There is a lot of confusion on the Internet. Some ideas are good, and have been tested and proven to work. Some ideas have not been tested and do not work; they will only cause struggling students more problems. Let’s look at some of the bad ideas first. Then, we will look at vowel clustering and show the right way to teach vowel sounds.
Bad Methods. Do Not Use.
· Hand motions or signals—No, I did not make this up. Hand signals do not work. It is much better to simply teach the student to break words down into letter sounds. Teach students to work with letter sounds—not hand motions or signals.
· A PowerPoint with sounds and action buttons—Computers and tech are all the rage, but research shows that computerized learning is less effective than working with students in person. What happens if a student becomes confused or has a problem? Unless your program is able to teach or understand the student’s problem, the student becomes confused and frustrated.
· Naturally, worksheets and even digital games are listed—Again, it depends on the game or worksheet. Worksheets have never proven to be effective teaching tools; they are only for practice once the lesson has been learned. Worksheets do not teach students who are confused and do not understand a concept.
· Teaching the most frequently used vowel sounds first, then adding on the other irregular sounds later. This is an old-style phonics practice that has been proven over and over to be confusing; it is ineffective for struggling students.
· Word lists with all of the vowel sounds mixed together on one list. Never. Teach vowel sounds one at a time. Do not try to teach a sound for each of the vowels all at the same time. In other words, do not teach the short vowel sound for all 5 vowels at the same time. Yes, you may get away with this approach for short vowel sounds, but what happens when you try to teach long vowel sounds? Letter a alone has 7 letter combinations for the long a sound, plus a sound when it stands alone. If you try to teach all of these long vowel sounds for letter a at the same time that you are teaching all of the long vowel sounds for e, i, o, u, then you have a group of completely, totally confused students.
· Picture cues for each sound. What happens when stories do not have picture cues? If you have not taught your students to work with the letters and sounds instead of relying on pictures, they are lost and confused.
· First letter in a word—This is a faulty concept often used in whole language: ten, to, take, time…. The problem is that the brain does not sort, organize, or conceptualize new words by the first letter. To build vowel cluster pathways in the brain, you must teach vowels in clusters.
· Songs—Fun but not always useful for decoding and encoding letter sounds. Students must learn how to break words down into letter sounds and then put those sounds back together and pronounce or read the word. We do not have a song that teaches decoding and encoding.
· Tongue twisters—Again fun, but how do you teach vowel sounds with tongue twisters? There are 7 different letter combinations just for the long a vowel sound. How can you teach these combinations with a tongue twister? We need to stop looking for cutesy ideas and look for actual ideas which will help students learn to read.
· Mixing vowel clusters—Be careful: some methods introduce ir, us, aw, ue, ay, ou, ie, ea, oy together in the same lesson. Yes, these are vowel clusters, but they do not fit together. You cannot just pull out a list of random vowel sounds and say that you are teaching vowel clusters. Vowel clustering organizes vowel sounds in visual and auditory patterns to make it easier for students to learn.
The Right Method
Many teaching methods talk about vowel clusters, but it is the way you teach vowel clusters that makes the difference. Vowel clustering teaches the vowel sounds in sound clusters for each vowel—one sound at a time. For example, all of the letter a sounds must be taught before going on to the next vowel. This allows students to develop a complete understanding for letter a before adding the next vowel sound.