What Should We Do When a Reader Stumbles on a Word?

There’s a lot of bad advice out there for what to do when a reader comes to an unfamiliar word. While the exact language of problematic cues varies – Take a guess and sail on by! Skip the word and then reread. Use your eagle eye to look at the picture. – the premise of all these prompts is the same; they encourage young readers to use meaning or syntax to guess rather than decode unfamiliar words.

How Is Prompting Advice Changing?

  Discussion about how readers learn to read words recently captured public attention, so educators and curriculum developers have begun backing away from materials that promote guessing rather than decoding. New guidance from Teachers College and Nell Duke’s recent article, When Young Readers Get Stuck, provide a variety of prompts that emphasize the importance of decoding.

While the strategies Duke suggests, such as Look At The Word and Slide Through Each Sound, can improve the accuracy of a temporarily careless reader, these prompts are no help if the child doesn’t know how to sound out the word.

Slide Through Each Sound works only if the child knows every spelling pattern in a word and the word happens to be one that can be sounded out left-to-right (cat, catch, catnip). But the child may need additional support if he has forgotten that -tch represents a single sound, /ch/, and sliding through sounds doesn’t work for long vowel words that end in the letter E (make, ride, hope).

Try A Different Sound works only if the child knows what other sound(s) to try and why. Break The Word Into Parts depends on the child having a repertoire of syllabication strategies. If he does not, he is likely to fixate on unhelpful parts such as “cat” in locate or vacation

Vague prompting, while better than soliciting guessing, misses the opportunity to reinforce phonics instruction at the very moment it is most useful.

What Happens If/When These Vague Prompts Don’t Work?

In this video from Teachers College, which is intended to guide parents to “coach” their children to read challenging words, the teacher struggles to guide the student through the word nocturnal (begins at minute 4:16). At first, the student guesses the word natural. The teacher knows to prompt the child to Break The Word Into Parts, but she’s not sure how to help her do so.

After the teacher exhausts her toolkit of vague prompts, she pronounces each part for the student and then tells her the word. Neither the teacher nor the student seem to have a strategy for breaking the word into syllables. In this video, intended to be an exemplar, the teacher resorts to doing the decoding herself and the child misses an opportunity to learn how to tackle polysyllabic words. 

In this video from Reading Rockets, the student is explicitly taught how to divide polysyllabic words into syllables, a skill which unlocks the pronunciation of tens of thousands of words. Were the teacher in this second video to help the child from the first, she would have provided explicit instruction in how to count the number of constants between the word’s vowels and how to break the words into syllables: noc/tur/nal

In order to teach readers how to work through challenging words efficiently and effectively, we need to provide prompts that help children to internalize the logic of the written code. The word nocturnal contains phonics that should be within the reach of a first or second grader, but without effective instruction in how to apply phonics to reading, the child may continue to guess the word natural and therefore lose meaning from the text.

What should we do instead?

If a child stumbles on a word while reading, an attentive adult can provide prompts that reinforce the logic of the written language. Phonics programs with explicit, systematic instruction include routines for introducing and reinforcing application of spelling patterns. Scripted language not only supports teachers in making phonics instruction efficient, students internalize the prompts and become confident in tackling words.

 But effective prompting is possible, even if a teacher lacks curriculum with clear instructional routines or a parent is unfamiliar with the instruction a child has received. The first step in prompting a reader is for the adult to think about the word the child said and how it differs from the printed word. For example, did she neglect the E at the end of the word and say “tap” rather than tape? Or did she not register the consonants between the two vowels in tapping and, instead, say “taping”? Did she skip or misread the ending of a word? Or substitute or skip some letters in a word?

Once we’ve identified the error, then we can prompt for a correction. 

Type of WordReading ErrorPrompt
Words with short vowelsThe child says “cat” for cut.“Slide through each sound.”
If necessary:[Point to the letter U] “That sound is /ŭ/. Repeat me: /ŭ/. Now slide through the word.”
Words with inflectional endingsThe child says “land” for landed“Base word?” [If necessary, cover the inflectional ending for the child.] [Uncover the ending.] “Ending?”“What’s the whole word?”
Words with final-eThe child says “tap” for tape.

