Teaching Spelling: How to Teach Students to Blend & Segment Unfamiliar Words

Picture of students working with letter tiles with the title "Teaching Spelling: How to Teach Students to Blend & Segment Unfamiliar Words".

Teaching spelling to students in an effective way may seem like a tall order to fill, but with letter tiles it is a little easier. Letter tiles are a simple, easy, hands-on way to get your students involved in spelling. I literally use them every. single. day. They help students see the relationship between the spoken and written word. We can also use them to reinforce that words have parts, like a beginning, middle, and end and the importance of getting all the right letters in the correct places. Otherwise, we’re creating new words or nonsense words which is a key element to teaching spelling.

How Letter Tiles Can Be Used to Teach Blending, Segmenting, and Manipulating Sounds

  1. Write the grapheme that you are studying on the board. Depending on if this is the first time or a review of a particular skill, you may need to introduce, review, or discuss the grapheme with your students. 
  2. Have students build a simple word that contains the grapheme. Help them to determine the phonemes orally. I usually ask my students to help me count the sounds. Together, we say each phoneme in the word. Then, I ask them to spell the word using their letter tiles on the table. For some, this is simple once we have produced the phonemes. They are simply matching letters to sounds. I have other students who can easily produce the phonemes and have difficulty finding the graphemes. I think it is important to realize that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas, even among students working at the same encoding level. 
  3. Ask students to change one letter to spell a new word. Once students have the initial word, they are ready to begin manipulating the word to create a new word. To do this, we say the sounds in the word together. Then, we check to see how those phonemes match up with the graphemes we have in our word. We look for the letter that needs to change. My kids LOVE to see how quickly they can decide which letter needs to change! 
  4. Repeat the previous step to spell all 5-10 spelling words. By asking students to change 1, 2, or 3 letters, depending on the spelling level, they are constantly manipulating, blending, and segmenting words. This strategy is helping teaching spelling by having the students create new words. 
  5. Develop a set of daily routines to target various phonological skills. Each day I have a different focus while we work to spell our words. This is key to teaching spelling to your students. Having a daily routine with a different focus every day exposes students to more than one way of spelling.

3 Routines to Practice Blending

Point to the Letter That Says…

On Mondays, we typically keep things pretty simple. We are usually learning a new grapheme or reviewing something from previous instruction. After spelling a word, I’ll ask my students to point to the letter or letters that say a particular phoneme. This is also a great time to review prior graphemes. Even though we might be practicing the /sh/ sound, we can still take a look at words that have a magic e. It really helps keep many sounds top of mind. 

We also use this time to count the SOUNDS that we hear, not the letters.

Point & Say the Sounds

On Tuesdays, we focus on blending words. After students have spelled a word using their letter tiles, I ask my students to point to the word and say the sounds together. As a group, we say each phoneme and blend them together. This is the crucial focus to teaching spelling.

For students with difficulty with working memory, we use this time to practice a strategy to help them decode in smaller pieces. Have you ever had a student who attempts to decode a word, says every phoneme beautifully, and then says a completely random word?! If so, they are typically struggling with working memory. They are unable to store three or more sounds in their brain in order to properly blend them together. 

During this routine, we blend two sounds together. Then, we add the third sound. If there are more than three sounds, we repeat this process and add a phoneme each time. Does it take longer? Absolutely. But this strategy may also be the easiest way to combat poor working memory. 

Can You Think of a Rhyming Word?

On Wednesday, we usually pick a word or two and find words that rhyme. Due to time, we don’t find rhyming words for all of our spelling words. I strategically pick a few that we’ll use to produce rhyming words. We also attempt to spell the rhyming words on the board together.

How to Prep Letter Tiles for Word Building Activities

Image of Desk with Box of Colored Sandwich Bags for Teaching Spelling
  1. Buy Colored Sandwich Bags I love the Great Value brand. There may be others that are colored or have a specific design, but I love these for allowing me to easily match a color to a particular group. And by pure luck, these also coordinate with my reading series levels perfectly! 
Image of Colored Sandwich Bags in Box with 5 Yellow Sandwich Bags laid on a Desk

2. Determine How Many Bags You’ll Need for Each Level This year, I am not allowed to have more than five people in my small group. I guess I shouldn’t really say that I’m not allowed, but rather due to COVID rules, I don’t have enough room at my table for Plexiglass and students! Five is the max. Therefore, I have five bags in each color. 

Image of Colored Sandwich Bags in a box with 5 Yellow Bags Laid on Desk with Letter Tiles used for Teaching Spelling

3. Add Letter Tiles You’ll Need for the Week to the Baggies Depending on the level, we may have 8-15 letter tiles. This significantly reduces the grapheme choices that students have when it is time to spell our words. They literally only have the letters needed to spell our 5-10 spelling words. 

