Making small words from big words—a variation for beginning readers

What if a child is truly a beginning reader still learning CVC words? Can the game of finding small words within big words or phrases still be used to improve the child’s understanding of words and spelling? Not exactly, but if you limit the letters strategically, a beginning reader can play.  Here is how.

children moving letter tiles

  • Instead of writing a big word or phrase such as “New Year’s Day,” write a handful of letters, including only the vowels and consonants which the child has learned.
  • If the child has learned only short a words (cat, ham, fad), write the vowel “A” at the top of the page followed by a handful of letters which you know can be used for form short a CVC words. B, C, D, H, R, and T might be good letters to begin with.
  • You could also use letter tiles (Scrabble letters, for example) so that the child can move letters around. Tactile experience helps young children in learning and makes the learning seem more like a game. Also, the child doesn’t have to hold letter patterns in his head; he can manipulate various letters until he finds a word which then you or he could write down.
  • Demonstrate to the child how mixing up the letters can form words. Write B A T and B A D, showing where you got those letters, and using enough examples so the child knows what to do.
  • The competition aspect of the game might be for the child to “beat” his last score, that is, to find more words than the last time.
  • As the child learns more CVC vowels, two vowels can be used with six or seven consonants. I recommend starting with A, then O, and then U.  E and I take longer to learn since they sound similar, so I would use them indeptndently (A and E, for example, or O and I) until the child is confident with all CVC words.
  • This is a game which pairs of children can play together as a team, providing one child does not dominate, leaving the other child out.
  • Restricting the number of letter choices can help the child to focus, so do limit the number of vowels and consonants for beginning readers. Once the child is an experienced reader, he can “graduate” to the longer word or phrase game we discussed previously.

Play word games to encourage or to reward reading

When I tutor reluctant readers or bad spellers, sometimes I reward them with a word game in the last five minutes of an hour-long lesson. The kids love the game and ask at the beginning of the next lesson if they can play again. I never play this word game at the beginning of a lesson or they will balk at doing other kinds of reading work, but it is great as a reward.
This game is also a good game to play in the car on long trips or when a child is bored. It turns dead time into learning of breaking up a big word into little words

  • Start by choosing a long word or a phrase. I try to relate the word or phrase to the season or to what we are studying. For example, “NEW YEAR’S DAY” or “JUNIE B. JONES” might be appropriate. After the first game, the child will want to choose the word or phrase, but you must steer him to pick an appropriate word or phrase for the game’s purpose.
  • The word or phrase should have ten to 15 letters but not many more or the game becomes too easy. Good words or phrases to work with contain several vowels, including the letter “E.” Bad words or phrases contain few vowels, do not contain the letter “E” and repeat many of the consonants.
  • I write the word or phrase at the top of a blank paper, often in all caps, so the child realizes capital letters are irrelevant.
  • Next, I explain that we are going to make little words from the big word or phrase, using the letters in any order. So for the phrase “NEW YEAR’S DAY,” I might write “ear,” “way,” and “weed,” and point out how each letter in the little words is part of the phrase.
  • I also point out that if there is only one “N” in the original word or phrase, then there can be only one “N” in the made up words. Also, if there is punctuation in the original word or phrase, it can be ignored or used.
  • The object of the game is to find as many small words as possible in five minutes.
  • Eventually you want children to discover word families, words whose letters can be moved to create other words (tea, eat, ate), words within words (heard, hear, ear, he, head), and how having certain letters (E and S, for example) makes the game easier. This shows the child is thinking about word patterns.
  • I help younger children find words, and show them word families that can be made by changing a single letter. Once they understand the game, they usually do not want help.
  • For older children, I compete with them, sometimes giving them a handicap.
  • At the end of five minutes, if there is not a competition, the game ends. If there is a competition, the child names his words aloud, and if he and I have duplicates, we cross them out. His score becomes the number of words he has without duplicates plus the handicap.
  • Additional points are given for words of five letters or more and perhaps for the word which is the longest and which seems to be the most clever use of the original letters.
  • I allow proper nouns, but I do not allow repeating the words in the original word. You can make your own rules depending on the ability level of the child. Some children will put an “S” on every noun.

