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 at the end of this word 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.

2 Replies to “What Should We Do When a Reader Stumbles on a Word?”

  1. Nell K. Duke says:

    Thank you for drawing attention to my article, which I hope readers of your blog will read in full, and I appreciate the availability of a comment section in which to respond.

    Prompting is no substitute for explicit and systematic teaching of phonics. So yes, “Slide through each sound” or “Sound it out” or any prompt like that will not work if children do not have necessary orthographic knowledge. That knowledge needs to be built through explicit and systematic instruction. It does not work well to just teach phonics elements as they come up in the course of reading with children.

    We seem to agree about the value of prompts for word identification that draw children’s attention to orthography. We seem to be discussing a somewhat different prompting situation, however. I gather that you are talking about prompts to use after a child has made a reading error, whereas I and others are also very interested in prompting children before they have made a reading error, when they are “stuck” to use the term from my article. In any case, we disagree with regard to the specificity and perhaps purpose of the prompts. More about that in the following paragraphs. . .

    As indicated at the end of the When Readers Get Stuck article, the article was supported by the following researchers: Linnea Ehri of New York University; Barbara Foorman of Florida State University and the Florida Center for Reading Research; Heidi Anne Mesmer of Virginia Tech University; P. David Pearson of the University of California at Berkeley; Tim Rasinski of Kent State University; Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Tanya Wright of Michigan State University. The article recommendations are consistent with (although more detailed than) the prompting recommendations in the What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide on Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade, which was developed by a panel of practitioners and researchers as follows: Barbara Foorman (Chair), Florida State University and Florida Center for Reading Research; Michael Coyne, University of Connecticut; Carolyn A. Denton, Children’s Learning Institute, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; Joseph Dimino Instructional Research Group; Lynda Hayes, P. K. Yonge Developmental Research School, University of Florida; Laura Justice, Ohio State University; Warnick Lewis, Bond Elementary School, Leon County, Florida; Richard Wagner, Florida State University and Florida Center For Reading Research. For readers of your blog who read about phonological awareness, phonics, word reading, fluency, and language development, these lists include many familiar names.

    So why would researchers suggest a different approach to prompting to what you are suggesting here? There are a number of reasons. One important reason, as explained in my article, is that “It’s important to prioritize prompts that children can eventually internalize and use independently. Children need to read a lot to become proficient readers, and most children will not have the luxury of having an adult with them for all of that reading. Children’s developing ability to help themselves when stuck on a word will lead to more successful and satisfying reading.” So the prompts that you call “vague,” I would call “high-utility.” A reader is less likely to internalize the list of prompts that you have suggested to be able to use them on their own, and of course your prompts don’t cover many other specific orthographic patterns, so there would need to be a much longer list of prompts if taking the approach that you recommend. This has the danger of leaving children dependent on always having a teacher or other adult sitting with them one-on-one when they read to point out which phonics or morphological knowledge they should apply at that time. Research has tested teaching children high-utility prompts, as I have recommended, and doing so does indeed benefit reading development. One example of such an approach is PHAST reading (see, for example, a study by Steacy, Elleman, Lovett, & Compton, 2016, published in Scientific Studies of Reading). More broadly, a great deal of scientific research has focused on how to help children move toward independence (and higher achievement) in reading and writing. Your blog readers may be familiar with or interested in research on Self-Regulated Strategy Development or SRSD, for example.

    A related issue is that we need children to learn to recognize on their own when they have made a reading error—again because there cannot always be an adult available one-on-one to point that out. So before any of your after-the-reading-error prompts would be applied, we would hope that children would have been comprehension monitoring and therefore recognize the error themselves and, if they don’t, that the teacher would employ high-utility prompts designed to foster comprehension monitoring. I suggest such prompts and discuss related research in my article.

