My first-grader is bringing home worksheets on consonant blends. She doesn't have any trouble with blends like bl, sk, and tr, but she can't seem to remember the sounds that ch and sh stand for. I can't help her because I don't understand myself how c and h make the sound in church and chip. Can you help me help her?

The first thing you can do is tell your daughter that c and h don't combine to make the sound she hears in chip. That's because ch is not a consonant blend.

A consonant blend, also called a consonant cluster, is a group of two or more letters that appear together without any intervening vowels. The letters in the "blend" represent their individual sounds, i.e., the s in sl has the sound of /s/ and the l has the sound of /l/. All the reader has to do is slide them together.

Consonant digraphs are a different matter. Ch is a consonant digraph. It belongs to a group of symbols that stand for English consonant sounds that are not represented in the 26-letter alphabet. These symbols belong to what I call "the rest of the alphabet" — letter combinations that represent English speech sounds that do not have corresponding single letters in the alphabet.

Ideally, these "extra" sounds would have unique symbols to represent them in writing.

Spelling History

English spelling got messed up nearly 1,000 years ago when the Normans invaded England and started tinkering with the almost perfect spelling system of their English-speaking subjects. Along the way, the Norman scribes threw out unique spelling symbols for English speech sounds, replacing them with letter combinations like th. As a result, modern English has to do its best with 26 letters to represent 40+ speech sounds needed to speak the language.

The consonant digraphs are wh, th, sh, ch, ng, and si. Beware of online resources that lump them with the consonant blends.

In my view, teaching consonant blends/clusters is unnecessary. The beginning reader has enough to do without having to learn what can only be regarded as additional spelling symbols. The child who has mastered the consonant sounds of p, l, n and the short vowel sound of a can be expected to work out the word plan without going through the process of learning pl as something special.

It's unfortunate that most elementary school teachers have only the slightest notion of the English sound code. The reason for this is that most university departments of education are wedded to the "whole language" method of reading instruction, an approach that attaches little importance to the connection between speech sounds and the symbols used to write them. Teachers indoctrinated in this approach tend to believe that "a little phonics goes a long way."

Helping Children Become Fluent Readers

For children who have spent their first five years being read to and talked to at home, this may be true. For most children, however, the surest path to reading fluency is via systematic phonics.

The best way for you to help your child become a fluent reader and accurate speller is to teach yourself the English sound/symbol system so that you can supplement whatever instruction she is receiving at school.

You will find an explanation of the "46 Letters of the Alphabet" at my site. This guide is based on a book written for elementary school teachers: The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Spalding.

 

Literacy Pro, Maeve Maddox

Maeve Maddox is an academic generalist who has taught language and literature at every level from pre-school to university, in the United States and abroad. Now a freelance writer, she focuses on topics of cultural literacy, including beginning reading instruction and universal knowledge.

Her academic articles have been published in Education Today,The Christian Science Monitor, Translation Today, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and a recent textbook about the Middle Ages. Her children's fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children and Jack and Jill Magazine.

Several hundred of Maeve's still-timely articles on language are archived at Daily Writing Tips where she was editor and chief contributor from its inception in 2007 until 2011. She is the School Reform Editor at the women's magazineBellaOnline.com. She offers tips on reading instruction and cultural literacy at AmericanEnglishDoctor.com, and discusses English usage in the media atBottomlineEnglish.com. Her most recent books available at Amazon.com include So You Want to Write! (50 essays on the writing craft), A Joan for All Seasons (film guide to six movies about Joan of Arc), and 100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid (brief style guide to common writing errors).

Maeve holds bachelor's degrees in English from Oklahoma City University and the University of London (England). She holds the M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).