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Spinning Blocks for the ESL Classroom: Blending, Segmenting, and the Sound of Thought



I consider myself a smart phone user, in the sense that I don’t use a smartphone. What with all the babble on addiction , sleep deprivation, and brain changes , I am afraid to. And the phone I do have I don’t use much. In fact the main reason I keep it around is the pleasing sound of finality it makes upon closing. When I hear that plastic on plastic snap it immediately brings me back to where I actually am, as opposed to my friends who are constantly tethered to a place where they actually aren’t.







I have something you don’t have.










Of my 3 favorite non-vocalized sounds each is at a different level of technology. The first, as described above, I’ll call a high-tech sound (but isn’t really high-tech). The second, described next, is a no-tech sound (but isn’t really a sound); and the last is decidedly low-tech.


I can hear my students think. No, I don’t have ESP (although I knew you were thinking that). If we think of sound as vibrations propagating through a medium impacting a sensory organ (a reasonable definition) and slip in “or lack thereof” after vibrations (dubious), then we get close to my meaning. Semanticians will say, “No, no, you’re watching them think.” but they’d be wrong. I feel it in my ears, not my eyes, just as you can hear the following (silent) clip in your ears.






click me








This lack of sound sound that I hear (?) when children’s brains are churning brings me great joy when I see (?) it in my classroom. Qualitatively different from the deafening silence of disengagement, the sound of thoughtful effort is even more satisfying than a quick correct answer which, while useful as a diagnostic, may simply reflect guessing, or that the question was too easy. It certainly doesn’t indicate any hard thinking was involved. And if you believe, as I do, that learning requires hard thinking, then you’ll understand why I ask young children difficult questions and give them lots of time to chew, and watch their faces scowl with effort. As I watch I imagine the gears turning inside their little heads and can almost see wisps of smoke escaping their little ears. And when the answer is wrong I often gain a valuable insight into how they are thinking; and when the answer is right their little scowls transform into beacons of joy; because they know it was a hard question and that they figured it out all by themselves. Of course, they don’t know it but that sustained effort is making them smarter; and when I see it I praise it and allow myself the indulgent fantasy that I am helping to create little Curies and Einsteins.


From banality to profundity we’ve finally reached low-tech practicality. I’ve recently discovered that I like the sound of wood on wood. While I’ve heard such sounds since birth I had never really noticed until I created a little device to facilitate the rapid acquisition of blending and segmenting skills.



Here it is.






I call it “Center-holed Lettered Blocks Threaded on a Dowel for Rapid Phonemic Awareness Acquisition”.



My wife calls it “AlphaSpinners”. 










We’re going to take poll to finalize the name (as a courtesy to my wife) but I think we all know who is going to win this argument.


(Editor’s update: After the laughter died down the focus group went with AlphaSpinners.)



Here’s what we do at my school.


From the very first lesson we focus on the sounds of English until the basic alphabetic code (the most common spelling of each of 40 phonemes) is mastered. They (aurally) learn vocabulary and sentence patterns and good pronunciation, and develop solid listening skills, but almost every word they come across in text form they will have already learned to decode. (Spelling comes before readingMcGuinness)


We start by learning the short vowel sounds, followed by the consonants in groups of 4. Once 4 sound-letter correspondences have been taught, a single block can be used for fast-paced practice. Once 8 are known, 2 and 3 blocks (VC, CVC blends) are used. Only phonetically legal combinations are allowed (tirb is OK but btir is not). When 3 blocks are used, 64 combinations can be quickly drilled, the majority of which are nonsense syllables. This allows the students to focus purely on sound-to-letter correspondences without thinking about the meaning of words. Sounds simple enough, but when combined with (nonsense syllable) dictation, 5-10 minutes of using this device every lesson is a remarkably efficient way to develop blending and segmenting skills.


Take a look at the following (4 minute) video to get a sense of the activities we do.





The blocks I use are:


a e i u

a e i o

b c d t

m n p s

qu j k g

v f h b

l r y w

le nk ng ck

ch sh c s

ar or ir ou

ea ai oy ow

ee oo oa ay 


By using these blocks, it is easy to isolate particularly troublesome phoneme pairs: r/l, o/u, m/n, b/v, sh/s, f/h, for concerted practice. In addition to what’s shown in the video, we also do speed spinning races (fastest reading of 10 CVC spins) and extensive CVC dictation (with the blocks out of sight but using the same combinations). 


The kids enjoy the activity, partly (I think) because it isolates and focuses on very specific skills, but also because they see how rapidly they improve week to week. The plan now is to somehow incorporate the activity as homework. I’m thinking of making sets for students to take home and putting some materials up on the website and getting the parents involved.


While watching the above video you may have noticed that Misa (age 7) was about 95% accurate reading the nonsense syllables and the book (Jelly and Bean series, 6b) and that her fluency and pronunciation were good. The r/l contrast is still giving her a little trouble so we’ll do some more work with blocks 7+1+3. When she was asked to segment she was 100% correct but occasionally hesitated on the vowels. It’s the sound of that hesitation that I love. In that brief moment of indecision I can hear her sounding out the letters in her head; I can hear her learning valuable skills; I can hear her embarking on a literary journey that will open up whole new worlds to her. 


And I can hear those wooden blocks smack against the table. Man I love that sound.



Dec 22, 2017





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