How to Help Beginners With Oral Reading

        The best practice activity for beginners is reading books.  Unlike working with isolated words, beginners read many more words with much greater interest because the words tell a rewarding story.  However, usually children need a skillful reader to scaffold their oral reading and help them succeed with challenging books.  When the reader runs into a tough word, the most helpful response gives brief help with word recognition while sticking close to the meaning of the story. 

bookmark         We want students to use three major strategies when they are learning to read words: decoding, crosschecking, and rereading.  The most important reading strategy we want our students to adopt is to decode, or "take a shot."  We want students to focus on the spelling and use the letters to generate as accurate a pronunciation as possible, which research identifies as essential in making sight words.  Next, we want students to read the rest of the sentence to crosscheck, i.e., to test whatever pronunciation they have generated in the context of the sentence.  The rest of the sentence often provides a contextual boost that allows a reader to figure out the word, especially with irregular words.  Finally, we want the reader to go back and reread the sentence.  This gives further practice with the word, but more importantly, it leads the reader back into the story, which is the motivation for reading. 

        In summary, we want children to sound out the word, but then we want them to test the pronunciation in context.  Decoding is the most powerful word identification strategy, which  used skillfully, will get the reader close to the word.  Crosschecking will complete word identification, allowing the reader to reexamine and remember the spelling map.  Once a word is identified, we want the student to reread the sentence to pick up the thread of the story.

        The "flip side" of crosschecking describes a procedure teachers and parents can use to help children read aloud.

        Step 1:  Wait and write.  Wait several seconds to give the reader a chance to decode the word.  When working with a group, teach the other children to wait as well.  While you're waiting, write down the word and reader's attempt (if any).  This may suggest a correspondence to work on in a future phonics lesson.  For example, if the student misses top, sock, and rod, work on the short o correspondence next time.

        Step 2:  Finish the sentence.  Have the student read the rest of the sentence for help.  (If the student keeps reading after the error, stop the reader at the end of the sentence.) Completing the sentence gives a small contextual boost to complete word recognition after partial decoding.  For example, the reader may say, "I rid my bike--Oh, I ride my bike." 

        As the reader struggles with the word, don't say "skip it."  We want the student to try a pronunciation because context usually isn't powerful enough to supply the word without phonetic cues.  On the other hand, don't say "sound it out."  That's the goal, but we need to scaffold sounding out, not badger the reader.

        Step 3:  Brief help.  Provide a single brief and unobtrusive scaffold to assist the reader in identifying the word.  The most effective scaffold we've discovered is a "coverup."  Without saying anything, cover the word with your finger, and then slowly uncover the letters to help the reader sound out and blend.  Some teachers use a small card, a bookmark, or a "coverup stick" (a decorated popsickle stick).  With children just beginning to decode, uncover single letters or digraphs (e.g., s-a-ck).  With more advanced beginners, uncover syllable chunks (e.g., news-pa-per). 

        The coverup scaffold is especially helpful because it is the least likely to disrupt reading.  Also, it models a strategy the reader can use for self-help.  After you have explained and provided coverups for a few lessons, ask the reader to "try a coverup."  Coverups make decoding easier by helping students work with smaller, easier units of print.

        Sometimes coverups don't work well because the student is missing a needed correspondences.  For example, in decoding flew, the student may sound out the consonants but have trouble with the vowel digraph.  In this case, you could point out what a tricky part of the spelling says, e.g., that ew says /OO/.  

        Step 4:  Provide the word.  If your brief help doesn't work, provide the word.  Any further instruction will take the reader too far from the story.  Don't ask questions, give hints, teach phonics, or ask the student to try again.  Observe the one-failure limit:  Don't allow a child to fail again after you've given a scaffold.

        Step 5:  Reread.  Ask the student to reread the sentence.  This shifts attention back to the story and gives the reader a second chance to read the unfamiliar word.  Do this whenever the child gets the word--after any measurable delay, after a coverup, or after providing the word.

        Special situations:   We usually do not correct errors that don't change meaning, e.g., "home" for house.  This follows the principle "Choose your battles carefully."  If a word is well beyond your reader's decoding ability (e.g., tortilla or chamois), supply it immediately.  Finally, if the reader is struggling with many words, he or she needs an easier book.  Children make the best progress when they struggle with no more than one word in 20.  When they are less than 95% successful in identifying words, they lose interest, give up on crosschecking, fail to understand the story, and take no pleasure in reading.

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