Image of a Desk with Storage options for Letter Tiles and Sandwich Bags

4. Store Until Ready for Use Locate a container or place where you’ll keep your bags. Someone had flowers delivered to me at school years ago. They came in this big, round vase! They were perfect for keeping my spelling bags all in one place. Now, they are ready for whatever group I happen to have. 

Image of Primary Gal holding multiple Colored Sandwich Bags in her Hand

5. Create a Backup Set I seriously learned this trick the hard way! I used to always switch out the letters in my bags from week to week. I had one set and I would change them out on Friday afternoons. Well, my Fridays were CRAZY! I had spelling, reading, and math tests to grade. I didn’t have time to also switch out the letters in each spelling bag. It didn’t take long, but it was still just one more thing to do on a busy day. Sometimes, I would even come in on the weekend for 15-20 minutes just to switch out my spelling bags. It was getting ridiculous! Finally, I decided to create another set of bags with letters for the NEXT week’s spelling list. Then, I can work ahead without ruining the letters that are in my current bag. 

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Phonemes & Graphemes: What are they and how can you teach them?

Image of Woman and Girl working on Writing ABCs on a piece of paper with the title "Phonemes & Graphemes: What are They and How can you Teach Them".

Phonemes and graphemes are two words that are used often, but what do they mean? Using what we know about the roots phone and graph, we can likely figure it out. However, I’d like to begin this blog post with a few definitions and some potential strengths and weaknesses.

A phoneme is the individual sound that we hear within a word. In English, there are 40-44 phonemes depending on the dialect. For many of our students, this is the easy part of spelling. They can hear a word and break it into individual sounds. However, for some of our students, hearing each part of the word feels nearly impossible and requires a lot of practice to understand how to do.

A grapheme is the written letter or letters that correspond with phonemes in a word. For some students, they have a strong ability to recall and memorize graphemes. However, there are other students who get lost in all of the 250 graphemes that make up the English language. It is a lot to remember and there are so many rules that can cause difficulty for them.

In my experience THIS is a larger problem for the majority of students on my caseload.

What Order Should You Use to Teach Phonemes & Graphemes?

I say WHO CARES! If you can make words with the letters that you have, great! Every school, curriculum, intervention, and kindergarten teacher has an opinion. Regardless of what you have, here are some things that I think you should keep in mind when selecting a program or deciding which order is best. 

Make Words

Students aren’t ready to begin making words as soon as they learn a handful of letters, however, it is never too early to begin showing them WHY we learn our letters and sounds. What is the purpose of all of those graphemes? The sooner you can begin teaching them that we use the phonemes to make words, the more they’ll be able to see the bigger picture. The order in which you teach the phonemes should allow you to make a handful of words after learning three to five letters. 

Consider Vowel Placement

As you look at the order of teaching graphemes, take a look at the order that vowel occur in the intervention. Have you ever tried to distinguish between a short e and a short i. I would not recommend that you teach those to two sounds on consecutive days. Space those babies out and allow your students to be familiar with one before throwing in a new vowel sound. 

Separate Visually Similar Letters

When introducing graphemes, be mindful of letters that look similar, such as b, d, p, and q. The last thing you want to do for your students is to teach these so close together that students confuse them. In reality, you’ll still have some kids who confuse them, but imagine the confusion you’d have if you taught them on back to back days. 

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Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: What do SPED teachers need to know?

Image of Little Girl with her Mom Working on her Alphabet with the text "Phonological and Phonemic Awareness: What do SPED Teachers Need to Know?"

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness are two critical literacy skills that a student must learn to become good readers. It is important as special education teachers that we know what each one of these skills are and how to use them to help our students become successful readers.

Phonemic Awareness is a narrow, specific term that refers to activities that ask students to isolate or produce a sound. For example, asking students to tell the beginning sound in BUG or the ending sound in BUG.

Phonological Awareness is a broad term that refers to activities that requires students to analyze the structure of a word. For example, giving students three words and asking which words rhyme? Which words have the same beginning sound? Ending sound? Phonological Awareness activities can also require students to say a rhyme or another word with the same beginning or ending sound.

My mind is mathematical. Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness remind me of the rectangle and the square in shape hierarchy. The picture above is for reference. If this offers more confusion than clarification, keep skimming! 😆

“Phonemic Awareness is more highly correlated to the process of learning to read than intelligence, reading readiness, or listening comprehension.”

Stanovich, 1988, 1993

Phonological Awareness develops gradually. The gradual development happens whether a student has a learning disabilities or not! We must meet them where they are and gradually grow those skills.

3 Steps to Spelling One Syllable Words

Step One: Phonological Awareness

The first step to spelling a word is to identify the sounds within a word. What phonemes do we hear? In the word BONES, what sounds do you hear? I like to have my students count the sounds.

Step Two: Orthographic Awareness

Now that we know what and how many sounds, it’s time to match these phonemes to graphemes. Remember, we have 250 graphemes, so this part can get difficult.

Taking each phoneme one at a time, we can do our best to help our students match the phonemes we hear to the graphemes we know.

