Making Words Less Intimidating For Readers: Ask, “What do you notice?”
Updated: Jun 9
You’ve taught the phonics. The kids know the phonics.
You’ve taught the syllable types and practiced decoding. The kids can decode words and divide syllables.
Then, they start reading a book or passage and a word pops up in their that just looks intimidating. Sometimes those words are very long with lots of syllables and sounds, in which case hesitation seems logical. But other times those words have only one or two syllables, but just look messy to kids for whatever reason.
I’ve found this to be a bit frustrating as a teacher, especially when I’ve worked with that student endlessly (it seems) on decoding strategies. Something about putting words into sentences makes a seemingly easy-to-decode word much scarier for students. At least in my experience.
After dealing with this for awhile and endlessly reminding my students to decode the word like we’ve practiced, I realized I needed a different approach. Maybe to the students, decoding seems daunting, I don’t know.
I started just asking the kids, “what do you notice?” (phonetically, of course). When they took that step back and just start noticing word parts, many of my students then attacked the words flawlessly! It’s been magic.
The things I ask them to notice are the phonetic concepts we’ve learned and practiced so far. Things like blends, r-controlled vowels, vowel teams, Magic E (which includes more than just the job of creating long vowels, more on that in a different post), etc. Marking these concepts by underlining or circling them with a pencil helps the students visually simplify the word.
After taking notice of these concepts, students then continue on with dividing syllables and decoding the word with less panic.
As with any new routine, activity, method, whatever we had to take a step back from instruction to learn and practice what I meant by the question, “What do you notice?” For this practice, I made copies of a passage that students had already read through, so they knew most of the words. We reread the passage together, pausing on some of the words to notice the phonics. For the first couple of words, I modeled by thinking out loud about the things in the words that I was noticing. After a word or two, students started chiming in on their own about what they notice as well, beating me to it! By the end of just one passage the students got the gist of what I was asking of them.
The next time I asked them to read, some of my students were starting to notice these concepts all on their own and had far less intimidation than normal. Others still panicked a bit at first glance when they came to these scary words, but then eased when I asked, “What do you notice about the word?”
Just today, as in about an hour before writing this, some of the words by 4th and 5th grade stopped to notice were:
among: ‘ong’ chunk, ‘a’ at the beginning makes a schwa sound — am|ong
endangered: -ed ending, -er, “gentle cindy” (meaning a soft g), ‘ang’ but with a /j/ g — en|dang|er|ed
absorb: ‘a’ at the beginning is a schwa sound, -or — ab|sorb
crease: cr- blend, ea vowel team, Magic E to stop the word from looking plural — crease is one syllable
ancestors: -an vowel pattern, “Gentle Cindy” (soft c), st- blend, -or — an|cest|ors
While some of their syllable division is a bit off, technically speaking, they were able to correctly decode the word, which is the entire point of noticing and decoding with phonics. To be able to READ! And an added bonus, the kids were so proud of themselves for solving these words without my help.
So here’s what I learned: syllabication is excellent. Syllabication is necessary. But sometimes, syllabication is intimidating and scary to students. In this case, I learned to step back even further and
ask students to notice smaller word parts that they know,
to then put those parts into their syllables,
and then finally read the intimidating word.
In the future, I’ll start with this process much sooner to hopefully keep students’ confidence in word-solving high and avoid intimidation as much as possible.
Hopefully, this simple question will help your struggling students as well! Let me know how it goes, and please tell me about other ideas that have worked for you by commenting.