When teaching children to read, many parents suggest the child sound out unknown words. There are additional word-solving strategies beyond sound-it-out that can be used to help for early readers.
Sound-it-out does not always work. Parents have forgotten helpful reading strategies and are no longer aware of using them. One example is rereading.
Rereading a word or sentence often clarifies what was just read. Adults do this without thinking about rereading as a comprehension strategy.
Help for Early Readers
Sound-it-out uses isolated sounds to read a word. Take my name, for instance. Carolyn would be ca-air-oh-lul-ya-nin. Try pronouncing that all together, and the result is nothing like my name. The word “math” sounds out to mum-ah-tah-huh. Isolated letter sounds alone do not comprise most words. There are just too many irregular words and letter blends for sound-it-out to be the only strategy, for even beginning readers.
Do children need phonics? Yes. Do children need to simply memorize sight words? Yes. Phonics is more than isolated letter-sound combinations. For instance, think of words that begin with stra (strawberry, stranger, strategy) and it is easy to see sounding out s-t-r-a for each word would require too much time.
There are many letter combinations children will learn, and some with have different sounds than isolated letter sounds, such as kn (knight, knee, knob). There are silent letters and special sounds for letter combinations. Frequently, q is usually followed by u, so the sound for qu must be taught (queen, quick, quack).
Another common assumption is that a child knows his or her letters by practicing capital letters. Most of reading is actually lower-case letters. Lower case letters should be taught before capital letters. Capital letters will be learned as children learn to write names, proper nouns, and begin writing sentences. A child who knows only “big” letters is not ready to learn to read. Lower case letters and their sounds are important to know.
Word-solving Strategies Beyond Sound-it-out to Use with Beginning Readers
The reason children need to know more word-solving strategies than sound-it-out is so they begin to self-correct when reading. A child who cannot self-correct while reading is not going to make as much progress as a child who can do so.
At school, if a child was reading aloud and stopped reading perhaps five or six times during one paragraph, I knew an adult at home was jumping in to tell the word to the child. Telling a child words is quick and easy, but will not help children to learn how to help themselves.
Yes, I told words sometimes. English language learners, newly emergent readers, and a child who had tried some strategies and was frustrated are some cases when I told a word. However, as a steady diet, telling children words does not help advance reading skills. There are many word-solving strategies that help for early readers. Every child will not “take” to every strategy, and should use the ones that make sense to that child. Here are a few to try.
Skip it, skip it, then go back and read it. Adults do this, also. When reading a news article or new information and finding an unknown word, we do not stop and give up. We do not put down the book, article, or newspaper. We keep reading.
This word-solving strategy is one children understand and like to use. I think it is second to sound-it-out. When reading, maybe the child puts a finder on the unknown word, finishes reading the sentence, and then goes back to try the whole sentence again.
This is reading a word in context as meaning is important in reading. Some children equate reading “fast” with being a “good” reader, so it is important to tell children that good readers use what they know to learn what they do not know.
Look at all the letters in the word before saying it out loud. When a child gets to the first letter of an unknown word and stops reading, the child is not looking through the whole word. He or she has not learned to self-correct and gives up. Somehow the child knows the word is difficult or unknown and will say the first letter.
In this case, the child must be encouraged to look at all the letters in that word. Stretchy snake is one name for this strategy. Similar to sound-it-out and is done silently (at least at first). Looking at each letter, the child whispers the sounds in his or her heads. Often, just seeing all the letters and trying some silent sounds, the child will be able to say the word.
Adults automatically puzzle over the letters in a new or unfamiliar word, and can often then read the word. Of course, adults do not think about stretch snake when using this strategy as it has become automatic.
Find a little word in a big word. Ahh, the dreaded syllabication strategy, but more simply stated for children to find it useful. For instance, in the word Mississippi, the child can find miss, is, and sip. A hard word becomes more manageable.
At school, this decoding strategy might be called Chunky Monkey so children will chunk the sounds together. However, for emergent readers, this could be a difficult idea.
Children delight in finding little words in big words and often show the parent or teacher such discoveries. They find the fact owls can turn their heads 180 degrees (or more) fascinating. So, a little word can become a clue towards solving an unfamiliar word. They like to imitate animals, so twisting their heads while looking through a big word can help them to understand the strategy.
Results for Early Readers!
Parents are amazed at the reading progress children can make when several word-solving strategies are used. Children will begin to self-correct and help themselves learn to read. A mistake when oral reading is an opportunity to help a child learn a new word-solving strategy. Soon, children will automatically employ several word-solving strategies and make advances in reading.
Carolyn Wilhelm is a wife, mom, and grandmother. She has a BS in Elementary Education, an MS in Special Studies of Gifted Children, and an MA in Curriculum and Instruction K-12. She was a National Board Certification Middle Childhood Generalist 2004-2014. She is also a licensed, certified teacher in Minnesota through 2021. Retired, she now volunteers at an elementary school and runs TheWiseOwlFactory.com.