Step Three: Morphological Awareness

During this step, we are looking at the “chunks” of words. In this example, the word bones is plural. Now, that we have BONE written, it’s time to add the S to make it plural. Common endings that I practice with my students regularly are S, ED, and ING.

In later years, students should also practice Greek and Latin Roots.

When practicing these three steps, choose words that align with the graphemes that they know. It’s great to spiral review throughout your practice of a new grapheme.

When writing independently, encourage inventive spelling. No one knows how to spell every single word. We have to use what we know. In first grade, do we know all eight long a sounds? No! But we might know a handful and can work with that.

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How to Teach Spelling: Strategies for Helping Your Students

Image of a Teacher Holding a piece of paper with the Letter A on it while working with a student. The text on image is "How to Teach Spelling: Strategies for Helping your Students".

How to teach spelling to students is a question that is on all the mind of teachers. Teaching spelling to students with disabilities can seriously be tricky. In fact, without explicit instruction in phonemes and graphemes, spelling is TOUGH! While reading the book Speech to Print, I was blown away by this quote.

“Linguist, speech-language teachers, actors, singers, and anthropologists are among those professionals who study the forms and functions of language. Curiously, teachers seldom do, even though the listening, speaking, reading, and writing proficiencies touted in our academic standards require language proficiency.” – Louisa Cook Moates

Why aren’t teachers taught more about teaching reading, spelling, and writing. Luckily, in this blog post series, I’ll share what I know to help your students master spelling!

Textbooks don’t have everything you need. But often times, that’s all we have available. While I don’t think textbook spelling is bad for all learners, I do think there are times when we need to find an alternative, especially for students with disabilities. In many cases, we need to find spelling lists that are more appropriate for our students.

When trying to decide what you should do with your students, consider the following questions.

Questions to Determine if Your Students Should Do Textbook Spelling

  1. Do you students do well with memorization
  2. What strengths and weaknesses caused the student to be identified for special education services?
  3. What decoding and encoding skills do they have?
  4. What is the best use of their time to help with their goals?
  5. Are the words developmentally appropriate?
  6. Do the words follow a particular sequence?

Researched Based Strategies for Helping Students with Spelling

Practice One Skill Unit Mastered

While this might SEEM like the most simple strategy, it is often skipped. We throw so much at our students, that they can’t keep up. They’re never mastering one skill before moving on to the next. We wouldn’t ask students to read words with vowel teams if they haven’t mastered reading CVC words.

While I think it is ok to expose them to grade level phonics instruction, I would spend more time practicing and explicitly teaching things within their level.

List of Spelling Rules

Allow students to create their own list of spelling rules. For me, I make cheat sheets for myself all the time. Why can’t our students do the same? Let them create their own reference.

Rapping the Rule

Just like the previous strategy, our students need things to reference later. Teach your students raps, songs, or rhymes to help them remember common spelling words. This will appeal to many of our learners and give them something to access as they attempt to recall a grapheme.

Use Sand or Salt for Practicing Graphemes

I love to appeal my kids’ multi-sensory side. By giving your students the chance to practice in sand or salt, your students can practice both phonemes and graphemes in a quick, easy, and multi-sensory way!

Find Words in a Text that Fit the Rule

Once students KNOW a rule, give them the chance to find the word in a passage. It’s important for them to be able to see the rule in real life.

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4 Things ALL Teachers Need to Know to Be a Great Reading Teacher

Image of a Woman Reading a Book to Three Girls with the text "4 Things All Teachers Need to Know to be Great Reading Teachers".

Being a great reading teacher is tough! It takes time, practice, and getting to know your students. But what do you need to know to be a great reading teacher as soon as possible? Here are four things that all teachers need to know to become great reading teachers as soon as possible!

Not Everyone Reads Alike

While some of your students might have similar needs and reading styles, none of their brains work in the exact same way. They all need different things to improve and grow. To be a great reading teacher, keep in mind that some students need reading strategies to be explicitly taught. Other students have already mastered these and now have reading SKILLS! ❤️

Find Activities That Work for Your Kids

It is important to find Pre-Reading, During Reading, and After Reading activities that will help you and your students practice reading strategies. Find activities that will support their growth in valuable reading strategies.

Teach “How” To Read Fiction & Non-Fiction

Whether you know it or not, readers approach fiction and non-fiction texts very differently. Your brain needs to know how to read each of these kinds of text. Sure, they may be able to read the words on the page, but what should their brain be thinking about?

We’re Clouding Our Goals

Graphic organizers, fancy terminology, and standardized testing are clouding our end goals that we have for students. These are all attempts at helping students understand what they’ve read.

But are we really helping them? Are we throwing so much at them that we confuse them? Overwhelm them? Turn them off? Can we just read to enjoy a text, learn new information, or to follow directions?

Try to remember what your end goal is–Helping your students understand what they’ve read. Now, how will you get there?

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