Is gesturing by a child learning to read important?

When my son was almost two, and not talking much, I often read to him a picture book by Helen Oxenbury which showed a toddler doing everyday things: pulling on his socks and pants, for example. I would ask my son, “What is the baby doing?” My son would show me by gesturing—pretending to put on his socks, or pretending to pull up his pants. Once he learned to say words, I stopped this practice.

child making letter T with his body

It turns out that I should have continued with the gesturing. Research shows there is a positive relationship between gesturing and learning in children. By noticing your child’s gestures, you might be able to tell when he understands a concept or when he is trying to figure it out.

According to research,If a child understands a concept, the child’s words and gestures are in sync.

  • For example, if you ask the shape of a triangle, and the child says “three sides” and then draws a triangle with his index finger, the gestures and words are in sync, and you can presume the child understands.
  • If a child is still learning a concept, the child’s words and gestures might be out of sync, and there might be an abundance of gestures or a shrug.
  • For example, if you ask a child to tell you what an orbit means, and the child says “space” and draws a rounded triangle,” the child’s words and gestures are not in sync. The child is still learning.
  • Out-of-sync responses offer parents and teachers an opportunity to help the child learn while his understanding is fluid and open to instruction and before he learns something wrong.

Is gesturing necessary for learning? Probably not, yet research shows that children who gesture while they are learning are more likely to learn. This is especially true if the child is asked to explain a general concept.

For more scholarly details on this subject, check out the work Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, an expert in this field.

What’s choral reading?

Choral reading is reading aloud as a group, much like a choir reads the words and sings them together aloud. It is commonly done in lower grades and in ESL classes for several reasons:group of students reading together from a single book

  • Children who are less skilled readers can listen to the more skilled readers beside them, and can model their reading after their classmates’ reading. In particular, less skilled readers can hear fluency (emphasis of certain words or syllables, pauses for punctuation, speeding up and slowing down) which less skilled readers might read too slowly to use correctly.
  • Children who stumble over sight words can hear them pronounced and can say them aloud without drawing attention to themselves. ESL students can hear correct inflections and can practice copying them.
  • Less skilled readers can practice aloud with anonymity, their mistakes or hesitancies masked by the reading of the larger group.
  • Children who are poky readers, who stumble while trying to decode words, will gain comprehension which they sometimes miss.
  • Choral reading is fun for children.

Certain kinds of books or readings work well for choral reading.

  • If a book has a rhyme pattern, or a predictable rhythm, it can be a good choice. A poem or nursery rhyme makes a good choral reading selection.
  • If the book is short, so that it can be repeated several times in a few minutes, it can be a good choice.
  • If the book is at the reading level of the less skilled students, it can be a good choice.
  • If less skilled readers are familiar with the rhyme or story, it can be a good choice.

Working one-on-one with a student, the parent and student can read aloud together from the same page. If the choral reading happens in a classroom, each student should have a copy of the text or be able to see a Big Book which everyone can use. Usually the adult reads first while the students follow along, pointing their fingers at the spoken words. Then the student joins in. The student might feel more comfortable if the adult reads with gusto, drowning out the mistakes of the beginning reader. As the selection is reread, the adult can read less loudly, allowing the child’s voice to be heard. Rereading the selection several times over several days is a good way to help the less skilled reader to remember the words or to figure them out quickly.

Case study: Julie, a seven-year-old, high-achieving reader

Julie had just turned four when I began to tutor her in reading. Her mother, a native of China, had been taking Julie to a tutoring agency since she was barely three. The mother worked with her daughter daily on the reading lessons which Julie brought home.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.


