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S e g m e n t i ng

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Segmenting sounds in words is the ability to separate the smallest units of sound or it could be syllables. Children who learn to read without good segmenting skills are at a greater risk of struggling to decode longer, more complex words later.

S e g m e n t i ng is the mother of all skills, states John Walker in his excellent blog of the same title in 2018, and I have to agree.

It has long been known that the ability to segment is not just about separating the sounds in our words. Juel, Connie et al. conducted a study back in 1986 and showed segmenting ability also correlates to reading comprehension, oral comprehension and fluency. Head on over to grab the free segmenting poster here.

The skill of segmenting needs explicit teaching

Sometimes when children segment words, they add extra sounds. This needs correcting, as it won’t help children to blend words. To read more about blending, go here.

The word nest has 4 sounds

/n/ /e/ /s/ /t/

There are no extra sounds tacked on the end. Sometimes we add an /uh/ to words when isolating sounds when segmenting.

/n/uh/ /e/ /s/ /t/uh/

has 2 extra sounds added to /n/ and /t/

the /uh/ sound hinders the ability to blend

Teach children to say the sounds precisely when segmenting, which will benefit those blending skills. Model how your mouth looks when you sound out words and have little mirrors on hand for children to see their mouths and chins move. These are both great ways to encourage precise pronunciation.

Word building is an effective strategy to build fluency.

Word building is one of the best activities to link learning when learning to read and learning to spell. If a child knows how to segment a written word, they have worked out which spellings go with which speech sound. This helps to know what to blend when reading and is the foundation of great spelling instruction. A movable alphabet is a wonderful scaffolding tool to help reluctant writers have a go. Go here to grab a Free basic code alphabet. The tiles create an anchor for students to link the spoken form with the spellings of the written word. As we systematically teach how letters represent our speech sounds, we unlock the alphabet code and encourage the reciprocal nature of letter-sound correspondences and sound-letter correspondence.

Reading and spelling are 2 sides of the same coin, as Linnea Ehri stated in her article in Topics in language disorders (2000). Effective instruction makes use of this vital link. This act forms sound-symbol connections in memory when students see and pronounce words.

Initially, instruction should start with groups of letters that build CVC words such as nap, sat, sit, and pan. Once proficient at this level, the words should become longer decodable words: tent, flag, frog, plant, twist, moving on to vowel and consonant sounds and spellings.

When teaching children to read and write, we should teach how the English alphabet code works.

Word building systematically establishes the link between sounds and letter sequences. Word building is an excellent activity that goes beyond the CVC stage. As there is an overlap in the alphabet code — most speech sounds can represent different graphemes — Word building not only helps segment longer, more complex words but helps identify which grapheme goes with each speech sound. Always get children to sound out words as they write or move alphabet tiles.

The word chain has 5 letters but 3 sounds. Encourage your students to say:

/ch/ /ai/ /n/


see aitch ay eye en

The letter names don’t help to glue the sounds and symbols together in memory. As adults, we spell like this, but it isn’t effective instruction for our students.

Elkonin boxes are a brilliant resource for all classrooms and homes.

One sound goes in one box. This helps children to see how individual sounds build our written words. I use these boxes with children who struggle to segment words. They are also a good visual for blending sounds together to create words.

A whiteboard with lines can also do the job, but I find the sound boxes engage my youngest students.

Click here to learn more about Elkonin boxes and grab a free copy of my watercolour version.

As Professor Stanislas Dehaene states in his excellent book, Reading in the Brain, “There is abundant proof that we automatically access speech sounds while we read.”

If you have a child struggling to segment words, pop over to an earlier blog post here about listening games.


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