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Blogroll, Dyslexia Diagnosis

Stuck on a Word? Simple Decoding Strategies

HELP! I’M STUCK … on a word! Every reading specialist and regular education teacher has seen students struggle with decoding words. Some students find compensatory ways to get around this; they naturally use context clues or they naturally have a tool box of strategies they use to figure out the meaning of a word. All students struggle from time to time, but dyslexic students struggle MOST of the time. Here is a typical conversation I have with a student who has not learned decoding strategies and is stuck on a word:

Example: The word the student is stuck on is stream.

Student:    Dead silence

Me:            Oh I see you’re stuck. Go ahead and try the first sound.

Student:    sssss

Me:            Good first sound. Why don’t you try to read to the end of the sentence to see if you figure out the entire word.

Student:    (sometimes a student can use context clues to figure it out)…    (Student goes back to the word) … ssss

Me:            Ok. Look at the first two letters and cover the rest of the word with your finger. What sound do those two letters make?

Student:   ssssttt.

Me:           Good job. Now cover up those two letters. Let’s look at the rest of the  word. Can you try this part?

Student:   rrr aa mm

Me:           Ok you got the first and last sound. Now let’s look at the e and a. Those letters go together. Do you know the rule of two vowels side by side?

Student:   Well, umm… no.

Me:           Ok. Most of the time when two vowels go walking the first letter does the talking. In other words the first vowels makes the sound. So let’s try it with these vowels. What sound do both of those vowels make together?

Student:   Oh .. eee.

Me:            Yes.. good! Now what’s the last sound?

Student:    mmmm

Me:            Take your finger off the first two letters and try to put it all together.

Student:    … sssttt.rrr eee mm

Me:            Good. Say it again.

Student:    ssttrreeemm

Me:            Now say it fast.

Student:    Stream. OH!

Yeah … that’s just one example. Sometimes researchers caution against using the ‘two vowels walking rule’ because there are exceptions. There will be exceptions to any phonics rule . . . so, I try to find phonics rules that are accurate for at least 75% of all words. 

I  suggest reading Self-Paced Phonics, A Text for Educators, by Roger S. Dow and G. Thomas Baer. This thin, but technically rich text gives you a crash course in phonics and provides you with sound teaching strategies as well.  The book has one section that delineates phonics generalizations showing you the percentage of utility–meaning how many words the rule can be applied to. Very useful!

The previous conversation is an example of either a student who has not been taught phonics rules or decoding strategies, or a dyslexic student who can’t break the code and needs repetition of rules and decoding strategies.  

Notice what I did not do:

  • Say the word for him. No strategies are being learned if you are impatient and don’t work through the word with a child.
  • Say “Come on you know this.” That make a student feel stupid.
  • Say “Ok, just sound it out!” If they knew how to sound it out, they would not have struggled with the word in the first place.
  • Say, “Skip the word” and then never go back to figure it out!
  • GIVE UP. I worked just as hard as my student. Together we worked as a team to figure out the word.

Here are some common sense strategies that I use as well. You need to be conversant in how and when to use each strategy, and this only comes with practice. Trust me!

  • Try that again.
  • A word tricked you in there. Read the sentence again.
  • Look for the largest word you know. Say it and cover it up.
  • Look for a chunk of the word you know. Say it and cover it up.
  • Stretch out the sounds
  • Read the letters back to me. Now read the word. (I use this when students seem to consistently omit a sound. I have a high success rate with this. They simply are not seeing the letter).
  • Switch the vowel if the word doesn’t sound right (Usually I say What sound does U make and they will try a sound (like uh or youuuuuu), Then I say, which one sounds better?)
  • Reread or read on (But always make them go back to the word).
  • Read the sentence out loud. (If reading silently)
  • Press and guess. (Put your finger on the word and guess at what would  make sense there). This is a good one.
  • Can you think of a similar word that looks like this one? Does this word rhyme with another one you know?
  • Do you see any prefixes or suffixes you know? (3rd grade and older)
  • Can you find the beginning or end blends?
  • Remember that whenever you see a vowel, there is syllable or a clap in that word. Try to read the chunks with the vowels in it. (I will place lines in the word to break it apart) This is especially effective for long multisyllable words.

Also when listening to a student reading orally, I say “When you read, it’s important NOT to leave words out that are there, and not to put words in there that ARE NOT there.”

Some teachers, say to themselves, “Well, she got most of it right.” If you consistently allow students to add or remove words that should not be in a passage or a book you are not teaching good tracking, accuracy, and fluency skills. When students are skipping or adding a lot of words, I know they are not tracking the words with their eyes. So I give them an index card, a window card, a fluorescent line guide, or tell them to use their finger to follow the words. This does work!

Try for books that teach you how to help a struggling reader or browse the internet for teacher web sites. Some strategies that work for one student won’t necessarily work for another, so you have to be flexible! It’s important to teach students how to struggle with and conquer words!


About Ann Gavazzi

Reading specialist and English teacher with a particular interest in treatment of dyslexia. Also interested in education and education policy at large and current reading research. Owner of the Reading Innovations Center, a tutoring center that specializes in one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers and math students.


2 thoughts on “Stuck on a Word? Simple Decoding Strategies

  1. I learned a lot from this post, much appreciated! 🙂

    Posted by Jennifer Machine | August 22, 2011, 3:42 am

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