When I met Julie, she could read many one-syllable words and some two syllable words. However, I noticed that when confronted with a new word, she could not figure it out. She had memorized the look of the words she knew but she had not learned phonics skills to sound out new words.

We began by reviewing ABC names and consonant sounds, almost all of which Julie knew. Then we spent many lessons on vowel sounds, focusing on short vowels first, and later mixing both short and long vowel sounds. We did this using pictures (pig, hat, run) which Julie would match with cards labeled ā ē ī ō ū and ă ĕ ĭ ŏ ŭ. We would spend about ten minutes of a lesson on this kind of work. Julie’s attention span was about ten to twelve minutes, so this was one of several activities in a single, hour-long lesson.

Tutor teaching a child.

When she mastered the vowel sounds using pictures, we worked on forming three-letter words using short vowels. At first I moved letter tiles around to form words, and with time, Julie made her own combinations and tested me to see if I knew what words she had formed.

Next, I added blends to short vowel words, first at the beginnings of words, and later at the ends of words. She found the beginning blends easier than the ending blends, as most children do. I made index cards with blend words on them, and when Julie would read a word on a card correctly, she would use a date stamp to mark the card—a way to make the learning fun. After a few weeks she mastered the blend words.

Late in our first year together, Julie began work on long vowel words ending with a silent “e.” She knew many of them by sight but not by sounding a word out. As our first year ended, we were working on long vowel single syllable words with double vowels such as “beat,” “fuel” and “rain.”

We were also building words using roots, prefixes and suffixes whose parts were written on little cards which Julie would push together to form words such as re-mix-ing and un-read-able. In the months which followed, when she encountered a long, unfamiliar word, she sometimes covered the prefix or suffix to figure out the middle part, and then constructed the word bit by bit as I had demonstrated.

Young girl reading a book

Julie could read many picture books. She enjoyed short paragraphs with colorful pictures on each page, but she would not try a chapter book. “Too many words,” she would say. She continued to go to the tutoring agency and do the reading homework with her mother, and to work with me once a week. When Julie was five, we began adding spelling and sentence writing to her lessons.

Julie is 7 now and has finished first grade. She is in the gifted program at her school. She reads voraciously, everything from Ranger Rick magazines to hundred-page chapter books. She has exhausted the phonics-like reading materials I have. She can read fourth or fifth grade materials as fluently as I can. She is working on expanding her vocabulary and on using more details in writing.

Julie is an example of the progress a child can make with a tutor or tutoring center augmenting school instruction. She is also an example of what studying during school breaks can do. She goes to school year round—nine months in her public school, and 12 months with tutors and her mother. Julie has a mother committed to Julie’s education, a mother who scours the library for appropriate books for Julie, subscribes to Ranger Rick, and oversees Julie’s homework and her piano practicing. She also teaches Julie how to write using Chinese pictographs.

For Julie, education is a way of life.

Julie—mischievous, hardworking and accomplished—could be your child’s classmate.

Where can I find a good list of books for my child to read this summer?

If you are looking for appropriate summer reading for your child, may I suggest several lists of books for you to check out.

This website is an appendix of the Common Core State Standards. By grade level, many books, poems, stories and other kinds of reading are offered as exemplars, meaning these are good examples of the kinds of reading children should be doing. These are not the only readings that the Common Core standards recommend, but they are of the high quality that the Common Core is encouraging.

students taking out piles of books at the library

The above website contains nonfiction published by Scholastic, Inc., a respected children’s book publisher in the US. You can easily go to the appropriate grade level at this web site to find lists of books.

The above Teachers First website is offered as a service to teachers by The Source for Learning, a non-profit learning and technologies corporation. Scroll down to find 100 recommended books grouped by age level.

The above website is from the Association for Library Service to Children. Two years ago this organization put together annotated lists of books for children. The books are grouped by grade level and the list can be easily downloaded.

