Multisensory instruction: Instruction that engages more than one sense at a time to help students learn. A multisensory activity can include seeing, talking, hearing, moving, and touching.
Onset and rime: The onset is the initial consonant sound or sounds in a syllable that precede the vowel, such as /tr/ in trip, /sk/ in skirt, /b/ in boat, and /shr/ in shrunk. The rime is the part of a syllable that contains the vowel sound and all subsequent sounds in the syllable, such as /ip/ in trip, /irt/ in skirt, /oat/ in boat, and /unk/ in shrunk. Not all words have onsets (e.g. ice, oak, aim, eve, ooze).
Phoneme: The smallest individual sound in a language that changes meaning. For example, the word shock has three phonemes: /sh/, /o/, and /k/. Change the first phoneme from /sh/ to /l/ to get lock; change the middle phoneme from /ŏ/ (short o) to /ā/ (long a) to get shake; and change the last phoneme from /k/ to /p/ to get shop.
Phonemic awareness: The ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. An example of how beginning readers show they have phonemic awareness is combining or blending the separate spoken sounds of a word to say the whole word: /c/ /a/ /t/ = cat. Phonemic awareness is subset of phonological awareness.
Phonological awareness: The ability to recognize and manipulate parts of spoken words. The levels of phonological awareness, from simplest to most complex, are: syllables, onset–rime, and phonemes.
Related resources from Reading Rockets
In the classroom
- Syllable Games
- Onset/Rime Games
- Elkonin Boxes
- Phonemic Activities for the Preschool or Elementary Classroom
- Sounds and Symbols (video)
- First Rule of Reading: Keep Your Eyes on the Words
- The Development of Phonological Skills
- Why Phonological Awareness Is Important for Reading and Spelling
Reading 101 self-paced course
- How We Learn to Read: The Critical Role of Phonological Awareness (National Center on Improving Literacy)
- K-1 Activities: Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Fluency (Florida Center for Reading Research)
- Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do (AFT, Louisa Moats)
Keeping Your Eyes on the Text
Practicing to Mastery
About Linda Farrell
Linda Farrell is a founding partner at Readsters , an Alexandria, VA-based firm that helps schools implement research-based reading instruction. She is committed to effective early reading instruction to help struggling readers become strong readers, and to ensure that strong readers achieve their full potential.
Linda works in schools throughout the U.S. training and coaching teachers and modeling effective reading instruction. She also has designed curricula in Niger and Senegal for children to learn to read in their local languages.
Linda is a former English teacher and she was a National LETRS trainer for seven years. She has co-authored assessments and curricula for teaching reading, as well as several other published works. Linda can be reached at: [email protected]
Blending Sounds in Syllables with Autumn, Kindergartner
Linda Farrell: Autumn, I’m so glad you’re here for this lesson. We are going to work on syllables …
Autumn: And, and letter sounds.
Linda Farrell: … and some letter sounds.
Reading expert Linda Farrell has helped thousands of children across the country. Today she’ll be working one-on-one with Autumn, who is in kindergarten at Windy Hill Elementary School in Calvert County, Maryland.
Ms. Farrell will be helping Autumn with the pre-reading skills that have to do with sounds, what’s known as phonological awareness. Autumn needs to understand that most words are composed of individual sounds — like /c/, /a/, and /t/ — and then she needs to learn how to combine those sounds to form a word, like cat. Ms. Farrell starts by seeing if Autumn can blend two or three spoken syllables into words.
Linda Farrell: Autumn, I’m gonna give you two parts of a word, and you’re gonna tell me what the word is. Watch this: /tay/, /bul/. What’s the word?
Linda Farrell: You got it. Let’s try this one: /com/, /pu/, /ter/.
Linda Farrell: You’re so good I can’t even teach you that. You already know syllables.
Linda Farrell: Autumn was a master at that. She could do that beautifully. The next level is onset/rime. And that means … can you take the first part of the word, everything before the vowel sound and then take the vowel sound and everything after and put those together and make a word? So that would be /s/, /alt/. What’s the word?
Linda Farrell: Alright. Let’s talk about first sounds. This is a bat.
Autumn: /b/, /b/
Linda Farrell: /b/ is the first sound. This is a ball.
Autumn: /b/, /b/
Linda Farrell: This is hat.
Autumn: /h/, /h/
Linda Farrell: Okay, this is mouse.
Linda Farrell: House.
Autumn: /h/, /h/
Linda Farrell: Mop.
Ms. Farrell is making sure that Autumn can isolate the first sound in a word, what’s called the onset. If Autumn can do that consistently, then she’s ready to start blending onset and rime.
Linda Farrell: Cake.
Autumn: /k/, /k/
Linda Farrell: Alright. We are now gonna put together two parts of a word again. I’m gonna see if you can tell me what it is.
