Building words is important because students must understand the relationship between letters and oral sounds. As Dr. Nadine Gaab, newly-appointed Assistant Professor at Children's Hospital at Harvard Medical School, says, “Learning to read an alphabetic language requires mastering grapheme-phoneme correspondences (i.e., mapping the sounds of auditory language to the letters of the written language system)” (Gaab et al., 2007, p. 296).
As Dr. Gaab goes on to explain, before students can learn to read they must master the grapheme-phoneme relationship between alphabetic letters and the oral sounds those letters represent. In other words, students must be able to map or neurologically associate the sounds of auditory language with the letters of written words. This is what vowel clustering teaches through the concept of building words. Dr. Gaab and her research team have shown that preschool children, early elementary school readers, and even adults demonstrate positive improvement in reading skills after receiving training in letter-sound relationships. “Sound training,” Dr. Gaab says, is more than just saying that phonemes represent sounds. You must actually teach the relationship between the sounds and the letters. We automatically learn to speak a language just by listening to parents and those around us speak, but we do not automatically learn to read just by listening to oral sounds or by listening to someone read. A research team from the McGovern Institute for Brain Research summarized this concept by explaining that in order for students to learn to read, spoken oral sounds must be mapped onto the letters of the alphabet that are used to make the spoken words (Saygin, et al., 2013).
Understanding letter-sound relationships or mapping the oral sounds of spoken language to the corresponding printed letters that represent those sounds (Norton, Beach, & Gabrieli, 2015) is essential for students learning to read.
When I teach vowel clustering, I teach students to build words, such as with the sound at. Students start with: at, bat, cat…. Then they change to: an, can, fan…. Also used ap for cap, map, …. We begin teaching letter-sound relationships with simple one syllable words. The main rule for word building is that the vowel sound stays constant—does not change. For example, building words with the short a vowel sound would mean that you cannot insert such words as able, cake, car…. Yes, these words use the letter a, but they use different sounds for the letter a. Remember, there are seven sounds for the letter a and 22 different ways to make those sounds. In word building, you teach one sound at a time.
At-risk readers should be taught how to build words from a common letter sound so that they can understand the individual sounds that make up a word. When you teach students how to build words, use a vowel cluster.
What do I mean by a vowel cluster? A vowel cluster is all the sounds for a vowel. For example, as I’ve said before, the letter a uses seven different sounds and it makes these seven different sounds with 22 different letter combinations. Phonics describes these sounds as “irregular vowel sounds.” At-risk students become confused when you teach short vowel sounds (A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y), then long vowel sounds with silent E; then, later still, phonics comes back and teaches “irregular vowel sounds.”
With 63 to 64% of fourth grade students across the nation not even able to read at the fourth-grade level, we obviously have a problem with the method that we are using to teach students to read (see Nation’s Report Card). Whole language, phonics, and even balanced literacy (combining the two together) are not teaching children to read. Yet, these children can learn to read, even struggling students (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).
I’ll quote Dr. Shaywitz again (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003). Yes, I’ve quoted her many times before, but she says it better than anyone. Dr. Shaywitz’s explanation is so clear that there is no way we should not be able to understand. “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules” (p. 78). The question remains then, why are we still teaching whole language and phonics in the classroom?
Vowel clustering works and we have the data to prove it. Watch for my new book coming out this summer from Springer documenting eight years of research data showing how effective vowel clustering can be. Yes, we have had students move up four grade levels in reading in just one year.