Seven Deadly Sins of Phonological Awareness Volume 2: Blends and Digraphs

phonological awareness activities for slps

Let me ask you a question. Are you smarter than a first grader?

If so, let’s see if you can answer some questions.

How many phonemes are in the following words?

  1. Chat
  2. Hat
  3. Tree


Here are your answers:

  1. Chat = 3
  2. Hat = 3
  3. Tree = 3

What do we notice here? They all have three phonemes, even though two of the words have four letters.

Now look again at these two words: Chat, Tree. Which word has a consonant blend, and which one has a digraph?

Answer: Chat has the digraph “ch”, and Tree has the consonant blend “tr”.

Let’s do a couple more questions.

How many sounds are in these words?

  1. Box
  2. Tacks
  3. Cakes


Here are your answers:

  1. Box = 4
  2. Tacks = 4
  3. Cakes = 4

Notice that the final sound in all three of these words is “s”, like the sound we associate with the letter “S” or sometimes the letter “C”.

Did you get the answers right? If so, good for you. You are like many SLPs who are proficient in segmenting phonemes in words with complex speech-to-print relationships. Unfortunately, this may not be the case for many individuals responsible for teaching phonological awareness skills.

Phonological Awareness: If you’re teaching it, you need to have it. 

Effective phonemic awareness instruction (a component of phonological awareness focused on speech sound units) relies on educators having knowledge of language and its structure (Moats & Lyon, 1996). Educators who understand these concepts tend to focus more on word-sound relationships during literacy instruction, which results in better student performance in reading and spelling.

Spencer, Schuele, Guillot, and Lee (2008) conducted a study to see if a group of Kindergarten teachers, first grade teachers, reading specialists, special education teachers, and speech-language pathologists demonstrated proficiency in several phonemic awareness tasks.

The results of the study may surprise you. 

Click Here to Get the Orthographic Awareness Worksheet

Spencer et al. asked the 541 participants in their study to complete paper and pencil tasks involving phoneme segmentation (counting phonemes in words), phoneme identification (identifying phonemes associated with letters or letter clusters in words), and phoneme isolation (isolating phonemes from the end of words).

The tasks required in this study did not involve advanced theoretical concepts. Rather, the researchers asked the participants to do  things we ask students to do as early as Kindergarten and first grade.

We commonly ask students things like, “What sound is at the end of cat?”, or we ask them to “chop” words into sounds (e.g., “chat” would be “ch…a…t.”). Educators would be able to do this, right?

Not necessarily.

As it turns out, none of the educators got all of the answers correct for any of the tasks, meaning everyone had room to improve. Segmenting phonemes in words with a complex letter-sound relationship was particularly challenging for the participants.

There was, however, a silver lining.  Speech language pathologists outperformed all the other educators on phonemic awareness tasks.  For example, a significant difference was present on the phoneme segmentation task.  The SLPs got higher scores for both “easy to segment” words (e.g., “cat” has three letters and three sounds), as well as for “hard to segment” words that had complex relationships (e.g., “think” has 5 letters but only 4 sounds).

Spencer et al. (2008) drew the conclusion based on these results that SLPs should be invited to collaborate on discussions related to curriculum and phonemic awareness instruction because of their background in language.

These findings highlight the fact that SLPs are extremely valuable, but here’s where it gets tricky.  I know for me personally, once I realized I had a role in planning and implementing literacy-based interventions, I didn’t know where to start.

I read literature that stated I should “be involved”…but how was I supposed to that translate in to practice? I sometimes felt like this….


That’s why I’ve identified the Seven Deadly Sins of Phonological Awareness.

As complex as phonological (and phonemic) awareness are, it can be helpful to keep it simple.  Knowing these “sins” can help you prioritize and know how to focus your collaboration sessions when other educators need your help.

Are they really deadly? Perhaps I’m being dramatic. But I will guarantee you that being a repeat offender of these habits may kill a good lesson.

I’ve already talked about the first sin in The Seven Deadly Sins of Phonological Awareness, where I discussed the confusion that ensues when you add a schwa in unnecessary places.

Let’s move on to the second and third sins.

Deadly Sin #2: Confusing blends and digraphs

Take a look at these words again from the question I asked at the beginning: chat, hat, tree. Notice that there is not always a 1:1 correspondence between letters and sounds.   Consonant digraphs are a perfect example. Digraphs consist of multiple letters that represent one phoneme (e.g., ch, th, sh, ck), while consonant blends are multiple adjacent consonant sounds. Blends may have a 1:1 correspondence between phonemes and letters (e.g., tr, st, br), but not always (e.g., thr, chr, x).

Many educators are overly reliant on orthographic knowledge when identifying sounds in words.  This may cause them to confuse digraphs and blends.  It’s important that we understand this distinction so we can help our students understand it as well.


Deadly Sin #3 Forgetting that X is a blend.

I’ve had a couple debates with my reading teacher friends about the “X” sound. Or more accurately, the “X” sounds.

We don’t always realize it, but “X” often represents a blend.

I’ve heard people say that X “goes with” “ks”, which is fine, as long as we make sure to acknowledge that there are two sounds there. There are other phonic rules, for example “X” can sometimes correspond with the “z”, but “ks” is more common.

This concept is critical for making sense of spelling and reading words with complex letter-sound relationships.

While students may not be developmentally ready to read and spell words with blends and digraphs until first grade, it’s important to provide them good models as early as possible. Make sure both you and your teacher friends are drawing attention to the sounds in words so you are laying the groundwork for later developing phonics skills.

Let’s go back to my first question. Are you smarter than a first grader?

Of course you are! And so are reading, special education, and general education teachers. The problem is we’ve become such proficient spellers and readers we’ve forgotten how we learned in the first place.

This means we need to go back to the basics.

I’ve got a worksheet and protocol you can use to do this.

If you want get a free worksheet to help you target phonological awareness and vocabulary at once, enter your email address below to join my newsletter and I’ll take you to a free worksheet.

I have to warn you to enter at your own risk. This is how the last person reacted:


Click Here to Get the Orthographic Awareness Worksheet


2 Responses to “Seven Deadly Sins of Phonological Awareness Volume 2: Blends and Digraphs

  • titilayo
    1 year ago

    i am enjoying your articles but I cant find the rest of the 7 deadly sins articles

    • Hi there! Thanks for the comment. I actually had a lot of demand for some other topics, so I ended up putting that series on hold. Is this something you would be interesting in seeing on the blog in the future?

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