Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Word Attack Strategies

The above is a "skill card" sent home as part of the "reading bag program." I'm supposed to practice these with Younger Daughter every night as her "home reading coach."

The scan is a bit hard to read: here's what it says:

Stop if something doesn't look right, sound right, or make sense.

Look at the picture.

Say the first letter sound.

Reread: Go back and try again.

Blend: Say the first two letters.

Cover part of the word.

Chunk: Look for parts you know.

Say "blank", read on, and come back.

Think of a word that looks the same and rhymes.

Try a different sound for the vowel.

Once again, what's the one strategy that's not mentioned? Why, sounding out the word letter by letter, the one strategy we're trying to teach Younger Daughter.

Trying a different sound for the vowel is not a bad idea, but it should be at the top of the list. And "Look at the picture" shouldn't be on the list at all. That's how I got a kid who would look at the word "Chester" and say "chicken", because there was one in the illustration.


  1. Yeah, I don't get that. I'm attracted to a lot of what I hear about the whole language approach to teaching reading, but it's not whole language if you completely leave out one of the main ways of understanding what the words are.

  2. Chris, what parts of the whole language approach sound good to you?

    I never really paid attention to the reading wars. I learned to read OK without much phonics (I remember "Dick and Jane", which was the original "look-say" approach), and so did Older Daughter. But now that I've got a child who is struggling, I'm doing the research, and I don't have anything good to say about whole language.

    As I understand it, the whole language approach is the reason kids are given those deadly dull "leveled" readers. With whole language, kids are expected to memorize about 400 words a year, so they have to have specially written books that contain only those limited vocabularies.

    I never had to confront this before because Older Daughter developed an intuitive understanding of phonics on her own, and I must have too. We learned to read in spite of whole language.

    Sainted Husband went to parochial schools and learned to read using phonics. He still remembers some of the rules he learned (which were news to me!), for instance, "if the consonant is doubled the vowel before it is short."

    I highly recommend "Why Johnny Can't Read."

  3. Well, I shouldn't even post a comment on this because I don't consider myself very informed at all. But my (admittedly not-fully-informed) impression of whole language is very different from what you're describing. If anything, it was my impression that whole language instruction was much more likely to focus on real books and stories that might actually be interesting to kids than straight phonics-only instruction, which would be more likely to consist of drills or tiny excerpts removed from context.

    It does seem like one of those issues where the two "choices" are really just caricatures. Any good whole language instruction wouldn't neglect phonics, and I assume any decent phonics instruction would put some effort into cultivating the kids' enjoyment of reading as an activity (though I never feel safe in assuming that about what goes on in school). The real problem is that any approach can be executed badly, and it might even be the case that the whole language approach might be harder for large numbers of teachers to pull off well.

    Here's Alfie Kohn on the subject, which is probably where I'm getting a lot of preconceptions.

  4. Ugh -- I left a comment earlier that seems to have gotten eaten by Blogger. I'll try to redo it:

    I hesitate even to post a comment on this topic, because I don't consider myself very informed about this topic at all. But my (not-very-informed) impression of whole language is very different from what you're describing. If anything, my impression is that a whole-language approach would be more likely to focus on having the kids read real stories and on preserving the kids' enjoyment of reading, and would be less likely than a phonics approach to rely on drills and on excerpts taken out of context.

    I think it's one of those areas where the two "choices" are really just caricatures. Any good whole language approach to reading would not disregard phonics, and presumably any decent phonics-based approach would still try to cultivate the kids' enjoyment of reading. It's just that any approach can be done well or done badly, and it may even be that whole language is an approach that's harder to do well.

    Here's Alfie Kohn on the issue, which is where some of my preconceptions are coming from.

  5. Your comment got caught in the spam filter -- I've restored it.

    Alfie Kohn drives me nuts on the subject of curriculum. I feel another blog post coming on ...

  6. So she needs to cross check- sound the word out, look at the picture, and make sure it makes sense. If she sounds the word out but it doesn't make sense, she made an error (maybe flip the vowel from a short to long vowel, try sounding out again- maybe she missed a blend)

  7. ps. I also feel like some of those strategies ARE sounding out strategies-

    say the first letters sounds
    blend the first two letters (blends like st, fl, tr)
    and looking for chunks and rhyming (if you know can, you know plan, man, tan- you can substitute the initial sound to make new words- phonemic awareness. These are skills we were indirectly taught when we were young when learning nursery rhymes and clapping games like Miss Mary Mack or The Name Game. See Michael Heggerty for additional scripted lessons.)