Sunday, January 21, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Solving Words, Pt. 2

In my previous post. When Readers Struggle: Solving Words, Part 1,  I described a reader facing an unknown word as a problem solving word detective, a Sherlock Holmes with a word mystery to solve. In Part 2, I would like to take a look at the tools proficient word solvers needs to decode the problematic word in front of them. Sherlock Holmes had his magnifying glass and his powers of deduction. What tools does a word detective need?

Like all good detectives, our word solvers must use all the clues available to them to solve the word. In reading connected text, any unknown word offers us three types of clues.
  • Visual - These are the clues that we usually think of as phonics. They are related to the letters that make up the words and the reader's knowledge of the sounds these letters make and the various sounds combinations of letters can make. 
  • Syntactic - Syntax deals with the order of words in a sentence. Our language is structured in very specific ways with nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. all having their proper place. Native speakers of English know this word order from their experience with oral English, so they know when a word does not sound right in a sentence. 
  • Semantic - Stories and sentences provide the reader with clues as to meaning. While reading, readers develop a certain expectation about what words would make sense in the story. When faced with a sentence like The rabbit jumped when it heard the loud ______. The reader might logically guess that noise, boom, crash would be reasonable, meaningful words to fill in the blank.
Visual (Phonics) Tools

Phonics instruction can be controversial, but the controversy is really not necessary. It has been established that most children need phonics instruction that is early, systematic, clear and direct, and frequently practiced and applied in real reading and writing situations. In other words, a  balanced approach, which includes direct phonics instruction and lots of opportunities to read and write real stories.

It is also important to understand that systematic and direct does not mean tons of phonics worksheets for students to complete. In fact, research has found no effect on improved reading based on number of worksheets completed. What systematic means is that teachers choose to instruct letter sounds. What clear and direct means is that teachers clearly state to the students what the sounds are and directly demonstrate for them how these sounds operate in words. This can be done in a variety of ways, including mini-lessons, targeted lessons as part of a shared big book reading, or a shared pen interactive writing lesson. 

While there is no proven sequence of instruction for phonics lessons, most experts suggest proceeding from the clear and reliable consonant sounds (m, s, d, t), to more complex consonant clusters ( st, br, sw) and digraphs (ch, sh, th) and finally to the very variable vowel sounds.

Because vowel sounds are so variable, it is a good idea to introduce them as a part of a system of letters or a rime. Words can be thought of as composed of onset and rimes. In the word stop the onset is st- and the rime is -op. I have written extensively on onset and rime instruction for struggling readers in this post. For the purpose of this discussion, I would suggest that instructing from an onset and rime orientation has been shown by many researchers to be an effective way to help struggling students decode. Knowledge of onset and rime is one tool our word detectives should have in their arsenal.

As students advance beyond the second grade and need to read longer words, two more tools can be added to the repertoire: morphemic analysis and analogy. Morphemic analysis involves seeing multi-syllable words as made up of familiar prefixes, suffixes and roots. Learning to look for these familiar chunks of words can be a great aid to decoding these longer words. Teaching kids common prefixes and suffixes and showing them how to analyze words in this way has the added benefit of helping readers discover the meanings of these new words.

Another effective strategy students may use for longer words is analogy. In other words, students can use words that are already in their sight vocabulary to decode unfamiliar words. So, for example, if the reader encounters the unknown word "furniture", she can look at familiar chunks of the word to decode it. So, "furn" is like a word I know "turn" and "it" is a word I know and "ure" ends like a word I know "sure", so the word must be "furn - it - ure". Placing the word in the context of the reading then allows for correct identification of the word.

Meaningful Context Tools

When children encounter words in meaningful context they can employ tools other than phonics to assist in solving the word. These clues, as discussed above, are syntactic and semantic. In order to use syntactic cues the readers must ask, "Does that sound right?" when decoding a word. In using this clue the readers lean on their knowledge of oral English to know if the word they have decoded sounds like it could fit in the sentence.

Using semantic clues requires the reader to ask the question "Does that make sense?" after a decoding effort. Here the reader leans on the idea that sentences are meaningful, so a word must make sense in the context of a sentence.

The coordination of syntactic and semantic clues with phonic clues is best done, of course, in real reading situations. You can read more about the importance of meaning in word identification in this post called "The Limits of "Sounding It Out." and in this post, entitled "Decode This: Meaning Helps Kids Break the Code."

Meaningful Practice

In her landmark work on word identification, Marilyn Jager Adams (1990) said

To learn to read skillfully, children need practice in seeing and understanding decodable words in real reading situations and with connected text. The purpose of word-identification instruction is to establish paths from print to spelling, speech, meaning, and context. This can best be done when phonics instruction is part of a reading program that provides ample practice in reading and writing.

So, no matter how good our word solving instruction, we must be sure to provide lots of opportunities for kids to practice their skills in real reading contexts. For all readers this means plenty of time for independent reading and writing daily. For struggling readers, there are a few other context-based strategies that will prove to be useful.
  • Repeated Reading - Reading the same story, poem, passage, or song over and over again is a proven way to help students improve sight vocabulary, decoding, fluency and comprehension. I have written extensively about the power of repeated reading in this post.
  • Interactive Writing - Interactive writing or shared pen is a language activity that involves the teacher and children in constructing messages, while also working on sound symbol relationships. At a “Morning Meeting” or following a class read aloud the teacher leads the children in a writing activity on chart paper for all to see. The teacher does the bulk of the writing, but shares the pen with students who get to practice their growing phonics knowledge by matching the sounds of the words they wish to write with the letters needed to write it. For more on interactive writing see Reading Rockets here. 
  • Think Aloud - Often just talking about words and the strategies that skilled readers use to decode can be helpful to students. I like to use think alouds when talking about particularly knotty problems in decoding such as silent letters. Students who over-rely on “sounding it out” may encounter difficulty with a word like “sign.” I like to “think aloud” with the students here. Suppose the students encounter the sentence, “Mom put her finger to her mouth and gave me the sign to be quiet.” In this context I would talk about how the word “sign” comes from the word “signal” and that in English spelling we often keep letters that are silent to help us understand the meaning. So while the letter “g” in “sign” is silent, it is still helpful because it reminds us that this word means something like “signal.” Sharing knowledge and insights about words can help children not only comprehend, but also decode.
In sum, students need systematic, clear and direct instruction in phonics balanced with lots of real reading practice in relatively easy books to become proficient word solvers. There is one more piece to this puzzle, prompting at the point of difficulty, which I will address in the next post.