Tool for the Field: Helping a Child Decode Words

Purpose

The purpose of this tool is to provide step-by-step instructions for using two approaches that can help a child decode words in written passages. The first approach might be called the “top-down” approach, and the second the “bottom-up” approach. The approaches can be used separately, particularly if a child responds well to one but not the other. Or the approaches can be used in combination.

Procedures

  1. Ask your teacher or another teacher to identify a student with whom you can work.
  2. Ask the teacher to give you written material to work with that is at the student’s instructional reading level.
  3. The top-down method: Ask the student to read aloud from the material that the teacher gave you (i.e., the material at the student’s instructional reading level). When the student encounters an unfamiliar word, ask the student to say “blank” and to read the rest of the sentence. Then ask the student if he or she can guess the word based on the rest of the sentence. If not, ask the student to identify the beginning sound of the word. Then say, “Now can you guess?” If the student cannot pronounce the missing word, perhaps ask the child also to identify the ending sound of the word and repeat the process. Supply the word if the student is not able to do so and move along in the passage. Perhaps have the student read the passage a second or even third time after he or she has experienced success in decoding unfamiliar words.
  4. The bottom-up method:  Ask the student to read aloud from the material that the teacher gave you. When the student encounters an unfamiliar word, ask him or her to sound it out, starting with the beginning letter and proceeding syllable by syllable. If the child makes an error in naming a sound, correct him or her by saying something like this: “That is a long ‘a’ because there’s an ‘e’ at the end of the word.The long ‘a’ says its name, making the ‘a’ sound as in ‘ape’.” Then ask the child to try to sound out the word again. Give the child enough time to sound out the word and acknowledge success, but do not let the process go on for too long if the child is not experiencing success.
  5. Testing phonemic awareness: In some cases, you might find it helpful to test a student’s phonemic awareness before helping him or her sound out unfamiliar words. To do so, you might want to prompt the student to name the sounds of the consonants as you point to each of them. Then prompt the student to name the sounds of the vowels as you point to each of them. (Remember that vowels have both long and short sounds.) Or administer a phonics inventory such as one produced by the National Center for Intensive Intervention: http://www.intensiveintervention.org/sites/default/files/Phonics_Inventory.pdf.