By Stephanie Smith
Onset and Rime are technical terms used to describe phonological units of a spoken syllable. A syllable can normally be divided into two parts: the onset, which consists of the initial consonant or consonant blend, and the rime which consists of the vowel and any final consonants. So in the word "strap", "str" is the onset and "ap" is the rime. Words which share the same rime will also rhyme, but the spelling will be constant and not vary as it does with rhyme.
Most children will be aware of onset and rime before they begin school and certainly before they learn to read. This is clear by the interest they show in nursery rhymes and in their ability to create their own verses/chants using rhyme and alliteration. It would seem that young children can group words on the basis of sound.
The significance of an awareness of onset and rime in learning to read and later in learning to spell has been well documented by Goswami (1986, 1988); and studies by Bryant and Bradley (1983, 1985) support the idea that teaching children to attend to onset and rime will have a positive affect on their literacy skills.
Research shows that many dyslexic children learn to spell by analogy and that to begin with, the most frequent analogies are based on spelling patterns that reflect rime. The analogies are made about words which share the same sound. If a child can read "bake" they can use this knowledge to decode and read "cake" and "lake" because they use the same rime. Being able to divide a syllable into its constituent onset and rime and to group words that end in the same sound is an important aspect of phonological awareness. It has been shown by Wise, Olson and Treimain (1990) that children are more successful at decoding words divided on the onset-rime border than any other division. So "str...and" is easier to link and decode than "stra...nd"
Children who have difficulty learning to read and spell often have poor phonological awareness and do not naturally use analogy. These are skills which must be taught. Teaching children the concept that words which share common sounds often share spellings is a powerful tool to help them on their way to literacy.
Whichever approach is taken to teach reading and spelling through onset and rime, multisensory structured methods must be used. These should include large amounts of kinaesthetic reinforcement so that sound>symbol>written>symbol>motor pattern is well established. The same target rimes will normally have to be taught and revised several times, so the more varied the programme the better! Short lessons every day will be more valuable than one long lesson once a week.
For those beginning - or failing - to acquire literacy, it may be advisable to use an existing resource as the structure or scaffold on which to build the programme. Alternatively it is possible to work diagnostically from the child's own work and pick out those patterns which have not been learnt. The rimes can vary, from basic, as in "at", to sophisticated, as in "ight", and can incorporate simple spelling rules such as magic-e, or when to use "dge".
In the lessons, try to use technical language so the pupils become familiar with, and know the meaning of, terms such as syllable, short/long vowel, consonant, onset and rime, etc. Make sure that the single letter sounds are known, and when rimes are first introduced spend time exploring the sound they make. Is the sound made in the front of the mouth or the back? With the lips or with the teeth? Feel the difference between ACK and ANK, etc. For children with phonological difficulties, differentiating between vowel sounds often presents problems and training may be needed.
Stephanie Smith is the author (as Stephanie Dart) of the RIME READ books.