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Sticky Units of Sound: NG

Sticky Units of Sound: NG

When I was growing up, we used to have competitions for nearly everything: highest jump, fastest sprint, and even, the longest to hold their breath underwater. So, it’s no surprise that on the occasion we had that delicious, sticky bubble gum, we also would compete to see who could blow the biggest bubble. Well, let me tell you, nothing ruins the fun of a good bubble-blowing competition more than getting your giant, award-winning bubble stuck to your hair. At one point, I was banned from chewing bubble gum, as I had managed to get my hair impossibly stuck one-too-many times.

Photo by Marlene Bauer on Unsplash

I tell you this story, not only to serve as a fair warning for those looking to engage in a bubble-blowing battle, but I also want to take this opportunity to segway into today’s topic: “sticky units of sound.” You see, just like hair to bubble gum, sounds can also stick together, making them a bit challenging to read and spell. That’s where today’s topic comes in. My intention today is to give you the tools and the knowledge to teach these sounds to your students so that they don’t find themselves in a sticky situation. This will be the first in a series of four blogs related to sticky units of sound, so let’s dive in!

Before You Begin

Before teaching these concepts to your student, make sure they can…

  • Understand what a syllable is and how to distinguish between single-syllable and multi-syllable words
  • Understand the differences between long vowels, short vowels, and consonants.
  • Know how to divide multi-syllable words into individual syllables. For strategies on multisensory spelling, check out our video here. For strategies on multisensory reading, check out our video here. Our syllable division rules guide can be downloaded here.
  • Know how to read and spell most closed-syllable words
  • Understand what an open syllable is and its corresponding vowel sounds

Overview: What is a Unit of Sound?

Just as bubble gum sticks to hair, units are often composed of three letters that “stick” together to make a strange sound. Why strange? Well, at first sight, a unit looks like a typical closed syllable, meaning the vowel appears to be closed off by a consonant. However, in a closed syllable, the vowel will always make its short sound. In a unit, the vowel may not follow that pattern or any specific pattern for that matter! Therefore, units cannot be sounded out, and they can be pretty tricky if not explicitly taught. The letters in a unit are “sticky” because they can’t be broken apart into individual letter sounds.

Units are very common within the English language. In fact, they are so common, that when a word contains a unit, we describe that word as having a Unit Syllable. Often, we mark those syllables by placing a box around the unit letters. I will show you how this looks later in the blog.

Speaking of syllables, when you’re teaching your students about vowel sounds, it’s also crucial to teach them how to classify syllables in order to build strong phonemic awareness skills. Therefore, we’ve created a fun, FREE resource to help teach syllable types. This resource includes visuals and descriptors of all 7 types of syllables including unit syllables. Included in this resource is the clever illustration of unit syllables above! Check it out on our website at this link.

Sticking to the Subject

There are so many units in our language that it’s easiest to put them into groups or as I like to call them, unit ‘families.’ When we group large lists of items together, it makes them easier to remember. The first four units we cover today is the -NG family. As you’ve probably guessed, each unit in this family ends with -NG.





When I teach units, I begin by showing my student the list of units shown above. Then, I like to ask my student if they recognize any of the units. In this set, students often recognize -ING, as this unit is quite common in high-frequency words. After looking at the units in isolation, I place a letter in front of each unit to create a real, recognizable word and read each word out loud, asking my student to repeat after me. Ideally, I keep the letter the same in front of each unit. It looks something like this:





Next, say each unit out loud in isolation, and ask your student to repeat each isolated unit sound after you. At this point, you may want to introduce a larger set of words that contain these units. Have your student place a box around the unit in each word like this:

Each unit is considered just one sound, so be sure to emphasize this to your student as you read and spell these words. Additionally, guide your student to recognize that units appear at the end of each word (or syllable) and never at the beginning.

The final step is to ask your student to create a “keyword” for each unit. A “keyword” serves as a memory trigger for the targeted sound. Ideally, your student will create a visual to correspond with their keywords. What’s really cool is that our second set of Silver Moon Spelling Rules includes Doodle-a-Rule Cards for students to write and doodle a picture of their unit sound keywords. These handy cards can also work as flashcards to review unit sounds. Click the link above to find out more information on how to purchase Silver Moon Spelling Rules, Set 2.

Multisensory Strategies: Spelling Words with Units

We know that our students learn best when they can involve as many senses as possible. Although reading and spelling naturally involve the senses of sight and hearing, there is a way to also involve the tactile, or touch, sense. When students are spelling, we encourage them to split their words into individual sounds to ensure that every letter and sound is accounted for. Here’s how I have students do that:

  1. Say the word out loud.
  2. Say the word slowly. Note: make sure that your student keeps the unit as one sound (“ong” vs “o-n-g”).
  3. Tap each sound on your fingers while you say the sounds out loud. Tap one sound per finger, beginning from the left and moving to the right. The unit should only be tapped on one finger, as it counts as just one sound. Note: students should tap the sounds using their non-writing hand, leaving their writing hand available for the next step. Lefties will tap beginning with the thumb of their right hand, and righties will tap beginning with the small finger of their left hand.
  4. Write out the letters that correspond with each sound. Note: as students get used to using this multisensory spelling strategy, they may choose to do this step simultaneously with step 3. 
  5. Check your work by touching under each letter you wrote as you say its sound. Blending them all together as one word. For a video demonstrating this strategy, please check out this link

“Stuck” on Reading Units?

Just when you think your student has mastered units, you may find that they still have difficulty transitioning from reading them in isolation to reading them within words. If this happens, I have a strategy to get them unstuck. Ask your student to locate and place a box around the unit first. Next, ask them to read just the unit out loud while checking their keyword to make sure they’ve said the unit correctly. Finally, once they have the correct unit sound in mind, they can read the entire word, tapping under each letter as they go. Using this trick may greatly increase accuracy as your students are learning units for the first time.

For a video demonstrating the touch-and-say reading strategy, please follow this link!

More Important Tips to Consider

  • Practice, practice, practice! The key to building automatic recognition of units is to use repetition. Practice reading and spelling words with these units. Also practice reading and spelling these units in isolation.
  • Provide your student with a resource that has a keyword for each unit. Make sure ALL of your students have their own student pack of cards so they are able to create their own keyword for each unit using the Doodle-a-Rule cards from Set 2. This can serve as a powerful memory trigger!
  • Teach with both auditory and visual activities.Your student may struggle to build automatic recognition of these unit sounds right away. To practice this, practice saying words out loud, and ask your student to either write or point to the unit they hear. Then, try the reverse! Point to a word containing a unit, and ask your student to read the word aloud, placing a box around the unit.

One Last Thing

Now that I’ve given you quite a bit to chew on, I’ll leave you with a final surprise. Below, you’ll find a collection of FREE resources to assist in you in teaching these units. Simply pop on over to the link below!

Sticky Units of Sound Ending with -NG Reproducibles

As always, if you found this blog helpful, please share it with your fellow teachers, parents, and interventionists. Interested in learning more? You can find our other spelling topics HERE, and don’t forget to check out our complete guide to spelling at

Happy Teaching!

Written by:

Kate Wagner, BSE

Reading Interventionist, Remote Learning Coach

A Division Of: