Word-Study Instruction – Lessons for Building Decoding Efficiency

(Thanks also to Amy Keane who helped write some of the lessons. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the lessons.)

When you come across a long word you have never seen before, do you sound it out letter-by-letter? Chances are, you don’t — sounding words out letter-by-letter is horribly inefficient. Young children who are just beginning to learn to read typically, briefly, go through a phase in their development of “sounding out” words letter-by-letter. That’s an important stage in the development of readers – but more experienced readers develop much more efficient decoding strategies.

The key to reading success is to develop efficient reading skills, and it is very inefficient to read words letter-by-letter, left-to-right. Instead, efficient readers recognize patterns in the word, and process words as “chunks.” There are certain letter clusters that occur in English words very often, and our brains learn to process those letters together like a single unit. For example, why would any experienced reader “sound out” the letters “ING” or “PRE” or “IES.” Those patterns of letters occur together so often, our brains just treat them as one chunk.
The letters “ENT,” for example, occur in that order in over 4000 different words in the English language – likewise the letters “ATE,” “EST,” and “INE.” If you know how to pronounce LATE, DATE, and GATE, then words like FATE, RATE, and GRATE should pose no challenge. Once children learn to “sound out” simple, short words letter by letter, it is time to teach them to pay attention to the word parts and recognize chunks of letters with fluency and automaticity.

Working with urban schools serving children from linguistically and economically diverse backgrounds, I saw a desperate need to teach students these fluent decoding and “chunking” skills. Many students in 3rd, 4th, even 5th grade in the schools where I worked were struggling to decode simple words like GREEN, PAINT, and CART. Amazingly, when I would write the word “ART” on a piece of paper (for example), the student could identify it immediately, but the same student would struggle with words like CART, SMART, and START. Clearly nobody had taught these students to “read by analogy,” or to look for word parts that they know from other words.

The teachers I worked with understood the crippling nature of these decoding problems, but they typically did not know what to do. They had very little time for basic decoding instruction.

So, I created a lesson format that only takes 10 to 15 minutes to teach. This lesson format is rapid and routine, so students learn to move very quickly through the steps. While the routine is consistent, the content or focus of the lesson can change every day. The combination of rapid and familiar routine with a changing focus makes this a fun game for the kids.

In addition to teaching basic decoding and fluency skills, I also wanted to reinforce some other literacy skills sorely lacking in our diverse population of students. I wanted to include a little vocabulary instruction, grammar, and writing, all packed into a quick 15 minute routine. I was aiming for simple and efficient. You don’t need to cut out letter tiles. You don’t need to plan any lessons. I have several dozen of them here for you, and I’ll keep making more.

When practiced, this entire routine takes just 15 minutes. At first, more time may be needed, but if it is done every day, it becomes routine, and the entire exercise can be done very quickly. This is an excellent use of time that might otherwise be used poorly, such as first thing in the morning, right before or after lunch or recess or right before going home for the day.