Coaching beginning readers

iStock_000016876858XSmallCoaching beginning readers requires teachers to “craft instructional clues that enable students to apply their developing reading skills” as they attempt to decode words, writes Kathleen F. Clark, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan. In a recent article in the International Reading Association’s publication, The Reading Teacher, Clark describes the technique of coaching word recognition. This coaching method is based on the work of Marie Clay, who developed Reading Recovery for at-risk readers. Clark contends that careful observation and scaffolding of students’ developing reading processes is what distinguishes effective teachers.

The teachers described in this article participated in two types of training: Early Intervention in Reading, which included an initial half-day workshop, a monthly meeting to analyze their videotaped practice, and regular classroom visits by mentors; and Right Start which involved an initial two-day workshop, a monthly meeting to examine their practice, and ongoing observation and support. These teachers learned to support students while students read connected text. Clark describes two types of cues that effective teachers use to develop reading skills: general cues to prompt thought and more focused cues to prompt specific action.

General Cues

When a student did not know a word, the teacher prompted him to think about his knowledge of word-recognition strategies, asking questions such as:

  • If you’re stuck, what can you do?
  • What do you know about that?
  • What are you going to do to help yourself?
  • What do you think?
  • How are you going to figure that out?

Specific Cues

Teachers need more targeted suggestions than “try and sound it out” when students get stuck on an unfamiliar word. Specific cues give readers more detailed information about recognizing words. These cues focus students’ attention on graphophonic knowledge, word-part identification strategies, and context. They direct them to consider individual letters and sounds, multiple-letter elements such as blends, and r-controlled vowels. Other specific cues direct students’ attention to larger part-word strategies and encourage readers to locate phonograms (word families), or a known word within a word, or endings.
For example:

  • The first g is hard (soft).
  • Throw away the gh. (or the gh can make an f sound.)
  • It’s a double vowel.
  • What do you think that e sounds like?
  • The y is acting like an i.
  • It’s a blend.
  • Look for a little word.
  • It’s compound word. What is the first (second) word?
  • Is there a chunk you know? Cover up the ending and see if you know the word.
  • Think about what you said. Does that sound right?
  • What would make sense there?
  • Let’s read to the end and see what makes sense.
  • What in the picture starts with the letter you see?

Effective cuing responds to the student’s attempts in a way that provides just enough support while encouraging the development of independent strategies. If the student is unsuccessful in his attempts to sound out a word, the teacher becomes more directive and specific in her suggestions. To coach successfully, teachers must know each student’s word-recognition abilities and be able to analyze a word and to generate appropriate cues. The teacher models strategies that help students systematically think through the application of their knowledge. Cues provide more and more information until the student can successfully decode a word.

Classroom Practice

At different stages, children read words in qualitatively different ways. There are three general stages of word recognition: the selective-cue stage, the spelling-sound stage and the automatic stage. In the selective-cue stage, children recognize words by looking at the context. They rely heavily on pictures and semantic context clues, and their challenge is to acquire the alphabetic principle. They must attend to letters and the sounds they make and to spelling patterns. In the spelling-sound stage, children primarily use letter-sound relationships to decode words. Their challenge is to analyze the letters in words, paying attention to vowels and to spelling patterns that represent the larger parts of words. In the automatic stage, children are able to recognize most words they read without conscious attention to spelling-sound relationships. At this stage their comprehension improves.

Clark cautions against relying on teaching phonics rules, since only 45 percent of commonly taught rules are correct at least 75 percent of the time. “Cues, she writes, should be clear and direct and should focus on reading words, not learning rules.” Clark believes that ongoing analysis and discussion of videotaped practice are critical to teacher development.

Three factors, in her view, contribute to effective coaching. First, explicit knowledge of phonics and English orthography is necessary to understand the relationships between graphemes and phonemes and how words are put together. Second, teachers must be aware of students’ instructional histories and keep anecdotal records of what they teach students. Third, teachers must know students’ individual strengths and weaknesses. When coaching, they use this knowledge of phonics, orthography, previous instruction and students’ abilities to provide tailored cues that help students to identify and apply their knowledge of word-recognition strategies.

“What Can I Say Besides ‘Sound It Out’?, Coaching Word Recognition,in Beginning Reading”, The Reading Teacher, Volume 57, Number 5, February 2004, pp. 440-449.

Published in ERN April 2004 Volume 17 Number 4

One Response to “Coaching beginning readers”

  1. Janet Lefkowitz

    I am unable to see the harm in suggesting a student try sounding a word out if he is stuck. All the cues and strategies you are suggesting are what most of us mean when we suggest sounding a word out. You are just repackaging it. Reading is a complex skill requiring a variety of strategies including context clues, sight words, and phonics. No one just says “sound it out” to a child who hasn’t learned letters and sounds yet. But once they have learned, they are able to decode, in part because they can sound words out. Suggesting we all stop saying “Sound it out” is a prime example of an educational fad heralded as the newest snake oil. What a gimmick.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)