would lift a finger for each letter and add a mixing motion to blend the word.

I have also used arm spelling before, where students make the first sound on their shoulder, the second sound at the crease in their elbow, and the last sound on their wrist, and then they go back up top and motion down to blend the word.

Touch and Say

One of my favorites to use is touch and say. This seems to be more helpful to students because they are actually putting their finger close to the letters. So they would put their finger under each letter and say the sound, then make a swooping motion across the word to blend the sounds. Finally, they cross over the word quickly to say it fast like a word. That is the one that I use the most and that I’ve found the most success with.


Another kinesthetic procedure is to give students manipulatives to represent each sound. This gives them something to push forward for each letter.

Whatever strategy you are using, just use it over and over and over.

By having a go-to kinesthetic procedure, your students will feel more confident and successful when they approach an unknown word. In the grand scheme of blending, the more they do it the more comfortable they become, and the more likely they are to become successful at actually blending those sounds together.

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Blending Strategy #2 – Scaffolding to Success

We need to meet our learners wherever they are and give them the support they need to get over the finish line of blending those words. If you’re newer to teaching, you may not be clear on what scaffolding is. I’ll be honest with you, I did not understand it until I saw a picture of what scaffolding is to carpenters. If you google search scaffolding, you will see a building with all of this structure beside it. This is a temporary support that helps carpenters move up the levels of a building while they are creating it.

So think of your little learners as these carpenters. They’re building all of these skills. We are the ones providing that scaffolding support.

I think of scaffolding as seeing where they are now and giving them just enough clues or information or strategies that can get them moving on up.

Add Pictures

One way that you can really scaffold these struggling learners with blending is to add some visual support. For example, if I’ve shown my student the word “cat” and they are not able to blend it, I would first listen to them and give them an opportunity to do it independently. I would reinforce that they use the procedure I taught them.

If they still could not decode that word, I would put down three pictures that are similar to the word. So if the word is “cat” I would put down a cat, a cab, and maybe a car. Have the student repeat the sounds and now see if they know the word. Visual support is always a great scaffold, because remember, many students are visual learners. It really pulls in that other learning style to help them out.

One at a Time

Another scaffold could be, instead of showing a student all three letters squished together, which is sometimes overwhelming and intimidating, try showing them one letter at a time and cuing them to make the sound as you push the letter forward. If they still have trouble, I would just repeat it over and over and maybe go a little faster to make it easier to blend.

Repeat It

A third scaffold is to repeat the sounds and let students hear it from you. So if I pushed the letters down and the student from their own production were not able to blend the word, I would say the sounds for them. So you can blend those together or give them the individual phonemes. What I’ve found over the years is that sometimes students aren’t hearing themselves very well. By repeating what they’ve said, it scaffolds their learning.

So just meet students wherever they are and use those scaffolds that build learning. Don’t be afraid to give them too much help. Remember, we are working with students who are already struggling in this area. We don’t want it to be too difficult. We want it to be just right so that they can build more confidence and it can become more efficient.

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Blending Strategy #3 – Write the Words

This is my favorite strategy, and it’s something I don’t see many teachers talking about when it comes to blending. It is actually writing the words. Believe it or not, what you will find is that many students who cannot blend a CVC word can write them very easily.

For some reason, this skill of writing the very same word they cannot sound out comes a lot easier. We can utilize writing the words to in turn help our students become better at blending the words. When we spend time every day segmenting and writing words, students become more familiar with the structure of words and how they work.

When we segment and write those words, we can follow that up by re-blending. This is part of a routine that I’ve used for years called Daily Write-It (HERE). Each day there is a word for us to focus on. We say the word, finger spell the word, blend the word, we write the word in Elkonin boxes, we touch and say the word (like I told you about before), and with all of that it takes less than five minutes and your students have had incredible practice segmenting, writing, and blending words.

They already know the word, because I’ve told them the word. But by segmenting, writing, and re-blending the word, they build that confidence and ability in an easy to digest way. If you have not spent a lot of time focusing on segmenting and writing those words, this could be an area that you could really kick into gear, and that will in turn help your students become better at blending.

Make it Routine

I’ve written a full POST about writing CVC words, and I actually have video demonstrations about how this routine works. Along with that posted video, you’ll find a free CVC word writing toolkit. This will give you everything you need to use this strategy absolutely free. This highly engaging routine will get your students segmenting, writing, and re-blending those words.

When I have used this daily, I have found that there are very few students who slip through the cracks and are not good at blending as a result of this attention to the structured writing and phonemic awareness of CVC words. It pulls it all together, and that is good as gold.

Doing this quickly every day is a big bang for your buck activity.

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Thank you for your passion!

Teacher, because you are here, I know you are passionate about our students. That is exactly what they need, and we need more teachers like you!

We’d love, love, love for you to join us in the Primary Teacher Friends Facebook group.

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I hope the strategies I provided today will serve you and your students well. Soon this school year will be history, so let’s end it as best we can.

Keep making a difference, teacher friend!



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