One way to help students learn to read is to teach them to do the things that good readers do. But what are those things?
First, good readers quickly notice details that help them recognize words. They can see that a new word shares something with a word they already know. For instance, they might notice the word walk (which they already know) within the word walkable (which they don’t yet know). Maybe students have never even seen the word walkable. But they read walk– right away, and they understand that –able is a suffix meaning the ability to do something. So, they can read the word quickly. And they can understand its meaning even though the word may not be in their oral vocabulary.
Or readers can look for chunks of words they already can say. Take a word that would be difficult for some readers: unreachable. The students can identify un and reach. Good readers learn that it’s usually faster to decode using word-meaning clues than to decode using sound-symbol clues. If faster methods fail, however, good readers go back to sounding out the word.
You can model the ways good readers decode by describing your thinking process as you decode. For example, with the word unreachable, you could say something like this:
I can see it’s not a compound word. So, I’ll look for any recognizable root words, prefixes, and suffixes. I see the suffix –able, and I see the prefix un-. The prefix –un means “not,” and the suffix -able means capable of. That still leaves us with reach. This must be the root word! None of its parts look recognizable on their own, so let’s decode it using phonetic clues. Now that we’ve done that, does anyone know what it means? Reach means grasp, get, or attain. So, unreachable means that something is unable to be grasped, gotten, or attained.
Notice the details in the model that is provided here. It actually includes a lot of information about words and meanings. Talking about words and meaning helps students expand their oral vocabulary as well as helping them decode written words.
Most good readers do all the things we discussed above. That’s because they read a lot. Also, as students read more, they end up memorizing what many words look like. This often happens naturally after they’ve decoded the same word several times. Some good readers like to learn new words so much that they memorize them by working with sight word cards and vocabulary lists. Memorizing new vocabulary is important when students are becoming familiar with new content in subjects like biology and economics or when they are learning a second language. That’s the situation that English learners face!