I’m reviewing some strategies that a parent of a Grade One student received from their school.  I am breaking these strategies down and providing some pros and cons, and ranking them from worst to best.  Welcome to part 2!! (You can revisit part 1 HERE).


IMPORTANT NOTE:  Reading, writing, and spelling are LANGUAGE tasks.  When children speak and listen, language comes through the ears and is processed in the language-processing areas of the brain (mostly).  When we are teaching literacy to children, we are teaching them a way for language to come through the EYES and be processed in the language-processing areas of the brain. 

That is why strategies and activities that focus on visual memory don’t work.  Flashcards, sight word lists, writing spelling words out 50 times … we do not store visual vocabulary words in the visual memory areas of the brain; rather, words are stored in the language areas of the brain. 

 Good readers do this – they acquire a visual vocabulary of words they automatically can recognize AND reproduce quickly and effortlessly (we often call these “sight words).

In good readers, these words are stored in the language-processing areas of the brain.  Mature readers will store between 50 – 100,000 words in their visual vocabulary. 

Poor readers do not seem to store sight words.  WHY?  They have a language disorder.  More specifically, they have difficulty processing the structure of spoken words.  They cannot do a fast and accurate analysis of the sequence of sounds that make up a spoken word, and match that to the sequence of letters that appear on the page when that word is printed.

They can’t convert the “visual” format of a word to match any of the words in their spoken vocabulary.  

Poor readers and spellers have a language disorder, and they need specific language training, and then they become readers. 

Good readers process language effortlessly.  Many students learn to read simply by EXPOSURE to words – being read to, practising reading, and practising writing. 

For students that have INTACT language skills, you can’t really mess it up!  You can teach them anyway you like and they will learn.  Some readers are self-taught.  My daughter could sound out words at age 2, and had several sight words by age 4. 

The strategies on this list WILL work for students that have intact language skills. 

Many of the strategies on this list WILL NOT work for poor readers who have a language processing difficulty … and these are the students we need to become aware of! 

Without further ado:  Part 2 – the second-to-worst strategy on this list!!

Strategies that will be reviewed in this blog: 

Here is a list of strategies, in random order.  Each of the strategies has a catchy title, a short description, and a picture of an animal to cue/remind the student to use the strategy when reading.  

Skippy Frog:  Skip the word, then go back (reviewed in Part 1 HERE)

Lips the Fish: Say the First sound

Stripes the Zebra: Find the pattern

Stretchy Snake:  Stretch the sounds

Chunky Monkey: Find the chunks or little words you know

Eagle Eye:  Check the Picture

Flip the Dolphin: flip the vowel sound 

Tryin’ Lion: Try another strategy 

Slow Down Snail: Slow down if it doesn’t seem right 

Check it chicks: Make sure it looks right, sounds right, and makes sense. 

Strategy Countdown Worst-to-Best Blog post 2:

#9:  The second-to-WORST Strategy on this list:

Strategy Name:  Eagle Eye:  Check the Picture

Pros: Valuable for comprehension monitoring

Cons: Encourages guessing and compensating with meaning

Rating:  3

First Impressions:  

I work from an underlying theory regarding how the brain processes language.  In this research model, there are two “levels” of language processing:  Sentence-Discourse level processing, and Sound-Word level processing. 

Think of the sentence-discourse level of processing as the “big picture”.  This is where we process word meaning, in context. 

When students have difficulty processing this level of processing, it is usually apparent.  They have a below-average vocabulary, they may have difficulty with comprehension and following directions, and they may have difficulty organizing and formulating their thoughts to express themselves in complete sentences.

This level of language process is commonly assessed, and most language therapy goals are written around this level of processing. 

When this level of language processing is intact, children have a decent vocabulary, and they get good at using context to predict or guess words when meaning.  Because they understand sentence structure, they can often predict what would make sense – and they often use this skill to read.  They become really good predictors and guessers.  “Contextual Guessing” is a valid strategy that is used by most readers, and good readers can use this strategy to recognize words and identify new words. 

However, there is a second level of language processing:  The Sound-Word level of language processing.  Difficulties here are harder to recognize, and these skills are almost never assessed in a complete, systematic, or comprehensive way – and these skills are almost never taught in a structured, systematic, and developmental way.  And this is a BIG problem. 

Think of the Sound-Word level of processing as the ability to process word structure.  This includes processing syllables, within-syllables units such as the onset (all the sounds before the vowel sound) and rime (the vowel sound and everything after), and sounds. 

Students with difficulty at the Sound-Word level of language processing may have difficulty with speech (often resolved by Gr. 1, but it was there in development); they may have difficulty accurately repeating multisyllabic words – they may demonstrate sound substitutions, deletions, or have sounds out of order (e.g., hostibal, amblience, restarnaut for “hospital”, “ambulance”, “restaurant”); they may use the wrong grammar word, such as making pronoun errors (often resolved by Gr. 1), past tense errors (e.g., “goed” instead of “went”, “rided” instead of “rode); they may have difficulty with word finding – you may hear the student re-start or revise sentences frequently, say “uhm-uhm-uhm” while organizing their thoughts, or use a lot of non-specific words such as “stuff, thing, over there”; and lastly, these students almost always struggle when completing basic and advanced phonological awareness tasks. 

