Onset/Rime Makes It Easy

How many ways are there to teach phonics? Educators have been studying and arguing about this issue for hundreds of years! In many schools, kindergarten teachers are required to have their young children practice blending and segmenting, breaking words into separate phonemes, a task that is difficult for many students. This practice is based on the dual assumption that phonemic awareness must precede further reading instruction and that blending and segmenting phonemes is necessary in developing phonemic awareness.

However, even some adults who are fluent readers have trouble segmenting words by their individual phonemes and hearing each one as a separate unit. To ask a five-year-old child to respond to the word stand by attempting to pronounce each phoneme separately is to take the most isolated, least accessible approach to the introduction of the sounds of letters within words. Phonemic awareness can easily be developed through daily exposure to nursery rhymes, alphabet books, rhyming songs, and any book, poem, or song that makes words sound fun. After teaching young children for many years as a reading specialist and as a resource specialist, I have seen thousands of children successfully learn to read without having to segment phonemes in their kindergarten classrooms. The children who are not as ready to begin focusing on print in kindergarten are the ones most likely to suffer from endless drill in segmenting and blending phonemes.

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. The following words are divided into separate phonemes:

c/a/t d/o/g s/m/i/l s/t/a/n/d

The following words are separated between onset and rime:

c at d og sm ile st and

Rather than isolated practice of skills that are written into tests, these youngsters need plenty of authentic literacy experiences, lots of shared reading and writing, and time spent listening to stories read aloud by the teacher or another proficient reader. When young students are introduced to letters and their sounds, it is always best to help them focus on word parts that are easily recognized, and only after exposing them to stories and poems and lists and all manner of exciting, meaningful print. When it’s time to look closely at a single word, breaking the word into separate parts based on onset/rime makes sense in the human brain. If I go into a kindergarten or first-grade classroom and play a word game with the class, it might go like this:


I say “cat”, you say “at.” . . . I say “dog,” you say ______ .

(Students will right away respond with “og.”)

• If I say smile, they will respond with “ile.”
• If I say stand, they will respond with “and.”
• If I say lake, they will respond with “ake.”

Our brains love patterns and want chunks or parcels of letters that we can grab onto and use to make analogies. Between an onset and a rime is an intuitive place to divide words, much easier than dividing words into all of their separate phonemes. In addition, our brain functions as a pattern detector, and we find it much easier to detect patterns than to apply rules (Goswami & Bryant, 1990; Moustafa, 1997).

Teachers like myself who have been teaching in elementary schools for decades have seen phonics techniques and approaches come and go. Some teachers try to keep phonics instruction in the context of meaningful and relevant material. Others teach letter-sound correspondence in a systematic sequence, isolated from connected text. And yet we always seem to have a few students at each grade level who fall far behind in the area of decoding. Because many teachers understand that every child is unique and develops at his or her own pace, struggling readers in their classrooms are no longer referred to as “the low group.” They are “emerging readers” or “developing readers,” and are given support in their area of need, often in one-on-one conferences or small guided reading groups or in intervention groups within or outside of the classroom if they need an extra boost. When students fall far enough behind their peers, they might work intensively with a reading specialist or are qualified for more-intensive support through special education services. Although these interventions almost always recognize the importance of rimes (in the past referred to as phonograms or word families), there is often a focus on the same isolated phonemic awareness and phonics instruction that did not work for the students in their regular classrooms.

Rime Magic bases instruction on what we have learned from onset/rime research, with an added twist. We begin by teaching rimes, but there is an important difference. Instead of asking students to spend time practicing blending the letters of words such as mat, sat, cat, and flat, we teach students to recognize the rimes inside two- or three-syllable words. Even high-school students are interested in participating when they quickly find themselves recognizing the ip in slippery or the at in scattering, and even the on in responsibility!

To find out more about Rime Magic, take a look at Sharon Zinke’s essential resource: The Decoding Solution: Rime Magic & Fast Success for Struggling Readers!