Wednesday, January 17, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Solving Words, Part 1

The next three posts in this series will deal with what is probably the number one concern of most teachers when it comes to struggling readers: decoding. I choose to label what we typically call decoding, word solving, because I think this term gets closer to what is actually going on as students encounter unknown words in their reading and can, therefore, lead us to more informed instruction.

In Part 1 of Solving Words, I want to address two key underlying understandings of decoding that we may not always think of as we ask kids to "sound it out" when they run into difficulty. The first of these understandings is that identifying an unknown word encountered in text is a problem solving situation and that applying our problem solving abilities is critical. The second understanding is that any of the tools we have to decode words must be applied flexibly because none of these tools works 100% of the time.

When a reader encounters an unknown word, the reader is confronted with a problem to solve. As teachers our job is to help the reader develop as many tools as possible to bring to this problem solving situation. Let me take a step back and look at what steps we follow when faced with any problem to be solved. We'll use the sample of a leaky faucet here.
  1. Define the problem - What is going on here? The faucet is dripping and driving me nuts.
  2. Analyze the problem and gather evidence  - What information is available to help me solve the problem? The faucet is dripping. I know it is old. I know faucets often drip because of a loose connection or a leaky washer.
  3. Inventory my tools - What do I know that can help me? I have a tool box with adjustable wrenches, plumbers tape and a variety of different sized washers in the basement. I also know there is a valve to turn off the water. I also can look for a You Tube video on my IPad to show me how to change a washer in a faucet.
  4. Form a hypothesis - Maybe if I try this I can solve the problem. I think the most likely situation is a leaky washer.
  5. Test the hypothesis - What happens if I try this? The old washer looks like it has moved out of position and is worn. Let's replace it and see if that fixes the problem.
  6. Evaluate the solution - Did the tested hypothesis work? After I put this back together and turn the water back on let's see if it holds. No leaks. Good.
Now lets take a look at these steps as they relate directly to problem solving an unknown word encountered while reading.
  1. Define the problem - This word does not look familiar. What can I do?
  2. Analyze the problem and gather evidence - Ok, I need to know this word to understand what I am reading, so let me see what I can figure out. The word has familiar letters and I understand what I have read so far, so I should be able to do this.
  3. Inventory my tools - I know the sounds of letters, I know how to chunk a word and look for the onset and rime, I know how to look for small words in large, I know the word has to look right, sound right, and make sense. So...
  4. Form a hypothesis - If I work through the word, and use these strategies, I should be able to come up with the word.
  5. Test the hypothesis - After working through the word, I think the word is...
  6. Evaluate the solution - Does the word look right, sound right, and make sense?
Now, obviously a reader must be able to conduct this problem solving scenario almost instantaneously. If the reader struggles for any period of time over the unknown word, comprehension will suffer. So, children need to have a readily available tool box to access quickly and apply efficiently to solve the problem. The point here is to help readers see that they are junior Sherlock Holmes's trying to figure out a mystery with all the clues right in front of them.

Flexibility ties nicely into the problem solving view of decoding. One key element of problem solving is evaluating the solution. Since readers can never be sure that any one solution will work, they must apply the solution, whether it is "sounding it out", or onset/rime, or context clues, flexibly with an understanding the strategy may not work and something else must be tried.

I have often seen a lack of flexibility in word solving frustrate struggling readers. One memorable incident involved a first grade reader at the Rider Reading and Writing Clinic, when I was working there as a clinician. In order to get some sense of what the student (let's call her Mary) knew and was able to do in reading, I handed her a short reading passage about a cat called, Muff. Mary took the passage from me and, in a clear and precise voice, read "MMM-UHH-FFF-FFF." Mary had clearly learned the sounds of the letters and was a champion of "sounding out", but she applied this strategy so inflexibly that she had no other strategy and never blended the sounds into actual words. Mary had a flawed understanding of what reading was and I knew where to start my work with her.

Here is another, perhaps more typical, example of the need for flexibility. Suppose a child is reading the following sentence:

The boy was making a model airplane from a kit.

The child does not immediately recognize the word "model", but knows another word with a similar pattern, "motel." Using the analogy strategy, the child matches "model" with "motel" and pronounces the word "mo del'". The child must now reconcile this pronunciation with what he already knows. An inflexible reader might be satisfied with the incorrect pronunciation. The flexible reader might realize this pronunciation doesn't sound right, doesn't sound like a word I know, and think, "What would make sense?" Combining strategies might get the reader to the correct pronunciation.

So when "sound it out" or analogy doesn't work, kids need to have other tools to go to and they need to be ready to try these tools flexibly to solve the problem.  Teaching for flexibility isn't easy. Some kids cling hard to a one strategy, often sounding it out, and seek to apply it universally. The best approach for the teacher is to communicate to kids that solving words is a problem solving activity and that readers need to be ready to use all the tools that are available to them. And, of course, teachers must model that same flexibility when demonstrating for students how words can be solved.

In Part 2 on decoding, I will discuss the various strategies we need to teach and some possible strategies for teaching them to struggling readers.