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Part 4 – Training the brain to process words

Poor readers have usually picked up bad habits, such as guessing words instead of decoding them. Ideas for dealing with this are provided in this section.

Part 4: Training the brain to process words

Interestingly, it is possible to see the effects of these bad habits, just by looking at the children’s eyes when reading:

Children who have cracked the code and are good readers always try and work out words that they have not read before. Their eyes go from left to right, all through the word, processing all the letter sounds and thinking about the meaning as they go. If the word does not make sense, they go back and blend it again, perhaps trying an alternative way of pronouncing the vowels. If they still cannot get the word – which is unusual (especially if the word is in their vocabulary) – then they want to be told what it is.

By contrast, when struggling children cannot read a word, their eyes dart all over the place. These children have usually been taught – misguidedly in my view – to look for clues in the pictures or to look for known letter sounds or words within the word. So, if they try to blend a word like creamy, for example, by using their knowledge of single letter sounds (and not recognising that both ‹ea› and ‹y› can say /ee/), they will not hear the word correctly. More often they will look at the first letter and simply try to guess a word beginning with /c/. Occasionally, they may find a letter sound they know very well, such as /m/ and try to start the word with that instead. Similarly, finding words within a word (such as van and age in advantage), usually fails to give children the word. More significantly, it trains the brain in the wrong way.

Struggling children really need to be taught to automatically blend the words from left to right, in the way that good readers work out words. Interestingly, the technique of attacking words from different directions can sometimes lead to children reading a word backwards, particularly with a word like saw, which is read as was [demonstration]. These children will have learnt the common word was, but they have not developed that automatic processing from left to right. Instead, they see the letters starting from the right and quickly say was. This never happens with a good reader, who automatically decodes from left to right and knows that a word starting with an ‹s› cannot be a word that begins with a /w/ sound, as in was.

The children might also look at what comes elsewhere on the page or look up at the teacher, hoping for the answer, but mostly they guess the word. It is supposed to be predicting but we all know it ends up as guessing, with the child desperately trying to show that he or she really can read well. There is no doubt that this wild type of guessing is caused by expecting children to read words before they have been given sufficient phonic knowledge.

A well-respected scientist, Linnea Ehri, who is a Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology at the City University of New York, made the following observation in a paper presented at the 2003 DfES Phonics seminar. Ehri wrote:

…. when phonics instruction is introduced after students have already acquired some reading skill, it may be more difficult to step in and influence how they read, because it requires changing students’ habits. For example, to improve their accuracy, students may need to suppress the habit of guessing words based on context and minimal letter clues, to slow down, and to examine spellings of words more fully when they read them. Findings suggest that using phonics instruction to remediate reading problems may be harder than using phonics at the earliest point to prevent reading difficulties.

In other words, it is much better to teach the children the decoding process from the beginning, rather than teaching in a way that encourages wrong techniques that have to be altered at a later stage. Prevention is far better than cure.

 

 

  • Letter-Sound Knowledge - Steps 1 - 3

    Print the first sheet and ask the child to say the sounds for the letters, recording any that are not known. Some letters represent more than one sound, which the child should also know. The second and third sheets provide guidance for these alternative sounds.

  • Letter-Sound Knowledge - Steps 1 - 3 - print letters

    Print the first sheet and ask the child to say the sounds for the letters, recording any that are not known. Some letters represent more than one sound, which the child should also know. The second and third sheets provide guidance for these alternative sounds.

  • Letter-Sound Knowledge - Steps 4 - 5

    Print the first sheet and ask the child to say the sounds for the letters, recording any that are not known. Some letters represent more than one sound, which the child should also know. The second and third sheets provide guidance for these alternative sounds.

  • Letter-Sound Knowledge - Steps 4 - 5 - print letters

    Print the first sheet and ask the child to say the sounds for the letters, recording any that are not known. Some letters represent more than one sound, which the child should also know. The second and third sheets provide guidance for these alternative sounds.

  • Tricky Words - Steps 3 - 6

    Print this sheet and ask the children to read the tricky words, recording any that are not known. Use dictation to find out how well they can spell them.

  • Tricky Words - Steps 3 - 6 - print letters

    Print this sheet and ask the children to read the tricky words, recording any that are not known. Use dictation to find out how well they can spell them.

  • Suitable words for testing the skill of blending

    These words are not frequently read by young children, so they are suitable for testing how well a child can blend unknown words. The words start with letter sounds the children learnt initially and progress to the more unusual letter sounds in Step 5.