There are other lists compiled by the California Department of Education, the New York Public Library, religious groups and book publishers. If you go to your online search engine and search for “reading books for children by grade level,” you will find many sources of lists.

With hundreds of books to choose from, your child is sure to find many.

If my child reads slowly, he can pronounce almost all the words correctly, but he understands almost nothing. If he reads faster, he mispronounces many words but he seems to understand a bit. Which do I go for—accuracy or comprehension?

Accuracy. But let’s backtrack a little.

At what stage of reading is your son? Is he reading passages matched to his reading level? If a child is plodding laboriously through text, the text is too difficult for his reading level. He is not achieving fluency. I suggest you go back to easy readers which he can read accurately and with understanding in order to give him confidence.boy reading book

If he is in third grade, for example, you might find some first grade reading for him. Ask your librarian for help. If he can read sight words and CVC words at a good pace, with word accuracy and with overall comprehension, you know he is reading at least at an early first grade level. Gradually increase the reading difficulty. You want to maintain the child’s confidence, so increasing the difficulty level should not happen in a matter of days but rather over weeks or months.

Some problems to listen for:

  • If a child is stumbling, word to word, he is not phrasing within sentences.  For example, all the words in a prepositional phrase go together and should be said as a unit; the subject and it’s modifiers should be said as a unit.  Practice reading aloud with you modeling how to say a given sentence, and ask your son to phrase words so that they make sense.
  • If a child is reading in a flat monotone, his reading lacks inflection.  Some languages lack inflection (Korean, for example), and children from that background might feel foolish saying some words louder and some words softer, or saying part of a word louder than the rest of a word.  If you can read with inflection, let the child listen to you and then ask him to repeat the words the same way.  If you cannot read with inflection, a child can listen and read along to books on tape.
  • If a child is bulldozing longer words rather than sounding them out, he could have problems with phonics, or be dyslexic,  or  be an impatient personality.  Cover suffixes and prefixes, discuss the root word’s meaning and the meaning of the suffixes and prefixes, and then reassemble the word.  Reread the sentence and ask the student what the word means in the context of that sentence.

Some manufacturers have a reading level on the back cover of children’s books. “RL 2.2” for example means reading level second grade, second month. Other books are color coded by the library, and still others show reading level with a lexile score. In my public library, one long wall of books contains easy readers for children learning to read. You might find an author whom your child likes. Ask your librarian for help so that your child is reading at the correct reading level and gaining confidence.

As your child progresses to higher reading levels, he will probably read with less accuracy and at a slower speed unless you actively intervene. Ask him to read aloud. When he pauses or stumbles, let him try to figure out the difficulty himself, but if he can’t, stop him and help him. Perhaps you will notice he doesn’t understand a concept in phonics; or that prefixes or suffixes confuse him; or that he doesn’t know where to make the break in multi-syllable words so he pronounces words wrong; or that a secondary meaning of a common word baffles him. Teach him how to solve his problem. Then let him continue reading that sentence or that paragraph. Now ask him to reread it. If he continues to stumble at the same spot, you know that he needs stronger intervention on a particular skill.

At the end of paragraphs or chapters, it’s important to ask your child what happened (in fiction) or what is the main idea (in nonfiction). If he talks around the idea but cannot nail it, he was focusing on individual words and missing the meaning of sentences or paragraphs. The reading was too hard. If he can retell the story or explain the main idea, he is comfortable at that reading level, and should try a slightly higher reading level.

What I see with many of my students is that they begin to have difficulty with reading once they have mastered the basic rules of phonics. It’s not a decoding problem; it’s a vocabulary problem.  As the reading level increases, so do the number of words they don’t understand. It’s not a matter of pronunciation usually; it’s a matter of having no idea what a given word or an idiom means. This is particularly true for ESL students.

That is why I say accuracy is important. If a child cannot read a given word accurately and know what it means, then understanding a sentence or a paragraph—with lots of unknown words—becomes impossible.