It is important to know that while the spoken output often resolves by Gr. 1 (e.g., speech and grammar errors seem to resolve or “fill in”), the DEFICIT is still there behind the scenes, limiting the student’s progress in reading and writing development. 

IMPORTANT NOTE:  These skills do NOT “fill in” with time.  These skills must be ASSESSED, and then explicitly TAUGHT and PRACTISED. 

99% of students who visit me in clinic, regardless of age, score below average on at least ONE of the many subtests I administer at the Sound-Word level of language processing.  And most of them have never had previous assessment or therapy targeting these skills – even the students I see who are in high school! 

You CANNOT become a good reader UNLESS you have intact language skill at the Sound-Word level of language processing.  

Any strategies on this list that promote “big picture” processing to the neglect of Sound-Word level processing are going to get a very low rating.  Again, these strategies are just fine for a student with intact language skills.  For any students with language difficulties or delays in acquiring letter names, letter-sound correspondence, reading, or spelling – strategies like this one will NOT help!!

Pros: Facilitates comprehension

Looking at the picture can help reassure a student that they are “on track” when reading, and promote the student to think about what they are reading.  The picture can provide clues about a tricky word and help a student to figure it out.  Good readers can often identify and acquire new words this way.

Cons:  This strategy promotes students to use Sentence-Discourse level skills to read – and that is NOT how we learn to read. 

Students learn to read by looking at every letter, converting the letter(s) to the appropriate sounds, and blending the sounds together to identify the word.  This strategy does NOT teach or promote the developmental skill of reading. 

Students begin to compensate and leverage their vocabulary and their predictive guessing skills.  These students resort to a strategy of looking at the first letter to get the first sound, and then guessing something that could possibly make sense. 

E.g,. Target Sentence:  The old man sat on the PORCH

Poor Reader, using a predictive guessing strategy:  The old man sat on the PONY

Worse, I see many students who become so reliant on picture cues, that they don’t even draw any “sound clues” from the letters on the page!!

E.g., Target Sentence:  The old man sat on the PONY

Poor Reader, looking at picture:  The old man sat on the HORSE

What is truly astounding is that I have SEEN WITH MY OWN EYES students get reinforced for this in school.  Proponents of a “Whole Language” and “Whole Word Reading” theory of reading instruction feel that the purpose of reading is to extract the meaning of what they are reading.  So, if the student reads “horse” instead of “pony”, they are told “Great reading!!” because they have more or less acquired the meaning of the sentence.

This is detrimental.  This teaches GUESSING, not READING.  This child is reliant on picture cues, reliant on “big picture” language processing, and is doomed to be a poor reader. 

I illuminated this further in part 1 (HERE), but contextual guessing and compensating with language MEANING is a VERY, VERY hard pattern to break, and it is detrimental – it is in the way of true reading.  Be on the lookout for where this is being encouraged. 

Again, predictive or contextual guessing is a valid strategy.  It’s not really a problem for good readers who have OTHER strategies that they can tap into.  it’s a BIG PROBLEM for poor readers. 

What you can do instead?

  • You must encourage children to look at letters, to recognize letters, to convert letters to sounds, and to keep those sounds in the right order. 

E.g., Many of the Gr 2 & 3 students I see will read the word “beard” as “bread”.   I often cover up the letters with an index card, and then reveal the first 2 letters – “be”.  I say, “Look again.  Do you see a word that will start with “br” or with “be”? 

  • Provide words in isolation.  When my students make a reading error, sometimes I will close the book and write the word on a white board.  I will remind them of the sentence (e.g., “the old man sat on the _____”).  I acknowledge and reinforce by saying, “Yes, ‘the old man sat on the PONY’ makes sense; but let’s look at our word and see if the letters will make the sounds we need for the word ‘pony’.  The word ‘pony’ would need a letter “n” to make the /n/ sound we hear in pony.  Look at our word (porch).  Do you see the letter /n/? No.  We need to try again.”
  • Encourage the student to sound the word out.  We can tap into a student’s vocabulary using something called the Set for Variability.
    • E.g., the student reads “the man sat on the pawnee”.  NOW we can use the cue – “Does that make sense?  Is that a word that you know?  What is a word that sounds like “pawnee” that could fit in our sentence, the man sat on the ___?”
      • Here, we are tapping into vocabulary and using context to identify the word, but we FIRST explored the letter and sound structure of the word pony BEFORE we started using our meaning and context skills to read.  There is a difference!!
      • Again, I would much rather have the student sound out PAWNEE and then search their vocabulary for a word that sounds similar AND makes sense – a task rich in language processing – than look to the picture, see a “horse”, and “figure it out”.  
      • Our instruction should ALWAYS be rich in multiple language elements and demand a high load of language processing to make sense of the sounds of the word, the letters that spell the word on the page, AND which word makes sense in the sentence. 

Take-Away:  Inhibit guessing, and demand more of the language processing system.  Teach and practise using Word Structure skills at the Sound-Word level of language processing, and recruit the stronger Sentence-Discourse (meaning) system when necessary.  AVOID teaching students to guess, predict, or compensate with the language meaning system. 

Watch for part 3 and beyond of this blog series as we move from the WORST of these strategies to the BEST. 

Got questions, concerns, yeah buts?  Visit www.speak2read.ca to engage in some delightful conversation on how you can improve your reading teaching or your child’s learning.