Linda Farrell: We just did syllables! We just did syllables! We’re gonna do something called onset/rime right now.
Linda Farrell: Watch this. This is /s/, /un/. What’s this?
Linda Farrell: What’s this?
Linda Farrell: What happens if I put it together?
Linda Farrell: /m/
Linda Farrell: /eik/
Linda Farrell: What is it when I put it together?
Linda Farrell: /eik/ is this part! Watch me. What’s this part?
Autumn: /m/, /eik/
Linda Farrell: This is /eik/. Can you say /m/, /eik/? You point to each one.
Autumn: /m/, /eik/. Ache!
Linda Farrell: This part’s /eik/. This part is /eik/. Watch this. /mmmmmmmm-eik/.
For a lot of children, blending onset and rime is much harder than blending syllables. And that makes sense, says Ms. Farrell.
Linda Farrell: Syllables are very easy to hear. You can feel syllables. They have acoustic clues for you: /com/, /pu/, /ter/. They break cleanly. When I go and I do /sh/, /irt/, I don’t really say /sh/, /irt/. I say shirt. It’s one acoustic clue. Some people’s brains just don’t get that automatically: Oh, I can break up a syllable into two parts? And we have to teach them. So the way we teach them is by taking the beginning, onset, and rime, and we ask them to blend it.
Linda Farrell: Okay. You do it! Go /mmmmmm/, /meik/.
Autumn: Okay. /mmmmm/, /meik/.
Linda Farrell: Okay. So what’s this part?
Linda Farrell: What’s this part?
Linda Farrell: What’s the word?
Linda Farrell: Okay. Let’s try this one. /sss/. Got it?
Linda Farrell: /ik/
Linda Farrell: Say /ik/.
Ms. Farrell uses blank pieces of felt to represent each of the sounds. The felt helps Autumn think about parts of words and how she can blend them together, as she’ll need to do once she’s reading.
Linda Farrell: Okay. Watch me. Let’s do this. /ssss/. Touch it.
Linda Farrell: /ik/
Linda Farrell: Now watch this: /sssssssssss-ik/.
Linda Farrell: Can you say … you’re saying sit. Say sick.
Linda Farrell: Okay. Now what’s the word? This is /s/, /ik/. Touch and say.
Autumn: /s/, /ik/. /si/, /b/?
Linda Farrell: What was the word?
Linda Farrell: Sit would be /s/, /it/. We’re gonna try this a different way. We’re gonna go like this.
Linda Farrell: Okay. Let’s try this. Go /siiiii/.
Linda Farrell: Now when we learn that children have trouble blending the first part of a word, onset, with the rest of the word … we took the small felt that was onset, it would be /s/, /ik/. The big felt was /ik/. I moved those around and I took the big part of the word and blended it with the small part of the word. So instead of /sik/, I tried to do /siiiii/, /k/. We’re giving the child a /siiiii/ … they can blend a continuant sound — a vowel is always continuant — into any consonant. It doesn’t matter what consonant it is. So /siiii/, /k/.
It’s all part of a process of helping Autumn understand that words are made up of component sounds.
Linda Farrell: Let’s do this one. Are you ready? Okay. This is /raaaaaa-t/. You do it.
Autumn: /raaaaaa-t/. Rat!
Linda Farrell: You got that one so fast! Tell me the parts again.
Autumn: /raaaaaa-t/. Rat!
Linda Farrell: Oh, my gosh. Should we try another one? Okay. /shaaaaa-p/.
Linda Farrell: Strawberry starts with an ‘s’ and shop starts with an ‘s.’ Let’s try this again. Okay. Here we go.
Linda Farrell: Autumn, as a pre-reader, is already exhibiting some signs of things we see in readers, and that is she’s a guesser. When she doesn’t know an answer, she’s very quick to just say something. What’s /s/, /ik/? Sit. And she just wants to get there real quickly. And sometimes we think, well, is she really guessing or is she, oh, my gosh, is she guessing or is she just really almost there? And then when she went, “Strawberry!” … that confirmed that she’s just saying the first thing that comes to her mind. And she’s tired. We’ve been working on the same skill for a while, and her guesses get less and less close to what the reality is. With many children you’ll see guessing happening. And we have to first break the guessing habit, and that’s another thing that our routine would say. If you aren’t sure of the answer, say, “I need help.” Because we want children to be confident of their answers, and if they’re not, to ask us for help.
Linda Farrell: You got it. Let’s try this one. Okay. Got another one. You ready? /maaaaaa-p/. Wait a minute. /maaaaaa-p/. You touch each one and tell me the sounds.
Autumn: /maaaaaam/, /p/. Mom!
Linda Farrell: Get that /p/ at the end. Can you say /p/ at the end?
