Thursday, January 25, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Solving Words, Part 3

In part 1 of this three part series on solving words here, I proposed the view of the reader encountering an unknown word as a flexible problem solver on the lookout for clues that would lead to accurate word identification. In part 2, I suggested some of the ways that teachers can directly teach students the tools needed to solve word problems such as the variety of sound-symbol based strategies and context clues available. We know, however, that word solving strategies, in order to be effective, must be practiced in real reading situations, so, in part 3, I would like to look how the teacher can facilitate student problem solving during reading, by prompting at the point of difficulty.

Readers need to rapidly coordinate a great deal of information when they are reading any text and this coordination takes time and many encounters with print to develop. When young readers come upon an unknown word they provide the teacher with the ideal teachable moment. A moment when instruction can be most powerful, where it is contextualized, and where feedback on success or lack thereof is immediately available.

Much of what I share here comes from the work of Marie Clay, whose groundbreaking work. Becoming Literate, has been highly influential in our thinking about reading instruction. Clay was also the founder of Reading Recovery, an intervention strategy for struggling first-grade readers. I was trained in Reading Recovery and worked as a Reading Recovery teacher. Reading Recovery principles are also the underpinnings of guided reading instruction, popularized in this country by Fountas and Pinnell in their book, Guided Reading.

I know the value of these strategies and have seen first hand how well they can work, but I will also admit that I was not successful with every struggling reader I worked with. There are many ways to help children to literacy. I share here one that I have found to be effective and which is in concert with my general view of how reading works.

Prompting at the Point of Difficulty

Let us suppose that the reader is confronted with this sentence in the famous Caldecott Honor picture book by Peter Spier.

The fox ran out on the chilly ________.

The reader already has a great deal of information about the blank word before any visual (phonics) knowledge is available. Native English speakers will know this is a noun, even if they cannot articulate that actual classification, because of its place in the sentence. Native English speakers will also know this is probably a noun of time like day, night, morning, because those words would make sense (although it could be field, meadow, pasture, etc) Armed with that knowledge, lets add some visual information.

The fox ran out on a chilly n_______.

Most of us will now identify this word as "night" and will confirm that by looking at the rest of the word. Notice that a "sound it out" strategy won't help the reader here because of the silent letters, so the reader needs to employ an onset - rime approach to identify the word through the familiar onset (n) and the familiar rime (-ight).

With this basic understanding in mind we can discuss how prompting at the point of difficulty works. When a reader comes upon a word she doesn't know, we can prompt her to use strategies to help solve the problem. The key is to help the reader use all the sources of information available to them to solve the word.

Here are the key prompts we can use as teachers.
  • Why did you stop?
  • Check the picture. (Pictures are the context clues of beginning readers.)
  • Does that look right? (Does what you said match what you see?)
  • Does that make sense? (What you say must make sense?)
  • Does that sound right? (Can we say it like that?)
  • Read the sentence again and say the first letter.
  • Keep working through the word.
  • Do you know a word that starts like that? Ends like that?
  • What do you know that might help?
  • What could you try?
Most of these prompts are taken from Guided Reading by Fountas and Pinnell. See the book for a longer list of prompts. I use the prompt, "Keep working through the word" instead of sounding it out, because many words cannot be sounded out, so readers may need to use sounding out, onset-rime knowledge, knowledge of word parts and analogy to come up with the word. So for me this is "working through the word." You can see what else I have to say on "sounding-it-out" in this post.

If the reader successfully solves the word, prompt her to go back to the beginning of the sentence and reread to solidify the meaning and the word identification. If after a few prompts the student cannot solve the word, it is a good idea to tell the student the word and have them move on. This problem can then become the target of explicit instruction after the reading. So if a student were unable to decode the word "night" in the reading, a lesson on the rime pattern -ight would be in order.

Many other prompts are available to the teacher, to help students self-monitor their reading, to improve fluency, etc., but the prompts here focus on word solving, so we will save discussion of other prompts for another day.

Of course to be able to prompt students at the point of difficulty the teacher must have the time and structure in the class to listen to individuals read. In my classroom this time came during small group reading time (whether guided reading or some other small group structure) and during independent reading time, when I would visit and listen in to students reading on a one-on-one basis.

The idea here is to think of students as apprentice word solvers. As the best word solver in the class, you, the teacher, share your expertise in such a way as to assist the apprentice to take on the same word solving behaviors. As the teacher you construct a prompt scaffold upon which students can construct their own growing understanding of how words work.

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