How to use visuals to teach vowel teams and consonant digraphs

In learning phonics, early readers learn which letter combinations represent which s0unds.

This can be quite tricky though, especially in English.  Early readers need all the help they can get, and one way to scaffold some of these phonics skills is to align the visuals with the skills.

What does that mean, exactly?  Let's take a look at one skill that we need in order to read vowel teams and consonant digraphs: chunking.

Chunking is when you take a word and decode it in chunks.  Let's take an easy one: "bet".  That is chunked into the letters "b", "e", and "t,", which make the sounds "buh", "eh", and "tuh".  

Let's look at a harder one: "boat".  Now, the reader needs to know that there are still just three sounds ("buh", Long O, and "tuh"), and that the letters "oa" come as a chunk.  They should NOT be read separately.  They are NOT the combination of two e's together (that would be short o and short a).  When two letters make one sound, it's called a digraph.   Vowel digraphs have a special, more kid-friendly name - vowel teams. 

There can also be consonant digraphs, like "ch".  You cannot break "ch" into separate parts "c" and "h" - that doesn't produce anything like the sound "ch".  When you read words with "ch" in them, like "chip", you need to read it as "ch", "ih", "puh". 

So how can we take the learning goal of chunking and make visuals that support it? 

Here are some easy tricks that I do for digraphs: 

1) make the digraph a single visual unit.  Do not split it up with color, space, or anything else. 

 See how your eyes think of "oa" as one unit?  The visual supports your learning goal of chunking! 

See how your eyes think of "oa" as one unit?  The visual supports your learning goal of chunking! 

Good: 

 

 Don't do this.

Don't do this.

 

 

Bad:  

 

2) Make the digraph a single physical unit.  It should move together.  It should not be possible to split up.  This will help them automatically view it as a unit, and treat it like one.  When they're writing it, they'll get practice forming the letters one after the other, but we want them to see it in their mind's eye as a unit.

 The vowel team OA moves as a unit!  

The vowel team OA moves as a unit!  

Good:

 

 

 The letters "o" and "a" separated like this should only before for Short O and Short A,  not  the vowel team OA.

The letters "o" and "a" separated like this should only before for Short O and Short A, not the vowel team OA.

Bad: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3) Don't make the visuals distracting with other themes and images.  If it's not connected to the learning goal, don't do it. (Unless it is SO MOTIVATING that it really keeps kids focused - but I find that there are many non-distracting ways to help learners stay engaged.)

 

 

(Not to mention that red is really tricky for color blindness. #todo - link to how to make color-blind friendly stuff. #todo - blog post on how ScribbleUp takes that into account.) 

 

 

Now we can extend this to consonant blends.  Consonant blends are consonant clusters that can be broken into their component sounds.  So, "cl" is a consonant blend, because it's two sounds - c, l, that are blended into one unit.  But they can broken up again, so "clip" is actually 4 sounds.  This is contrasted with "chip", which is 3 sounds.  

 

 

 

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Avoid things that separate out chunks:

 

For instance, I’ve seen stuff that makes the “o” in OA red, and the “a” blue.  That just encourages the reader to read them as separate!

 

Instead, we want the reader to see oa and automatically think of it as one sound chunk.  So - what can we do visually to make that happen?

 

Keep it in chunks!  Move it in chunks! Don’t let them get separated from each other.  That’s not a combination of O and A - that’s a new grapheme, OA, and it makes the long O sound.

 

 

 

Other blog posts: 

- don't make things too baby-ish.  These magnetic letter blocks are appropriate for specific age ranges, but can become embarrassing for older kids. 

- use lower case as much as possible.  

- what are my feelings on scrambles?  Negative, I think.  I like having word blocks that they use as objects, rather than weird words that they have to chunk into units, them unscramble to get to the word bank stage, THEN build the new word.  That first bit is a strange thing and isn't the learning goal. 
 

Sounds as touchable objects