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Maddie's Story: Problem-solving new words

Magnetic Letters and Maddie's StoryAs Maddie reads increasingly more difficult books, she will encounter many new words. It is important that she learns to be flexible in how she approaches problem-solving new words.

Here is some theory about what needs to happen. In Literacy Lessons: Designed for Individuals, Part Two (p. 119), Marie Clay discusses how the learner needs to link visual and phonemic information. She says, “the learner has to link a visual form with phoneme (sound) in order to ‘learn’ a letter-sound relationship. The hardest-to-teach children struggle to distinguish letter forms that they see, one from another, and to distinguish sounds that they hear, one from another, and to link the two.” The brain needs to send the information in both directions as we read and write.

This is why lessons need to focus on reading and writing text. Maddie will quickly progress with the amount of practice she is getting. On top of lessons with me, Maddie has been reading and writing at school every day and at home with her parents. This is providing her with the practice she needs to become faster and more efficient at making important visual and sound links.

Over the last seven weeks of tutoring, Maddie has built up a solid core of words that she can read and write. This will be helpful when she encounters new words in more difficult text. Many phonics programs are built around the idea that students must master individual phonemes and then learn to blend those phonemes together. I am using a different approach. I am helping Maddie learn that she can use what she already knows to help her solve new words and that many words look and sound like each other.

Here are the key ideas:

When writing, if you know how to write the word cat, you can use that information to write a new word, such as bat.

When reading, if you see a letter or a cluster of letters that you know, you can use that information to solve the new word (I know look and she so when I see the word shook I can use sh and ook to figure out the new word).

I have spent time showing Maddie how this works with reading and writing and with magnetic letters in isolation. When I worked with words in isolation, I started by adding and taking away inflectional endings (ing and s). This was very easy for her. Now I am working on having Maddie learn about changing the onset (the first letter or letters of a word) -- and retaining the rime (the end part of a one-syllable word). Here is a video from one of our lessons: 


After doing many different examples of this (such as ad, ook, ay, in, and, an, ot, et), I increased the difficulty by using changing letter clusters at the beginning of the word. You can see an example in this video:


As Maddie reads, I reinforce with her how this process can help her figure out words she does not know.

I use prompts like:

"What can you see that might help?" and "Do you know a word that looks like that?"


Maddie was stuck on the new word bad. Since she knows the word dad, I prompted her to use that known word to help her solve a new word. See the video below:


Maddie was unsure of how to write the word fun. I asked her to think of a similar sounding word that she does know how to write. This helped her to quickly write the word fun. See the video below:


Then I reinforced this concept by having her dad cut fun into two parts. I asked Maddie where it should be cut and she was easily able to put the word back together as she reassembled her cut-up story. See the video below:

Right now, Maddie is requiring a lot of support to do this kind of problem solving while reading and writing. But with more practice with magnetic letters and prompting while she reads and writes stories, she will begin to problem-solve more independently.

Michèle Dufresne is author of many Pioneer Valley Books  early readers (including the Bella and Rosie series), Word Solvers (Heinemann), and an early literacy and literacy intervention consultant.

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