I have had many similar discussions with teachers over the years, as well as having worked with many children who struggled with vowel sounds. There is a very good reason that some children have difficulty with vowel sounds. When compared to consonants, vowels are abstract, impermanent. They do not track naturally to speech patterns and are heavily influenced by the letters around them.
The go to instruction when kids struggle with vowels is to double down on instruction of vowel sounds in the hopes the child will improve. This approach is typical of what is generally called a traditional or synthetic phonics approach. Traditional phonics is based on the flat-structure model of language utterances which views the spoken syllable as consisting of phonemes in sequence with no intermediate structures of importance (Cunningham, et al., 1999).
The vast majority of linguists today, however, view the spoken syllable as having a hierarchical structure (Cunningham, et al., 1999). That is that a spoken syllable is not just a string of sounds, but also can be broken down to an onset (an initial cluster of of sounds) and rime ( the vowel and the letters that follow). In linguistics the onset is the phonological unit that begins the word (like b in the word bat, or fl in the word flight) and the rime is the string of letters that follow, usually the vowel and following consonants (like -at in cat and -ight in flight). When a vowel sound is embedded in a rime that vowel sound gains a permanence across other words (rat, fat, splat) (right, sight, slight). This focus on onset and rime means that we do not have to teach abstract notions like r-controlled vowels or the schwa, but spend our time presenting these vowels in their word-based context (girl, bird, third or better, human, separate).
There is considerable research evidence that onset and rime approaches can be helpful to struggling readers. A number of studies by Treiman (1983, 1985, 1986) indicated that it is generally easier for children to segment spoken syllables into onset and rime than into individual letter sounds. Moustafa (1997) and Cunningham (2004) both recommend an onset and rime approach to decoding instruction. Gaskins (2005) found this approach to be particularly effective with children who are identified as learning disabled or dyslexic children. And Hines (2009) found that color-coding onsets and rimes for at risk first graders positively impacted decoding behavior.
Based on my understanding of a hierarchical structure model and the research on struggling readers, I recommended the teacher who was working with the struggling reader in the scenario above try an onset and rime approach. What does onset and rime instruction look like?
You can find many activities online for onset-rime instruction. A good onset-rime lesson has children combining a variety of onsets (consonants, consonant blends, and digraphs) with familiar rime patterns (-at, -ig, ack). A useful tool for student use can be found in this Read, Write, Think lesson. In my own instruction, I liked to place the onset-rime instruction in a real reading context and then follow the reading with a making words activity using word bins or index cards. As an example, here is a poem form my book Snack Attack and Other Poems for Developing Fluency in Beginning Readers.
My mind has slipped off teacher’s track,
Because it’s nearly time for our snack.
Mine is waiting in my backpack,
In the coatroom, high up on the rack.
I try to remain cool and laid back,
But I’m hungry as a lumberjack.
Just can’t wait to look inside my sack.
I’m hoping for cookies, perhaps a whole stack.
Teacher says, “Now it’s time for your snack.”
And I hear my lips give a quick, “Smack!”
Can’t wait to tear into a pack
Of Cheese Doodles or Crackerjack.
Now the coatroom is under attack,
But woe is me and alas and alack!
Guess whose mom has forgotten to packEven one raisin to eat for a snack.
After reading the poem aloud to students and practicing the poem chorally several times with the students to make sure the poem was familiar, I would follow up with some word work in word bins like this. Alternatively, onset and rime index cards can be constructed for the same purpose and used at the beginning of a guided reading lesson or as a literacy center in the room.
Over time and with more instruction, more rimes can be added to Box 2 to provide greater challenge and reinforcement for readers.
This work can also be reinforced when prompting children as they are reading by saying, "Do you see a chunk you know?' or "How does the word start?" or "Does this chunk look like a word you know?" These kinds of prompts may help students focus on chunks and may be more helpful than just saying "Sound it out."
As literacy teachers, we need to develop a repertoire of strategies that research has shown have promise when working with beginning and/or struggling readers. Onset-rime instruction is one strategy that has proven worthy of being in that repertoire.
Cunningham, J. W., Erickson, K.A., Spadorcia, S.A., Koppenhaver, D.A., Cunningham, P. M., Yoder, D. E., & McKenna, M. C. (1999). Assessing decoding from an onset- rime perspective. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10862969909548056
Cunningham, P.M. (2004). Phonics they use: Words for reading and writing. (5th ed.) Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Gaskins, I. W. (2005). Success with struggling readers: The Benchmark School approach. New York: Guilford.
Hines, S.J. (2009). The effectiveness of a color-coded, onset-rime decoding intervention with first-grade students at serious risk for reading disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. 24(1), 21-32. Retrieved from http://www.mrsjudyaraujo.com/wp-content/uploads/decoding-first-grade.pdf
Moustafa, M. (1997). Beyond traditional phonics: Research discoveries and reading instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Treiman, R. (1983). The structure of spoken syllables: Evidence from novel word games. Cognition, 15, 49-74. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rebecca_Treiman/publication/16508846_ The_structure_of_spoken_syllables_Evidence_from_novel_word_games/links/54c69c850cf22d626a34fe8f/The-structure-of-spoken-syllables-Evidence-from-novel-word-games.pdf
Treiman, R. (1985). Onsets and rimes as units of spoken syllables: Evidence from children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 39, 161-181. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rebecca_Treiman/publication/19171400_Onsets_and_Rimes_as_Units_of_Spoken_Syllables_Evidence_from_Children/links/548286040cf2f5dd63a89b3f/Onsets-and-Rimes-as-Units-of-Spoken-Syllables-Evidence-from-Children.pdf
Treiman, R. (1986). The division between onsets and rimes in English syllables. Journal of Memory and Language, 25, 476-491. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/223050922_The_division_between_onsets_and_rimes_in_English_syllables?el=1_x_8&enrichId=rgreq-d07a23a3-4e8d-484d-bd70-bc5c13dae8da&enrichSource=Y292ZXJQYWdlOzIzMjU2NDU1NDtBUzoxNzEyNDA4Nzg3ODA0MTZAMTQxNzgzODQxNTYxNg==