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Natural, holistic manipulatives build decoding and blending skills.

Phonics is the study of relationships that exist between phonemes, the sounds of spoken language, and graphemes, the letters that represent them. In the alphabetic stage of reading, children begin to recognize the systematic and predictable letter-sound correspondences of the English language. While many children deduce these relationships without formal instruction, phonics is essential for at-risk learners.

The formal teaching of phonics has been and remains a contentious issue. However, due to the recommendations of the National Reading Panel, phonics instruction is a cornerstone of NCLB and Reading First requirements. Systematic, explicit phonics instruction is most effective in early grades. Primary students in structured phonics programs demonstrate significant gains in decoding, spelling, and comprehension. Older students receiving regular phonics instruction improve decoding and spelling skills, but their comprehension remains inadequate. When students must devote too much time to word analysis, they read with a strategy imbalance and are not able to shift attention to meaning.

Reading Manipulatives products identify and teach phonics concepts that have a high degree of utility. Manipulatives are optimal for imparting key phonics skills because they employ natural, engaging strategies to teach decoding, blending, and structural analysis. Phonics manipulatives systematically develop word analysis strategies while offering the plentiful practice students need. They are also ideal for tailoring programs to meet individual needs. Students are able to work through appropriate sets of manipulatives until mastery is attained.

In the sections that follow, key phonics skills are discussed in the order that they should be taught. Instructional strategies, hands-on materials, and resources are offered. For some of the skills, downloadable Tips for Teachers issues are available.

Short/Long Vowel Sounds & Spelling Patterns
Once students recognize most consonant phonemes, they need to learn short and long vowel phonemes and spelling patterns. Understanding these concepts helps beginning readers decode many words. As a matter of fact, half of the high-frequency words in the Dolch 220 list can be decoded using short/long vowel phonemes and patterns.

Step 1 - Teach phonemes
First make sure that students can identify and produce the vowel phonemes. Teach the short vowel phonemes in isolation using sound associations to help students learn and remember these challenging phonemes. The examples below are used in the Reading Manipulatives Phoneme Songs and Blending program. Long vowels are easier to master. Remind students that the long vowels "say their names." Long u is somewhat troublesome since it has two sounds (as in fuse [fyooz] and plume [ploom]).

Click on the pictures to hear the Short Vowel Phoneme Songs

Step 2 - Teach short/long vowel patterns
Next, teach vowel patterns. Simplify the basic concepts being taught. Teach this rule for short/long vowel patterns:
When there is one vowel in the word (at the beginning or the middle), the vowel is short. When there are two vowels, the first vowel is long and the second is silent.

Flip Strips - SLV Patterns are ideal for demonstrating and teaching these patterns. Students read the short vowel word. When the second vowel is flipped over, the word is then read with a long vowel. Most one-syllable words follow this rule, making it an excellent building block for beginning readers. This concept is taught before the introduction of variant vowels, which are obvious exceptions.

Step 3 - Decode words that follow the patterns
After students know short/long vowel sounds and spelling patterns, they can use these to decode words. With ample practice, application becomes automatic. Provide decoding practice by using matching games. First students look at the word to determine if the vowel phoneme is short (one vowel) or long (two vowels). Then they read the word and match it to a picture (SLV Decoding Match-Ups). Scrambled sentences containing words that follow the SLV patterns can be one of the first reading experiences for children (SLV Scrambled Sentences). Students decode the words, arrange them into sentences, and match the illustrations.

Short vowel posters & songbook
You will be amazed at how fast your students will master the short vowel phonemes if you use these fun posters and songs. Our Short/Long Vowel Phonemes manipulatives include the Phoneme Songs CD, posters, and many sort activities. Also, the Posters & CD are available separately. However, to help all students to learn these challenging sounds, teachers can download free PDF versions of the posters and a songbook.

Download Short Vowel Posters
Download Short Vowel Songbook

SLV Patterns Tips for Teachers issue
Short and long vowel pattern flip strips are one of the easier manipulatives to make. The SLV Patterns Tips for Teachers includes the spelling rule, construction directions and pattern, and 68 short to long vowel spelling combinations. Flip strips help students to master this key decoding concept.

Download SLV Patterns Tips

Blending — SLV Bases
Phonetic blending is the ability to join phonemes in a smooth enough manner to approximate a pronunciation that enables identification of the word. Blending is a challenging skill, but if teachers model blending and separating sounds and provide plentiful practice, students develop blending proficiency. Research indicates that students who spend greater than average amounts of time on blending score higher than average reading test scores through the second grade. Manipulatives are an ideal material to use for teaching blending since rimes can be decoded and then onsets blended to them to form words.

Step 1 - Teach or review short/long vowel patterns
Since the graphemic bases, or rimes, must be decoded before proceeding with these blending activities, students must first be introduced to short/long vowel phonemes and spelling patterns.

