17 September 2016

Why You Should Be Teaching Word Attack Skills and the Resources You Need to Do It!

I don't think it is a stretch to say that every classroom has at least one student who could be considered a struggling reader, even in older grades, or in more affluent areas. For one reason or another, that student has not quite grasped the fundamentals of reading.

I am a reading specialist who has worked in my current position for six years. I'm really starting to notice that almost all of my students are weak in either phonics or what we call in the education world, "word attack skills". In almost every school that I go into, after second or third grade, reading instruction shifts drastically from phonics-related instruction to comprehension-based instruction. I have mixed emotions about this. On one hand, most students are ready to move on with this shift; however, a few students, usually the kiddos who are referred to me, haven't quite grasped all of it yet. Now, it doesn't take a teacher to realize that if you can't actually READ the words, it's going to make it that much harder to UNDERSTAND the words! This is where many of my kiddos fall into a downward spiral, and it's hard to get them out of it.

My answer? Head back to the basics, review, and FOCUS ON WORD ATTACK SKILLS!!!

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess you don't know what the word impecunious means. You may even not know how to pronounce it. (Not trying to insult your intelligence here... I didn't know what it meant when I looked it up. Kudos for you if you do!)

If you were a child reading and you came to that word in a text, what would you do? If you were a struggling reader, more times than not, you're going to completely skip the word and not give it another thought. Now, as a teacher, how can you change that?

1. Teach prefixes, root words, and suffixes.

Nearly 70% of new words that students will come across in higher-level text will contain a prefix and/or a suffix. I was actually kind of surprised when I read that statistic on a website. Why in the world are we not focusing more on prefixes and suffixes?

Being comfortable with these prefixes and suffixes not only allows them to figure out the word by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks, but it can also help them figure out the meaning of unknown words.

Remember our stumper of a word from earlier, impecunious? It has a prefix AND a suffix. Knowing this allows a reader to further break it down to im/pecuni/ous and even further to im/pe/cu/ni/ous using syllable rules. At least now we're getting somewhere. If a student remembered that im- as a prefix means not and that ous or ious means having, it would be understood that this word meant not having something.

Now, how about we go a step further? It's likely they saw this word used in context. The rest of the sentence or paragraph could help them figure out the meaning.

Imagine this sentence: Growing up in an impecunious household taught Tom the value of money. Given the context, it would be a reasonable guess to assume it meant not having much or being poor. Since the student was able to use prefix and suffix knowledge and context clues all together, the word was attacked and deciphered.

After thinking about all of this for awhile, I had a very specific idea of what I wanted to use with my kiddos. I wasn't finding exactly what I wanted online, so I decided, duh! Make your own! Here's what I came up with...

This is going to be part of a growing bundle. I am working on a suffix edition (coming by September 20th!) and am in the process of designing 2 other products for the bundle.

If you'd just like this first edition, it is available here in my store at TPT.

Each lesson included has a full sheet of text using the words in context to tell a story. Text dependent questions are included as well. 

Sentences are provided for students to practice using context clues to figure out the meaning of the word.

Words are grouped by like prefixes. Students can assess themselves on their knowledge of the words phonetically and semantically. 

Another fun activity that I created goes along with the old Cootie game. (I loved that game!)

Students collect cards to build a bug (prefix, root word, suffix). It does not have to be a real word, but they have to be able to put the three parts together and read it correctly to keep it.

2. Teach Greek and Latin word parts.
Comin' atcha with another statistic here...

Over 60% of our English languages stems from the Greek or Latin language. In science and technology, the figure can rise near 90 PERCENT!!!!

So why should you care as a teacher about this statistic?

Knowing how to pronounce these words or word parts and the meaning of them could be beyond helpful for any child.  I suggest starting slowly (especially in the lower grades) by introducing a few a week. Maybe even make a "Word of the Day" sort of thing out of it. This daily practice and introduction to this whole new side of looking at the English language is critical for word attack and vocabulary.

I found this great website to practice with a fun Greek themed game. Check it out!

Here's another!

3. Don't ASSUME that your students are solid in phonics skills. 

I think as students get into the upper elementary grades it is assumed often that they known letter sounds, vowel variants, blends, etc. I don't have to tell you what happens when you assume something. :)

I'm sometimes slightly alarmed at how poorly some of my students do on a phonics review assessment once they are in the upper elementary grades. I found it often reveals many cracks and holes that NEED to be fixed. Sometimes it is even necessary to go back and review short vowel sounds. It may demeaning to do something like that, but it is critical that they understand the very basics before anything can be built upon it... at least, that is my philosophy.

If you're worried about hurting your students' self-esteem, I have two points I want to make.

1. You are doing this to HELP them. Point that out to them. Make sure they know that you are only doing this work to make sure they understand the basics so that you CAN move on to harder stuff. I find that often when you simply explain to students WHY you are doing what you are doing, they're fine with it.

2. Not reviewing the basics and trying to move on when the foundation isn't solid is only going to make their "houses" crumble in the future.

*shoulder shrugs* That's just my way of looking at it.

Let me know what you do to help struggling readers. I'm always looking for new ideas!

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