Guessing at long words means more phonics work is necessary

Suppose you have a reader  who  scores well on teacher assessments through first grade.  But then in second grade, she falters and starts guessing wrongly at new words.  What is going on?

It could be that this child has not learned the rules of phonics, or has learned the rudimentary rules but not the more advanced rules.  Instead, this student relies on a system of memorizing the look of words.

A child can get by for years using whole word guessing.  But then because of the sheer number of new long words, this system no longer sustains learning words with two, three and four syllables, words with prefixes and suffixes, words which must be sounded out first one way and then another to figure them out.

Research shows that a “whole language” approach to learning to read—that is memorizing new words—doesn’t work nearly as well as a system based on phonics.

I have worked with many students who can sound out one- and two-syllable words but who guess at longer words.  They say a word which begins the same way as the longer word but which doesn’t make sense.  They continue reading without stopping to consider that what they just said makes no sense, a clue that they are not comprehending what they read.

For example, suppose a sentence says, “The President issued an executive order.”  A student reads, “The President issued an exercise order.” In a split second the student searched her mind and retrieved “exercise,” a familiar word that begins the way the original word begins.

If you have a child who slurs longer words or who substitutes a word that begins the same way as the original word, this child probably needs advanced phonics work.  By advanced I mean learning rules for splitting long words into parts and for understanding how prefixes and suffixes attach to a root word and change the pronunciation and meaning of a root.

Even after children can read, they need to continue to work with phonics.

Diagrams help students read

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners, ESL students and students with comprehension issues understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to read a biography of Coretta Scott King.  To help the student see the organization of Mrs. King’s life, the teacher could draw a color-coded diagram of important activities in Mrs. King’s life.   Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.   Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the reading passage breaks down into smaller chunks.

Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children learning English or children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

How to teach –ight, -ought, -ind, -ild and word families that don’t follow rules

Words ending with –ight don’t follow the rules of phonetics.  The “g” and “h” are silent, and there is no silent “e” after the “t” to make the vowel “i” long.

Some word families, such as –ought, -ind, -ild, and -ight need to be taught as exceptions to phonics rules.  Essentially, they are a group of sight words which follow the same spelling rule, but they are not pronounced the way they look.

It’s probably better to delay teaching words like these until students learn the basic rules of phonics.  Exceptions to rules are confusing.  Better to get the rules understood before introducing exceptions.

That said, how do you teach such exceptions?

  • Teach one exception family of words at a time, giving several days for the student to get used to that family.
  • Post a list of the family of exception words so students can see them on and off many times a day.
  • Ask the children to read short paragraphs containing such words.
  • Ask the children to compose a silly verse using a familiar song for rhythm. For example, to “Old McDonald Had a Farm” students could write, “My brother Dwight did pick a fight, EE I EE I Oh.  He picked a fight with a mighty knight, EE I EE I Oh.”  The sillier the better.  Write down the song, show the words to the students, and sing it daily to reinforce the family pronunciation and spelling.
  • Play games using the exception word families. Students could write the 15 –ight words plus 10 –ite words on a blank BINGO board. You could call off a definition of each word which students would need to identify on their boards.
  • Have a spelling bee using the words.
  • Students could write a paragraph using as many of the words as they can. This could be a group project the first time and later an individual project.

Students should be reminded about words with the same sound as the exception but which follow the rules of phonics.   Students need to remember which words go with which rule.

English has many words which don’t follow the rules, but it helps when there are a whole group of them which follow their own strange rule.  They can be taught in groups rather than singly.

Little kids need to learn pronoun-antecedent agreement

Pronoun-antecedent agreement is a reading skill we expect young readers to understand until we encounter some kids who don’t.

In the sentences, “The dog barked at me.  I was scared,” we take for granted that the child understands that “I” in the second sentence refers to “me” in the first sentence and not to “dog.”

But some kids don’t understand this, especially students learning English as a second language.  Relationships which some students implicitly understand need to be explicitly taught to these students.

In particular, younger students need to practice examples of

  • Singular pronouns which refer back to singular nouns.
  • Plural pronouns which refer back to plural nouns.
  • Masculine pronouns which refer back to masculine nouns.
  • Feminine pronouns which refer back to feminine nouns.
  • Neutral pronouns which refer back to neutral nouns.
  • Pronouns which refer back to words two sentences back.

One way you can test if a particular student understands pronoun-antecedent agreement is to provide the student with a reading passage containing several pronouns.  You circle the pronouns and ask the student to draw an arrow from each circled pronoun to its antecedent.  Or your color-code the pronouns with their antecedents.

Another way is to tape over the pronouns and ask the student to supply them.  Supplying words is always harder than finding words already provided.

A third way is to ask the student to write about a particular subject which involves singular and plural pronouns, such as first grade girls jumping rope at recess.

Some schools teach types of pronouns (subject, object, possessive), but delay teaching pronoun-antecedent agreement.  This is a mistake.  We use pronouns to take the place of nouns we have previously stated.  Students need to hear the relationship between pronouns and nouns in order to understand why we use pronouns at all.


Is it important for beginning reader to know the ABC’s in order?

No.  Knowing the ABC’s in order isn’t important until a child learns alphabetical order.child making letter T with his body

What is important is for a beginning reader to hear and say the 42 sounds of English, and to be able to associate each of those sounds with a letter or pair of letters.

Some reading specialists recommend not showing a child letters until the child can repeat the sounds.  In English, sounds come first.  Sounds are paired with one or more symbols (letters) so we can show sounds visually.Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

When I teach children sound-letter pairings, I start with the consonants since most consonants, like “b” and “k,” are always pronounced the same.  Then I move on to short vowel sounds, saving “e” and “i” until “a,” “o.” and “u” are learned since “e” and “i” sound similar.  That still leaves more than a dozen sounds to match with letters or letter groups.

