What is segmenting?

Segmenting means to break  apart a word to its individual phonemes (sounds). For example, we can segment the word map to three phonemes  /m/ /a/ /p/ and the word tiger to four phonemes /t/ /i/ /g/ /er/. Being able to segment words into phonemes is a crucial phonemic awareness skill that will allow your child to learn to spell. Segmenting is not automatic. It needs to be explicitly taught so that your child can learn how to listen to sounds in words so that they can segment words into phonemes.

Tips for helping your child segment words so they can spell.

  1. Model. 

This will always be the first step to teaching your child any new skill. You want to model for your child what it looks like to slow down the sounds. Pronounce the word slowly, stretching out each sound, think of it as speaking like a robot. Once you’ve stretched out the word, count the number of sounds you hear and write down the letter that corresponds to each sound. 

  1. Use visual and tactile support.

Providing some sort of visual and/or tactile support can be helpful in your child being able to segment. Some tools I’ve used in the past:

  • Slinkies: we pull them apart as we say the word slowly listening for each sound. 
  • Pop its: used for popping each sound in the word. 
  • Play-dough: push down on the playdough for each sound heard. 
  •  Elkonin boxes or sound boxes are also helpful. You can add a chip in the box for each sound you hear and then move the chip to spell the word.
  1. Segment the word into syllables.

For longer words, break apart the word into syllables, also referred to as the beat in a word. There are two syllables in the word tiger ( ti/ger) , three syllables in the word basketball (bas/ket/ball) and four syllables in the word motorcycle ( mo/tor/cy/cle). Break the word apart into syllables and focus on spelling one syllable at a time. 

  1. Practice makes progress.

This should go without saying, but practice, practice practice. Your child will need lots of opportunities to practice segmenting words into phonemes. This is something that can also be done orally. Say a word, segment the word by holding up a finger for each sound or adding an object for each sound and together counting the number of sounds in the word.  Practicing segmenting orally will help when it comes to your child transferring it to their writing skills.

Inventive spelling

 As your child is working on this skill and becoming an emergent writer, one thing that will inevitably happen is that they won’t always be able to get the accurate spelling of some words. As children segment words they tend to write exactly what they hear, this is called invented spelling. For example a child will segment the word was and write it as w-u-z because when they make the sounds they hear /w/ /u/ /z/, or  write the word rainbow as r-n-b-o, love as l-u-v etc..  This is completely normal and a necessary stage to develop writing proficiency. It gives us insight on their level of understanding about word patterns and sound awareness. Invented spelling decreases as children are introduced to more sounds, word patterns and  learn more spelling rules. A child may spell cat , k-a-t until they learn that when they hear the /c/ sound they should use c if the second sound is a, o or u  (cat, cob, cut) and they should use k before i or e (kite, kettle). As their knowledge and awareness of these rules and patterns grow, so will their spelling.