Step 2 - Teach rhyming and word family blending
Rhyming is the most straightforward way to introduce blending and help students to acquire basic blending skills. Listen to rhyming stories and sing rhyming songs. Nursery rhymes are an ideal resource for improving rhyming capabilities. Help children to identify the rhyming words. Next, let them predict words to complete rhymes (Rhyming Match-Ups & More). Once children can identify and predict rhyme, introduce word families (SLV Word Families). It is easier to blend onsets to a rime with word families since rhyming facilitates blending. At first, use only single phonemes. Once students become more proficient, consonant blends can be added.

Step 3 - Decode words that follow the patterns
The first step is for the student to decode the phonemic base, or rime, using short/long vowel patterns (or variant vowels once they have been introduced). In both Star Blending and Intermediate Blending, each base must be blended to multiple phonemes or blends until a word is formed. The rime is placed there, then the student moves on to the next one. Some bases can be joined to multiple initial sounds. If a word is spelled differently (i.e., clame, sleak) or a rule breaker (i.e., love), point it out but accept the word since this a reading, not spelling, activity.

Step 4 - Extend blending concepts into encoding activities
Students are focusing on phonetic elements and spellings, so consider integrating blending concepts (onsets and rimes) with writing and spelling programs. Teach students to remove the rimes of spelling words and change the onsets. Ask them to write rhyming words for words in spelling lists. If the group can handle it, expect them to be able to spell any word that rhymes with list words when tested.

Varying methodologies in each Reading Manipulatives blending product
Rhyming facilitates the blending process, so SLV Word Families is used for teaching blending. This product is principally a reading activity, and over 1000 words using single phonemes and blends are formed in the word families. Star Blending is a multilevel product that is suitable for centers because students will have 3 complete stars when finished. Intermediate Blending has only blends and digraphs as the initial sounds, and there are many possible combinations for the words. This product is ideal for honing blending skills.

SLV Blending Tips for Teachers issue
This issue has a resource list that will be an invaluable aid to any teacher of reading. The list contains over 100 rimes or bases and 1000+ words that are made by adding various onsets to them. The list can be used for making blending manipulatives (issue also has teaching rules and strategies; construction guidelines and pattern) or other instructional ideas. For instance, the rhyming words can be used to create or expand spelling lists.

Download Blending (SLV Bases) Tips

Variant Vowels
Once students are adept at decoding words containing short and long vowels, the English vowel phonemes with variant pronunciations and spellings can be introduced. The following is a listing of variant vowel phonemes and spellings with a high frequency of occurrence:

   R-Controlled (first three more common)
       1. a as in car
       2. ur as in fur (spelled ur, ir, er, and [w]or)
       3. or as in for (same sound for or, ore, and oar)
       4. ar as in air (spelled are and air)
       5. ir as in ear (spelled ear and eer)

   OO (two sounds, one spelling)
       1. oo as in zoo and few
       2. oo as in took

   AL / AU / AW (one sound, three spellings)
       1. o as in all
       2. o as in saw
       3. o as in taught

   OU /OW (one sound, two spellings)
       1. ou as in out
       2. ow as in now

   OI / OY (one sound, two spellings)
       1. oi as in oil
       2. oy as in boy

Most of these variant vowels are phonemes, and several have multiple spellings. These spellings are actually what students need to recognize, and that is why word families are an excellent strategy. It does not matter that oo as in zoo sounds the same as one of the long u spellings (fruit) or the ew spelling (new). Do not dwell on phonetic information that is irrelevant and may confuse students. Teach concepts in the most simplified manner possible.

Variant VowelsStep 1 - Select variant vowel spellings and instructional sequence
Before introducing variant vowels, make sure that students are adept at decoding words containing short and long vowels since these are more common. Then, use the variant vowels listed above to plan instruction for variant vowels. If usages are limited (such as the ou in could), cover them in sight words

Step 2 - Teach common variant vowels with word families
Word families are the easiest way to drill repetitive variant vowel spellings. The Tips for Teachers issue on variant vowels and the Reading Manipulatives variant vowel product contain word families for these spellings.

Step 3 - Provide decoding practice with scrambled sentences
Scrambled sentences are included in the Variant Vowel Word Families & Scrambled Sentences product. Students must first be introduced to short/long vowel phonemes and spelling patterns since the majority of the words in the scrambled sentences must be decoded using this phonetic information. If making scrambled sentences, strive to include as many variant vowel spellings as possible. Underline variant vowels in all manipulatives to signal their occurrence. This encourages students to think about and apply what they have learned about these sounds and spellings.

Step 4 - Teach variant vowels with encoding activities
For students in second grade or higher, consider teaching variant vowel spellings by category as part of the spelling program. Use the word families resource list in the Tips for Teachers issue to select spellings with a high frequency of occurrence. For instance, 7 bases for ar variant vowel phoneme contain 43 words. Spelling lessons are a valuable strategy for reviewing phonetic concepts with students of all ages and abilities.

Variant Vowels Tips for Teachers issue
Once students know short/long vowel phonemes and spelling patterns, they need to learn high-utility variant vowel phonemes and spellings. This issue covers these and contains 50 variant vowel word families with 375 words.

Download Variant Vowels Tips
Download Word Families Resource List