    This said, if a child is initially stuck on a word or is working to correct a word they misread, and the child does not apply independently their knowledge of a particular orthographic pattern they have recently been taught, that’s an opportunity to remind them of that element, as you suggest. But that should not replace prompting with high-utility strategies as described above. Notably, if children are routinely not applying elements that they have been taught, it would be a good idea to look at the instruction to see whether there are ways that it needs to be strengthened, for example to include more opportunities to read and write words with those patterns. Also, as you point out, if the child is encountering a lot of words with patterns that have not yet been taught, that is a sign that the text may not be appropriate for the child at this time. Finally, as I imagine you agree, it is important to track which orthographic patterns children are and are not applying and what signs of comprehension monitoring they are and are not showing, in order to inform decisions about what to review, reinforce, and reteach.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your blog post. Of course, blog posts as well as articles in Ed Leadership are short, so much gets left unsaid. In any case, I hope readers of this blog post will consider reading not only both of those pieces but also research studies on this topic.

    • righttoreadproject_5dose6 says:

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to our blog and for sharing your thinking. There is much we agree on; from the importance of getting reading instruction right, to ensuring that students receive explicit and systematic decoding instruction, to the benefits of continuous phonation. And we could not agree more that it is important that teachers receive consistent messaging about essential components of reading instruction.

      Where we seem to disagree is on what kind of feedback is most helpful for teacher and student learning–whether “high-utility”and “broadly applicable” are one and the same. While we have no doubt that “When Readers Get Stuck” was well-received by many distinguished scholars, we’d argue that helping teachers to maximize instructional time (especially with students who are dependent on school to learn to read) requires more than generally-sound advice. An analogy might be doctors endorsing a publication that reminds the public to, “Eat a balanced diet and exercise.” Helping someone through a crisis (and we would argue that the number of students struggling with reading is evidence that classrooms are in crisis) requires an acknowledgement of the problem and intentional, targeted advice.

      Most teachers are not well-prepared to teach students how to read words and are not typically given the professional training, curricula, assessments, nor coaching necessary to ensure that students learn to read well. Most teachers are not working from a scope and sequence that considers the complexity of English, let alone one that anticipates the challenges students are likely to encounter as they learn to read words. Primary grade teachers are more likely to use predictable texts than texts that will give students sufficient opportunities to learn both how and why they should apply phonics to their reading. And many classrooms have in place what’s been dubbed a “phonics patch” rather than a coherent and comprehensive approach to instruction. Exacerbating, or perhaps at the root of, these problems is the fact that few teachers are provided the training necessary to understand the research–the “why”–behind essential components of effective reading instruction.

      Were it not for the prevalence of those problems, our response to “When Readers Get Stuck” might have been different. But we worry that most teachers will not see the difference between “Try a different sound” and “Does that sound right?” or “Look closely” and “Does that look right?” While it is clear that “When Readers Get Stuck” does not promote three-cueing, neither does it explain why—or explain that–the recommended prompts should not coexist with what most teachers think of as Guided Reading.

      In order to move our students as efficiently as possible towards skilled reading, teachers need to understand the logic of the written code and deserve improved training and curricula to help us relay that information, when appropriate, to students. We hope that we, as an organization, can do our part, along with you and the colleagues you cite, to spur instructional change and to contribute to the research that has yet to be conducted.

      A good place to begin a discussion of what research exists and what remains to be done might be your assertion that, “A reader is less likely to internalize the list of prompts that you have suggested to be able to use them on their own.”

      A skilled reader is able to read the word “bake” without any need for context and can usually, if asked, explain that it is not “back” because of the a_e spelling pattern. Given that, our questions include:

      • What is the most efficient and effective prompting that can ensure a novice reader who has mistaken “bake” for “back” (whether they have made the error audibly or are silently “stuck”) will read the word correctly the next time they encounter it?
      • What teaching will help them to generalize what they learn from that experience to other words with that spelling pattern?
      • What prompting will help them generalize even further to other words with final-e?
      • How can we best improve students’ decoding during the limited time we have to read with them in the classroom?

      If there is evidence to suggest that the prompts recommended in “When Readers Get Stuck” are more effective than prompting that calls attention to the source of the student’s initial error or confusion, we are eager to read it and we hope you’ll share it here so we can all learn and discuss as a community.

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