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.
I suspect the child is not using phonics but instead is memorizing the look of words. She might have been taught phonics in first grade or she might have been taught to treat all words as sight words. By second grade she is encountering too many new words to treat them all as sight words, yet she hasn’t an alternative strategy.
Some teachers still teach reading using the sight words approach without teaching phonics. Maybe her second grade teacher does that. I recommend you talk to her second grade teacher about how she is teaching reading. If she is not using phonics to teach her students, she is ignoring the research on how children learn to read. That teacher might be ignorant about research on how children learn to read.
In any case, you need to get your child as soon as possible into a reading program that emphasizes phonics. That might mean switching teachers or even schools; it might mean hiring a reading tutor; it might mean becoming that reading tutor yourself. Without intervention, your child is likely to face an uphill battle learning to read and may become a lifelong poor reader.