focus on phonics: Blends vs. Digraphs

Strategies for teaching blends and digraphs

If you’re an elementary teacher reading this, then you probably know the importance of phonics in the early grades. I would venture to say that systematic phonics instruction is the most important thing primary and early elementary teachers can do to teach young children to read. But why is it so important? Just before children learn how to comprehend what they read, explicit phonics instruction teaches them how to decode letters into sounds. As young children develop print awareness, they are also making letter-sound connections. It is these connections that are what is better known as phonics. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at consonant blends and digraphs.

Consonant Blends

Before we dig in, let’s first talk about how blends differ from digraphs. Simply put, consonant blends are created from the combination of two consonants. Although the two letters are combined, you will hear both sounds for each.

Common consonant blends include: 

BL

• BR

• CL

• CR

• DR

• FR

• TR

• FL

• GL

• GR

• PL

• PR

• SL

• SM

• SP

• ST

Accordingly, the best practice when teaching new blends to students is to introduce them in groups. For example, many elementary teachers may introduce students to the R-Blends first. After spending a week or so teaching and practicing this phonics skill, introduce L-Blends. Subsequently, after your students have had time to master this group of blends, then introduce the S-Blends

Consonant Digraphs

Next, we have digraphs. Much like blends, digraphs also have two letters, however, you only will hear one sound. Now, it gets a little tricky for your little learners here, because it’s not one letter sound or the other. For digraph CH, you do not hear either the /C/ or the /H/ sound. With consonant digraphs, the one sound you hear is a unique, new sound for that letter combination. 

The most common consonant digraphs include: 

CH

SH

TH

CK

NG

NK

WH

• PH

I want to pause now and say that some people say that rules are made to be broken. Phonics rules are definitely no exception! Do you remember that I just told you that consonant digraphs make one new unique sound, and that you don’t just hear the sound for one letter or the other in a given combination? Let me introduce silent letter combinations. These combinations are actually less common digraphs, and they include:

KN

WR

GN

MB

A Few Other Things To Note About Blends and Digraphs

There are also groups of blends that contain three consonants. These are called trigraphs. Trigraphs can be introduced once students have learned the corresponding blends group. Examples of trigraphs are spl, scr, and tch. 

Visual representations are so important when teaching blends and digraphs to early learners, especially if you have struggling readers. It’s a great idea to include posters, or task cards with images.  This SUPER CUTE little shark chart came from Mrs. Brittany Yeary-Griffis on Pinterest. 

Digraph SH Anchor Chart

What Order Should I Teach Blends and Digraphs?

This is a common question/concern raised by teachers. What order should blends and digraphs be taught? While you should find the best method for YOUR students, it is recommended that blends come prior to digraphs. When learning about consonant blends, students are also learning to recognize patterns in words.  Check out my blog for other helpful teaching strategies. Learning these patterns first helps to lay the groundwork for digraph instruction. 

Teaching blends and digraphs.

Ideas for Teaching Blends and Digraphs

There are many ways to introduce phonics instruction, however, most students will best benefit from explicit, systematic instruction. This can be accomplished through small-group activities or even teacher-led, whole-group learning. Using a visual aid, such as a video is a great way to engage students and get them familiar with both blends and digraphs. 

As a first-grade teacher, my favorite way to hook kids into the lesson by far were videos produced by the Electric Company! Full episodes are available on PBS Learning Media, but you can find just the phonics videos on the Electric Company’s YouTube channel HERE. Most of these videos have music which is great for engaging students in learning. They have so much fun! This one below is a favorite of mine for teaching the r-blends tr and dr. 

For small group activities, I loved gathering my students around my kidney-shaped teacher table. I would get out markers, erasers, and marker boards for each student. We would meet together and practice consonant blends as well as new digraphs using word cards and decodable texts specifically centered around phonics skills. Namely, decodable texts are short paragraphs or books that are easy for students to decode based on their knowledge of sight words and whatever the phonics skill is that is being introduced, practiced, and/or reinforced. 

One of the students’ favorite games to play at the teacher table was Roll and Read! It was so easy for me to set up. All I had to do was print, laminate, and add dice. Boom! And students thought they were just playing a game! Although this was true, they were also building their word recognition and oral reading fluency skills with blends and digraphs. Don’t you just love when you can sneak so much F-U-N into learning?! 

While I love working one-on-one or in small groups with students during phonics instruction, it is also SOOO important that they become independent readers. With this in mind, I have created a digital resource phonics bundle for blends and digraphs. This bundle focuses on the phonics skills your students need to master to become successful, independent readers. Additionally, this resource is perfect for on-level first and second-grade students. It also works quite well as an extra intervention for below-level third-grade students. These Google Slides are designed to keep your kids engaged while practicing word work! 

The activities offer students the perfect opportunity to practice their skills in a fun, interactive way with letter tiles, word ladders, word puzzles, and many other activities. There truly are so many ways to get your students engaged in phonics instruction! This resource includes spelling, reading, and writing, all ready to assign in Google Classroom. 

How Do You Teach Blends and Digraphs?

In conclusion, regardless of how you decide to have your students practice consonant blends and digraphs, we can all agree that these are crucial skills for beginning readers to master on their path to reading fluency. I’d love to hear how you teach blends and digraphs to your students. Drop me a comment below so we can connect! You can also sign up for my emails to gain exclusive access to freebies I share with only my blog subscribers! I look forward to chatting with you more next week about Vowel Digraphs and Diphthongs.

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