However, many teachers drill the ABC’s by singing the ABC song.  They might test beginning readers on the order of the ABC’s, making allowances for the “L, M. N, O” section which is almost always the last part learned.

Find out what your child’s teacher expects.  But to answer your question, no, knowing the order of the ABC’s is not important for beginning readers.

Colleges offer remedial reading and writing courses, but too late for most students

Many community colleges and four-year colleges in the US offer remedial reading and writing classes to incoming freshmen to raise lagging students to the base level expected for beginning freshmen.  These remedial courses offer no credit, so by the end of freshman year, students who pass these classes will not have accumulated the 30 or so credit hours expected for the first year of college education.  These students’ chances of graduating in two years from community colleges and four years from traditional colleges and universities are almost impossible.  And this means that many poor readers and writers drop out and never earn a college degree.

Colleges and universities are rethinking their remedial English courses for many reasons.

  • These remedial courses, in both English and math, cost about $7 billion each year.


  • Few freshmen who require remedial courses ever earn a degree.


  • 96% of two- and four-year colleges and universities enroll students in remedial courses.


  • In one state, California, more than 70% of community college students qualify for remedial English courses, and of those, only 60% pass the remedial courses and start credit courses, according to a 2016 study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Of those 60% who do pass, most never finish a college level English course with a C grade or better.  California is pretty typical of the rest of the country.


  • Starting in the fall of 2018, all such remedial courses will be eliminated at California State University, the largest public university system in the US. The stated purpose is to enable more students to graduate in four years.


What does this mean if you are teaching a young child to read?

Reading and writing are two of the most make-it or break-it life skills.  If a little kid is having trouble, now is the time to intervene.  The longer a student flounders, the more he falls behind and the less likely he is to catch up, even with help.  By the time a student reaches college, high school, or even middle school, it’s usually too late.  The time to learn to read and write is when a child is four, five, six and seven years old.

If you want your children to succeed, do whatever is necessary to ensure that they can read by the time they start third grade.

How to teach a child to read with little cost

If you are attempting to teach your child to read, and you go to Amazon or your local book store and find literally hundreds of instruction books, dozens of video games, and all kinds of apps and CDs, and boxes of flash cards, where do you begin?  Is all that “stuff” really necessary?

I suggest a method which includes spending time with your child but not much money.

Start with the sounds of English. There are about 42 in most parts of the US.  Say the sounds aloud, one at a time.  Let your child listen and repeat the sounds aloud.  If he can’t say one or two of the sounds, work on those sounds for a few minutes each day until he can hear and repeat all the sounds.  (Supplies you will need:  a list of the 42 sounds, available free on this website and online.)

Next, explain that we associate letters with those sounds.  Start with consonants and teach the child to match each sound with a letter.  Move on to vowels and explain that some sounds share the same letter.  (At this point, don’t try to teach digraphs or exceptions.)  Say a particular sound and ask your child what letter goes with that sound.  Show a handful of letters to choose from and add more options as the child gains accuracy.  (Supplies you will need:  a set of the ABC’s on cards, on letter tiles or written by hand on index cards.)

Once the child can associate sounds with letters accurately, form CVC (consonant—vowel—consonant) words, such as “c a t.” From years of experience I have found that letter tiles work best at this.  (I use Scrabble game tiles, but there are other kinds.)  Set the three letters an inch apart.  Say the letter sounds one by one.  Move the letter tiles together slowly and then more rapidly, saying the letter sounds so that they eventually slur together.  Help the child learn that when we put letter sounds together, we form words.  (Supplies you will need:  lists of CVC words available free online.)

At this point, your child can read many of the words in some books, such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and  Hop on Pop.   Encourage the child to read the words she can and you read the other words.  If you own the books and don’t mind marking them, you can underline the words your child knows as she reads–a visible proof to the child that she can read.  (Supplies you will need:  a few early reading books available free online or for less than a dollar each at most resale stores.)

CVCC twin consonantsNext you need a plan to sequence the teaching of various types of words.   You can find plenty online.  Most plans start with two- or three-letter short vowel words like “cat” and “ax.”  Then they move on to blends, first at the beginnings of short vowel words (“blot”) and when those are understood, at the ends of such words (“blotch.”)  Adding “s” to form plurals is considered such a blend.  Then teach digraphs and sight (Dolch) words.  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of sight or Dolch words available free online.)

Some authorities suggest teaching two- and three-syllable short vowel words at this point, such as “catnip” and “tunnel.” Others suggest tackling one-syllable long vowel words beginning with words ending with a silent “e” such as “bake” and “tune” and then moving on to other long vowel combinations such as “ee” and “oa.”  There is no right or wrong sequence.  It is important to keep reviewing words the student already learned and mixing them up while you are teaching new kinds of words.  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of such words available free online.)

boy choosing right root for a prefixAt this point, you might teach prefixes and suffixes, or words which don’t follow rules such as two-syllable words with one consonant between the two vowels. Does the consonant go with the first syllable (“robin”) or with the second syllable (“robust”)?  (Supplies you will need:  Lists of such words available free  online.)

Three- and four-syllable words follow the same rules as one- and two-syllable words, but the problem is where to put the inflection so that they are pronounced correctly.  Help the child pronounce such words all possible ways until she hears the correct way.  You and your child might read books you own or library books, and when you come to long words, stop, and figure them out together.  (Supplies you will need:  Picture books, and lists of multi-syllable words available free online.)

By now your child is reading.  She might need help occasionally pronouncing a particular word, or more likely, understanding the meaning of an unfamiliar word.  But learning the sounds of English (phonemes) and linking those sounds to form words (phonics) is largely done.