How do I help my child figure out difficult words? She stumbles, stops and looks helplessly at me.

Many reasons exist for children stumbling on difficult words.

  • It could be “the code,” the way that certain sounds correspond to certain letter patterns in English. Sometimes a review of sounds and their corresponding letters helps children to figure out new words.
  • Young girl trying to read mysterious on a poster,It could be the number of letters (or syllables) in the word. Longer words are more difficult to read than shorter ones—more sounds, more word parts.  Covering up some parts of the word while revealing another part can help the child to focus on a little bit of the word at a time.
  • Many difficult words are actually words with prefixes and suffixes. Teach your child what prefixes and suffixes are, where to find them at the beginnings and endings of words, and what those word fragments mean.  You can find lists of words with particular prefixes and suffixes on line.  If the child is trained to look for these little parts of words, she can often figure out what a word means.
  • A word might be difficult because it has more than one meaning. The child might be familiar with a commonly used meaning, but not with secondary meanings.  When you are reading with your child and she stops, ask what that word means to her.  Then tell her there is another meaning she might not know about, and explain.  Words with the same spelling and different meanings are called homographs.  You can find common ones online.
  • Sometimes the context helps a child to figure out difficult words, but sometimes context is no help at all. Sometimes a dictionary becomes necessary.  When I tutor children, I make it a point to look up one word each lesson.  This teaches the students how to use a dictionary and that looking up words is sometimes the smart solution.
  • Too much information in context can baffle the child. What is important?  What doesn’t matter?  As an adult, you might know, so eliminate the distractors by covering them up with your fingers.  That leaves less information for the child to analyze.

Check the reading level.  The book might be too difficult for the child, replete with sentences that are long, with esoteric vocabulary words, with small type and with little white space.  If your child doesn’t have to read it, take the book away and recommend reading material better suited to her skills.  If she does have to read it, talk to her teacher about her struggles and see if there are alternative readings, especially easier ones.  Sometimes if she reads the simpler version first, she can gain confidence to tackle the harder version.  And sometimes the simpler version is good enough.

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