The child says “tape” for tap.
[Point to the end of the word.] “Is there an E at the end?”[Point to the vowel] “Long or short?”“Sound?”“Read the word.”
Same prompts as above, though the child’s responses will be different.
Words with final-e and inflectional endingsThe child says “tapping” for taping.

The child says “taping” for tapping.
“How many consonants are between the two vowels?[Point to the vowel] “Long or short?”“Sound?”“Read the word.”
Same prompts as above, though the child’s responses will be different.
Words with final-y and an inflectional endingThe child says “friend” for fries.[Cover the inflection ending]“What letter was the letter before it changed to an i?“Base word?”[Uncover the ending.]What’s the whole word?
Words that have soft soundsThe child says “kent for cent.“Is c followed by and i, e, or y?”[Point to the c] “Sound?” “Now slide through each sound.”
Words with phonics the child has not yet been taught.The child guesses a word because the phonics necessary to read the word has not yet been taught.“That word is ___. You haven’t yet learned how to sound it out.”“Say ___.”

At first glance, this list of prompts can be daunting, but its length is an important reminder of the complexities of English spelling and the importance of systematic, explicit, sequential instruction in phonics. Every one of the prompts directs the child’s attention to the spelling patterns within words and guides the child through a methodical and logical process that will promote reading accuracy and independence. The phonics in the chart progresses from simple to complex to reflect a young reader’s instruction and developing skills. In other words, a child shouldn’t need all of these prompts during a single reading session. 

Effective phonics instruction includes providing students with texts that reflect the spellings taught (decodable texts). A child grappling with short vowels should not be given text that requires knowledge of long vowels or inflectional endings. Once a child has mastered short vowel words (tap, hop, tub), then long vowels can be introduced (tape, hope, tube) and both the adult and the child can adjust to the new prompt (Is there an E at the end?). And when final-e has been mastered, the next phonics concept can be introduced.

When helping a child with decoding, our prompts should deepen the child’s awareness of the written code and provide step-by-step guidance for deciphering it. That means that we as adults need to understand basic spelling rules of English, because “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (Noah Webster, 1773). But the work that we as adults put into understanding our written code pays off when we see a child confidently tackle an unfamiliar word, determined to unlock its pronunciation. Attending to every letter in every word is hard work, but it is necessary for the accurate, automatic, and expressive reading that is essential to comprehension.

One Reply to “What Should We Do When a Reader Stumbles on a Word?”

  1. Harriett Janetos says:

    This is an excellent piece because it raises so many important issues. As my district grapples with helping teachers move from balanced literacy to what I’m calling layered literacy, I am mindful of not burdening teachers with phonics rules that may place an unnecessary cognitive load on students, especially EL’s and struggling readers. I know this from teaching in K-2 classrooms and also from working with hundreds of struggling readers as a reading specialist.

    I’ve just watched the 12-minute Reading Rockets video that is recommended, and it is indeed very good. However, if you watch for a minute from 8 to 9, ask yourself why she has the student move the ‘n’ in the second syllable? Is it because she is operating from a position of knowledge regarding its pronunciation, and he is simply chunking sounds in a logical manner? If he’s never heard the word ‘continental’ before, then whether he reads it as ‘con-tin-en-tal’ or ‘con-ti-nen-tal’ or for that matter, ‘con-ti-nent-al’ or ‘con-tin-ent-al’, really doesn’t matter. If he has heard of the word before, then he will ‘play’ with the syllables he’s written to listen for a known word.

    This is one difference between speech-to-print and print-to-speech approaches. Print-to-speech activities are oftentimes rule-laden and provide an unnecessary cognitive load. The basic technique in this video is excellent and very helpful, but having him move the consonant was completely unnecessary.

    As I help our teachers implement explicit and systematic phonics instruction, I am becoming more and more aware of which strategies are essential and which are unnecessary. Another example is the word ‘fries’ that may have been read as ‘friends’. If my students know that ‘ie’ is a spelling variation for the /ie/ sound (as in tie, pie, die, lie) then sliding through the word is all they need to read it correctly. If they don’t, I’ll teach it.

    Thank you for packing so much into this post–this is a very important discussion.


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