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How and Why to Include Word Solving in Intermediate Grades

By Nancy McCoy
 | Jan 16, 2019

pulling-instructional-modelI bought a new car this year. It has many bells and whistles that I am still learning how to use. Before handing me the keys, the car salesman spent time showing me how to use some very basic features, such as my lights, windshield wipers, and turn signals. It was time well spent because it began raining as I drove out of the dealership. Once I had driven my car for a few days, I was ready to begin learning some of the other features, such as its GPS system.

Most readers in intermediate grades have learned some of the basic concepts they need to become a proficient reader. As they read, they practice applying what they know. Just as I needed more help with more sophisticated gadgets that my car provided, struggling intermediate students often need further instruction on how to read longer, multi-syllabic words.

One of the stickiest problems for fluency is the inability to pronounce words quickly and thereby keep understanding the message at the forefront of the reading task. Most beginning readers are able to negotiate the automaticity of word solving in the first years of reading. As texts increase in difficulty, students are confronted with words that are long, have multiple syllables, or that may not be within the child’s vocabulary and, therefore, the context doesn’t help with the pronunciation. Teachers must be aware that this is the phonics issue of all intermediate readers and not only struggling readers.

Every reader, even adults, will be confronted with long and unknown words. Try reading a medical journal sometime and you will understand. Featuring words and how to solve them should be a daily mini-lesson for whole-class instruction. The following two strategies will help all students with pronunciation of longer words and may be incorporated quickly and easily into the daily practice of reading instruction.

Look, listen, say it

Choose a word from any subject within the current area of study. Display the word so it’s visible to all students.

  • Look: Ensure all the students are looking at the word. This is important.
  • Listen: The teacher pronounces the word while children are looking. Moving a pointer or hand across the word left to right may be helpful.
  • Say it: The students then say the word while they are looking at the word.

This procedure can be modified in many ways.

  • The word can be pronounced in syllables and then pronounced as a whole word.
  • The syllables in the word can be “tapped.”  (Look, Listen, Say it, Tap it.)
  • The word can be written in syllables and then as a whole word.
  • The word can be written by the students, as in the spelling strategy “Look, Cover, Check.” 
  • The word can be analyzed by looking at its root word, prefixes, and suffixes.
  • The word can further be defined and the meaning talked about.

This simple procedure, when done frequently, will help students learn to pronounce longer words.

Building word families

Another instructional strategy that should be practiced frequently is building word families. This is especially important for intermediate readers and is a link to word meaning when Greek and Latin roots are featured. These word families need to grow organically from what students will be reading. For example, the root equi- appears in many subject areas.

Roots will help build vocabulary across the curriculum. An example using the root spect- would be: spectacles, spectrum, spectator, perspective, inspect. When beginning a list of word families, the root word should be written in a column, so students can see the root and how it appears in each word. Prefixes will spill out on the left and suffixes will spill out on the right. By writing the roots in a column, students can focus on the parts of the word. This will lead students to notice known parts within words and transfer that skill to analyzing new words.

When students and the teacher create these word families together, they become a powerful tool that can be posted on chart paper in the classroom. Students are drawn to things to which they have contributed and can continue to find new words to add.

Don’t neglect teaching the word analysis that all readers need on their way to fluency and understanding. Make featuring long words and how to pronounce them a daily habit. It takes a minute or two out of a day to write a word and practice reading it. You will be giving your students a lifelong skill.

My car?  I have learned how to use many of its features. Not all are automatic for me …yet.

Nancy McCoy has been a fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, literacy professional developer, and curriculum coordinator. She has worked with struggling readers of all ages from whom she always learns more about how to teach reading.

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