Friday, September 23, 2011

Helping Struggling Readers Decode Unknown Words

Three common curriculum gaps that can intensify children’s reading problems are failing to teach them phonological awareness, automatic word recognition, and an alternative to single letter phonics.
Teach Phonological Awareness.

This is the ability to identify and manipulate sounds within spoken words. For example, say the word bat without the /b/ sound. Unfortunately, may struggling readers struggle with phonological awareness. To develop proficiency, they need instruction.
  • Good phonics instruction should develop phonological awareness. The key to learning to decode words is the [alphabetic] principle that letters can represent sounds 
  • The key to the development of the alphabetic principle, word recognition, and invented spelling is phonological awareness. 
  • Phoneme awareness [part of phonological awareness] is the awareness of sounds in spoken words. As words are spoken, most sounds cannot be said by themselves.
  • For example, the spoken word /cat/ has one continuous sound and is not pronounced “kuh-a-tuh.” 
  • Children ordinarily concentrate on the meaning and do not think of the sounds in the word but, since letters represent sounds, a child must learn to think of words as having both meaning and sound in order to understand the alphabetic principle. (Stahl, Duffy-Hester, & Stahl, 1998, p. 340, references omitted)
Teach Automatic Word Recognition. Struggling readers who accurately identify words—slowly and laboriously—will likely tire of reading, resist reading, and become overwhelmed by the volume of all they must read.

Three keys to helping these children become fluent readers are to teach them how to quickly and accurately recognize words, to give them lots of daily practice in doing so, and to engage them in lots reading they find easy and enjoyable. This will help them to quickly identify words.
  • Good phonics instruction leads to automatic word recognition. In order to read books, children need to be able to read words quickly and automatically. If a child stumbles over or has to decode slowly too many words, comprehension will suffer. 
  • Although we want children to have a strategy for decoding words they do not know, we also want children to recognize many words automatically and be able to read them in context. (Stahl, Duffy-Hester, & Stahl, 1998, p. 343, references omitted)
Teach Word Families. Many phonics programs emphasize the sounds of individual letters and emphasize sounding out most words one or two letters at a time.

This helps many struggling readers to quickly and accurately identify unknown words. But many does not mean all.

Here’s a way that can help struggling readers who struggle with the sounds of individual letters, especially vowel sounds.

It uses word families, such ake: bake, brake, cake, make, quake, rake, sake, snake, take. Word families are also called phonograms or rimes.
  • Recent scholarly inquiry into how children learn to decode words suggests that knowledge of certain sound and letter patterns in words may help readers figure out unfamiliar words.
  • This is often called the analogy approach to word recognition, and a considerable amount of research supports its use as an instrument for word-recognition instruction.
  • Predominant among such letter patterns are onsets and rhymes. An onset is formed by the individual consonant or consonant combination (such as pl, ph, st, sch, str, or th) that precedes the first vowel in a word or syllable. 
  • Rhymes are another name for letter combinations that we have for years called “phonograms” or “word families,” the part of a syllable that contains the vowel and all subsequent consonants. For example, in the word bat, the b is the onset and the at is the rime; in slick, the sl is the onset and the ick is the rime.
  • Fry (1998) has pointed out that just 38 common rime patterns can be used by readers to decode 654 one-syllable words. Moreover, these same rhymes can also be helpful for partial decoding of a much larger number of longer, more difficult, multisyllabic words. (Rasinski, 1999)
If your child struggles to identify unknown words when reading, ask yourself:
  • Has the school assessed his phonological awareness skills? If they’re poor, are his teachers teaching him how to identify and manipulate sounds he hears in words?
  • Are his teachers teaching him to recognize words quickly and accurately, or just accurately?
  • If he struggles when using individual letters to sound out (decode) unknown words, can his teachers teach him to use word families (rhymes, phonograms)?
Rasinski, T. (1999). Making and Writing Words Using Letter Patterns. Retrieved 9/22/2011, from
Stahl, S.A., Duffy-Hester, A.M., & Stahl, K.A.D. (1998). Everything you wanted to know about phonics (but were afraid to ask). Reading Research Quarterly, 33, 338-355.

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