When working with readers who need extra support, it’s not uncommon to need to do some work with letters, sounds, and words. Some students, for a variety of reasons, seem to have a limited number of known words they can read and write, difficulty hearing sounds in order, and/or points of confusion that make the work they do with words challenging for them.
There is always the caution that these word challenges may show up in running records because meaning breaks down during running record assessments on continuous text. Of course, looking closely at this place where meaning and visual cues become disjointed can give us a window into a child’s word understandings. When meaning breaks down, we as readers must move toward visual cues. This can often make it appear that students need to work on visual cues, and can mask meaning challenges. Further word assessment using Hearing and Recording Sounds in Words, a developmental spelling assessment, a closer look at daily writing samples, and running records can help us understand more of what our young learners know and need next.
It would be easy to focus on words and lose our balance. In our daily lessons, I prefer that most of our word learning happen outside of our reading. My goal is then to connect that learning in the reading of continuous text. Typically we devote a small segment of our 30-minute lesson to word learning: building knowledge of letters and sounds, growing high-frequency words, making and breaking words, making connections between words, and other generative word-focused instruction. There are also opportunities to build known words after we read and for developing word concepts in daily written response to reading.
These are some of the routines we use within our lesson to strengthen word knowledge:
Building High-Frequency Words: When students practice high-frequency words, I want them to be able to read and write them. Usually a word comes from our lesson and is one I’m seeing students struggle with across writing and text reading. We practice writing these words on dry erase boards, building them with magnetic letters, writing them in sand, using a bumpy board to write, and finding other ways that bring saying, doing, and seeing together. The number of ways we write the word depends a lot on the learner and the challenge the word seems to be creating. As they write and build high-frequency words, I want students to say their sounds. Saying the sounds instead of the letter name makes it more likely that students will be able to write it again as they say it slowly, read it with greater ease, and carry the strategy into writing other words.
Hearing Sounds in Order: Understanding that words need letters to be in a particular order is essential in building concepts of print. Using Elkonin boxes in our first word can help students learn to segment sounds in order. Saying words slowly allows writers to listen for sounds as they say them in smooth, short succession. This helps them hear sounds so they can write them in order. Helping students learn to run their finger under words in writing to check and figure out next sounds is a strategy that will often carry into reading.
Making Connections: Using connections to make and read words is a helpful strategy when something is tricky. Knowing that this starts like the word the can often help readers solve new words they come to as they read. However, I try to introduce this a bit after basic strategies are in place. Otherwise students take a word like crashed and see the she in it. I find this to be a helpful strategy in beginning writing as students learn to write words that sound the same: “If I know like, I can write bike.” Knowing how word parts can connect and be used to solve is helpful in reading.
Building Word Vocabulary: There are certain routines and vocabulary that I find helpful in growing student word knowledge. I find it helpful for students to know the difference between word and letter, letter and sound, first letter and last letter, and first part, last part (segmenting onset from rime s-ip, sl-ip), and syllable to help us talk about words.
Making and Breaking: Young readers need to know how to look closely at challenging words. Being able to divide words into useful chunks can help them solve these words with greater efficiency. Using magnetic letters, we will practice building words together to help us look at the first part and last part of words, as well as syllable breaks. I always use two examples in a lesson to support the generative understanding of the strategy. For example, I have noticed a group of first graders having difficulty looking through to the end of words. I might choose the main words can (cat, car, call) and bat (ban, bad, bag, ball) to help students look to the end of the word. The next day I might choose different words to reinforce the same understanding.
Across the year we use making and breaking to learn about the ways words work: add-to words (such as in, and, at), looking closely at the first part, understanding vowels, and attending to the last part of words. Making and breaking allows me to focus on the beginning, the middle, or the end of words by making small visible changes. Making and breaking can also be used to build and take apart multisyllabic words.
You Try It: In our reading response notebooks, we use the right side of the page for written response and the left side as a “you try it” page. I’ve grown to love this for a million reasons. First of all, it helps me know how much students are monitoring their writing. It sends a message that it’s okay not to know but we can try some things to figure it out. As students are ready, we try words we don’t know three times. In these attempts I begin to see what students understand about words. It’s a good sign when I see students start to be able to pinpoint the tricky part of a word or use logical spelling patterns to attempt new words.
Sounds Right and Looks Right: The “try it” page is the perfect place for these discussions. Here they can attempt and practice words. Usually we use Elkonin boxes here or students make three attempts at a word and we work toward the correct spelling. Working with mostly first and second graders for reading intervention, the conversation often transitions from what “sounds right” in words to thinking about what also “looks right” as students transition from sound spelling to greater use of visual knowledge in writing words.
These are just some of the ways we learn more about words within our daily literacy instruction. These lessons can take place in word study, guided reading, and small-group intervention. The challenge is maintaining a thoughtful sequence aimed at what the student knows and needs, and continued assessment to monitor shifts in understanding.