Linda Farrell: Now go /maaaaa/, /p/.
Autumn: Okay. /maaaaa/, /p/. Mom! /p/
Linda Farrell: What’s the word?
Linda Farrell: And I’m gonna ask you something. If I show you a picture right here, can you find that? Yes! It’s right there. Say the word.
Linda Farrell: It is. Show me the parts in mop.
Linda Farrell: This is /maaaa/.
Autumn: /maaaaaa/, /p/.
Linda Farrell: Autumn was obviously still learning this. Sometimes she could to do it, and sometimes she can’t. We want to make sure that Autumn has mastered all the pre-reading skills before we ever ask her to read, before we ask her to blend letter sounds … /s/, /i/, /t/ into “sit.”
Linda Farrell: If I’d had more time with her, I would have done about five words with her: “This is /mooo-n/. Do what I do.” … and try to get her brain just to feel what it feels like. What I do know is that Autumn will master onset rhyme. When she has that, because she will know beginning sounds and ending sounds and she understands that you can break a syllable apart, blending phonemes will not be difficult for her at all.
The key, says Ms. Farrell, is to give children the time they need to fully master each skill. That includes having the teacher model the skill and having students repeat what the teacher says. That reinforcement allows students a chance to gradually master a concept that initially might be hard.
Linda Farrell: In working with students like Autumn who are so good at one level with a skill and then at the next skill level need a lot of practice, it’s important to remember that we’re working incrementally, we don’t go from what they know to what they don’t know to what they don’t know, to what they don’t know, to what they don’t know. We’re always trying to stay in teaching on the verge between what they do know and what they don’t know. We want to keep their brains open to learning, which means I can learn, which is why I would go back to syllables, maybe start every lesson with blending a few syllables, just making them harder, more than two syllables. Maybe three and four. She’s really good at those. And then move to something that’s easy for her in onset/rime and then get a little more difficult. So it’s incremental. Autumn will be a reader.
Linda Farrell: Okay? We’re gonna try one more. Are you ready to try one more? Let’s do this. Okay. /s/.
Linda Farrell: /op/
Autumn: /op/. Soap!
Linda Farrell: That was so fast. It’s time for our lesson to end, so let’s go back to class, okay?
Linda Farrell: Thank you.
We’d like to thank the wonderful students and families at Windy Hill Elementary School in Calvert County, Maryland. We hope that sharing these experiences will help other children who are learning to read.
Special thanks also to Kelly Cleland, Julie Donovan, Joanne Harbaugh, and their outstanding colleagues at Windy Hill Elementary … and to Leanne Meisinger at Calvert County Public Schools.
We are deeply grateful to Linda Farrell, Michael Hunter, and Nicole Lubar of Readsters for their invaluable contributions to this project.
Produced by Noel Gunther
Edited by Christian Lindstrom
Graphic Design: Tina Chovanec
Camera: Richard Chisolm
Audio: Dwayne Dell
For more information about teaching reading, please visit
Reading Rockets is a service of WETA, Washington, D.C.
© 2019, WETA, Washington, D.C.
Extra tips from the session with Autumn
1. Help Kids Learn to Keep Their Eyes on the Text
Linda Farrell: In working with Autumn, even though she’s not a reader, she’s already developing a habit that we see in many older readers that we work with. And that is … she looks up and around and every place except at what she’s doing at the task. And the task when we have felts — if we’re going /m/, /eik/, make — is to look at the felts. It focuses her attention on the task at hand, which is very important. It should be a part of a routine. When you look down at whatever manipulative you’re using for pre-readers, whether it’s felts or cubes or whether you’re looking at letters and singing the alphabet song, you need to be looking at the manipulative, because later when a student reads, it is critical, necessary. I cannot tell you how important it is that we look at the words when we read them. We can’t read them without looking at them. And if the children don’t have the habit of looking at the word, they will be struggling readers. That’s just a given, because you can’t read, the best reader in the world can’t read if they don’t look at the words. And it’s one of the habits that we see so often. Now Autumn, let’s just start her right now and have her part of her routines be when you have manipulatives, which will eventually turn into letters, you’re going to look at what you’re doing. That’s just part of what we want her to have as just her automatic behavior.
2. Practicing to Mastery
Linda FarrellWhen syllables are easy and onset/rime, blending onset/rime is not easy, what we need to do is make sure that we give enough practice so that that skill is practiced to mastery and we don’t move on, we don’t move away from practicing onset/rime until we’re confident that that’s mastery. Once Autumn is good and competent at onset/rime, we’ll start with blending phonemes. Then we’ll go back to onset/rime, will be our area where we’re comfortable, but we’re going to keep practicing that so that she has absolute mastery with onset/rime before we leave it behind. We will have left syllables behind by then. Those are just so automatic to her, she doesn’t need them anymore.