Ask a student what they do when they come to a word they don’t know and most will say, “I sound it out.”
But the truth of the matter is that sounding out is not the best strategy because the English language is not consistently phonetic. Forty to fifty percent of words in the English language cannot be solved by sounding out (Johnson and Keier, 2010). There are other sources of information that can provide clues to solving an unknown word. It is important that students are taught these word-solving strategies explicitly and be given opportunities to practice these strategies with feedback.
The three sources of information for word solving are:
MEANING: Meaning includes our background knowledge, clues used by looking at the pictures and any ideas gathered from the context of the story. A cue used by teachers to help students use meaning when reading is, “Did that make sense?”
STRUCTURE: When using structure as a source of information, a reader uses their knowledge of sentence structure, spoken language and how things sound to make predictions about an unknown word. Structure can be a difficult source of information for English Language Learners (ELL). A cue used by teachers to use this source of information is, “Did that sound right?”
VISUAL: Visual cues include sounding out and the knowledge a reader has about letters and sounds. A cue used for this source of information is, “Does that look right?”
Our goal is to support readers so they learn to use all sources of information.
One lesson that I often do when I first visit a primary classroom, is an explicit lesson that gets students thinking about the habits of a good reader. Together we create an anchor chart about all those things that good readers do when engaging with text. Once our chart is created, I do a read aloud where I think aloud as I am reading the text to explicitly model some of the habits of a good reader. At the end of the story, we revisit our anchor chart to see if there is anything the students noticed that I did while sharing the story, that they would like to add.
The next part of the lesson gives students a chance practice, practice, practice these habits while reading. The students engage in fifteen to twenty minutes of reading time. I bring in all my favorite books to get the students really excited about enjoying books. As the students are reading, the teachers in the room move around the room reading with students and giving feedback about their reading and what they are noticing about their reading.
After our reading time is over, we come back to the carpet and in a sharing circle, each student shares one thing they did as a good reader. This is the beginning of the process of developing meta-cognition in students about their own reading and word solving skills.
This post was inspired by the book Catching Readers Before They Fall. By Pat Johnson and Katie Keier. I recommend this book over and over again. It is a comprehensive and user friendly book about reading instruction and practice.