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Teaching Tip: Taking Words Apart While Reading

Michele Dufresne

We can teach phonics and word solving using magnetic letters, writing, or even worksheets, but ultimately the goal of all forms of phonics lessons is for students to be able to take apart words on the run while reading (Clay, 2005).

Researchers looking at average and above-average readers in second grade found that students used an amazing range of flexible and diverse ways to solve challenging words when reading (Kaye, 2002). High-progress readers did not sound out words letter by letter but rather cluster by cluster. As educators, we need to encourage flexibility in thinking about letters and letter groups within words.

Here are some ways students can solve an unknown word:

  • Initial and final letters
  • Digraphs
  • Clusters of letters
  • Root words
  • Syllables
  • Inflectional endings
  • Suffixes
  • Prefixes
  • Analogies (i.e., using a known word [look] to get to a new word [brook])

When selecting books for guided reading, look for a book that has plenty of known words and just a few challenges. If students struggle with many words on the page, they will not be able to use multiple sources of information to support word solving. As you listen to students reading, look for opportunities to help them improve their word-solving skills. Be careful not to focus on one method and discourage sounding out a word letter by letter. Try some of these useful prompts:

“Do you know a word that starts with those letters?”

“Look for something that might help.”

“Do you know a word like that?”

Here is a video of literacy expert Jan Richardson working with a group of second graders. They are reading The Fawn, a level J book. Notice how she first prompts the student to monitor an error he makes. It is important that students notice their errors. He is able to quickly correct himself, and Jan uses the opportunity to help him look more closely at the word he had difficulty with.

In this video, Jan Richardson helps a student break up a large word: caterpillars. Notice how she asks the student to use parts he knows but also to think about what would make sense. Students often do not need to break up the entire word. They just need to get some of it and use the meaning to figure out the rest.

Remember that teaching is not about how to solve a particular word; it is about how to help students become independent problem solvers. Prompt for flexibility and encourage students to use all sources of information. This can only be done while reading continuous text. During word study, you can demonstrate and do some practice, but the powerful opportunities for learning will come during real reading and writing.