Watching our children develop as readers is an amazing process to witness. But as they learn to read there are many instances when they sort of freeze, not sure what to do next. They get stuck. This is the perfect opportunity for us parents to use reading prompts to guide our beginner readers in developing decoding strategies. We need to know how to help young readers help themselves so they can become independent, fluent readers.
“Sound it out” is Overrated
Think back to a time when your child got stuck during reading and asked for your help. What was your response? My guess it that you likely said, “Sound it out,” or you simply told your child the word, so they could keep reading. We all do this, all the time.
I think we’ve been programmed to say, “sound it out” every time our child gets bogged down in reading. It’s quick and it’s easy. It doesn’t take much forethought. And we think it works.
Similar to the “good job” phrase we tend to overuse, “sound it out” can become a bad habit. We say it so much that we forget to ask ourselves whether it’s really effective.
There are two reasons why “sound it out” is not the best reading prompt to give our children when they get stuck or make mistakes (miscues) during reading.
1. “Sound it out” is too general
“Sound it out” is not specific and can leave a child still wondering what to do. What does “sound it out” look like practically? It’s better to use a specific prompt that draws a child’s attention to individual letters and sounds, blends, word endings, etc that can help them decode the entire word.
2. “Sound it out” has limits
Another reason “sound it out” should not be our default reading prompt is that it doesn’t always work. Phonics is a fundamental component of reading, but it has its limits. If your child gets stuck on a word like “laugh” or “one,” they can get caught up trying to sound it out and lose the whole meaning of the story.
Your beginner reader may have limited experience with certain sound and spelling patterns. This would make “sounding it out” a confusing and impractical strategy.
What Good Readers Do
Reading is a complex process. It’s more than sounding out words. Good readers use a variety of information, including structure, meaning, and visual cues to make sense of text. They monitor their own reading by using all those cues at the same time.
In essence, they are asking themselves 3 simple questions as they read.
- Does it look right?
- Does it sound right?
- Does it make sense?
Take a moment to think about your own reading behavior. Maybe during a read aloud you said a word that didn’t make sense, but on first glance it seemed right, because it had the same spelling pattern. You reread the sentence and fixed your mistake, because you realized what you read aloud didn’t make sense. As experienced readers, we’re on autopilot, unconsciously using structure, meaning, and visual cues simultaneously when we read.
Beginner readers need practice asking these 3 questions.
Since our goal is to help our young readers help themselves, we need to have a language toolbox full of reading prompts to coach them effectively. And over time they will start asking themselves these questions before we can prompt them!
Knowing what reading prompt to say and when to say it can be tricky, but it gets easier with practice.
It takes careful observation when listening to your child read, knowledge of your child’s reading strengths and weaknesses, and lots of practice to choose the most effective prompts. So when you try a prompt and it seems to go nowhere, don’t worry, just try another.
Learning to use a variety of reading prompts is well worth the effort. You’ll stop saying “sound it out” at every hesitation or misread word, because you have something more precise and useful to say that will really help your beginner reader help himself. With time and effort, you’ll become a confident reading coach.
Reading Prompts to Guide Beginner Readers
Using the 3 simple questions good readers ask as a guide, we can build a repertoire of things to say that points to the structure, meaning, and visual information in any text.
Does it look right?
This question draws a child’s attention to the letters in the word. Then she can use what she knows about phonics to decode the word. If she said the word “back,” but the word was “bake,” asking “does it look right?” will help her focus on the letter combinations. She can then use her knowledge of the “vowel-consonant-silent e” rule to fix her mistake.
Reading prompts to help your child use visual information:
- Do you know a word like that?
- Get your mouth ready (to say the first sound)
- Look for a chunk you know.
- You said ____. Does that look right?
- What could you try?
Does it sound right?
This is when the reader has to make sense of words in the context of sentences. Using what they know about how oral language sounds provides another helpful cue in reading accurately.
Sometimes a reader will substitute a word that may “look” right but doesn’t sound right. A child may read, “The cat climb the tree” instead of “The cat climbed the tree.” He neglected the word ending and didn’t think about whether what he said sounded like the way we talk.
Reading prompts to help your child use structure:
- Does that sound like a word you know?
- Read it again and think what would sound right.
- Can we say it like that?
- Is that how we talk?
Does it make sense?
Making sense of text is, after all, what reading is all about. Asking this question causes a child to use context cues and/or his background knowledge or prior experience.
Reading prompts to help your child use meaning:
- Look at the picture and think what would make sense.
- Skip it. Then go back and reread.
- What word would make sense?
- Read it again and think what would make sense.
- You said ____. Does that make sense?
5 Helpful Hints for Using Reading Prompts
Give plenty of wait time before jumping in with a reading prompt.
It’s tempting to jump in and try to help, but allowing some wait time gives your child a chance to think about how to solve the problem by herself. If it’s hard to hold back, try mentally counting to five before you offer a strategy.
Give positive feedback when you notice him using particular cues.
Providing feedback helps your child feel validated as a reader. Reading is hard work. If you noticed your child reread and fixed a mistake because it didn’t make sense, tell him what you saw and praise him for working it out on his own.
Combine cues to help your child learn to self-monitor.
Combining cues, also referred to as cross-checking, helps your child learn to internalize those basic three questions. If your child fixes a problem using visual cues, ask her to reread the sentence and see if it sounds right. This is cross-checking with structure. Remember, good readers use all three sources of information, visual, structure, and meaning, to monitor their reading.
It’s ok to tell your child the word.
If you’ve tried a couple of reading prompts to help your child figure out a word, but they are not successful, it’s ok to tell him the word. The idea is to use reading strategies quickly, so he can keep on reading. It’s not worth losing fluency and comprehension and causing frustration by spending too much time on one word.
Start with the basic 3 questions and let them guide you.
Maybe you’re thinking that choosing from all these different reading prompts is too overwhelming. Don’t worry, it felt like that for me the first time too.
If you can train yourself to use the 3 basic questions first, the rest will fall into place. Knowing whether to prompt for meaning, structure or visual information is the first, and sometimes hardest, part. Once you identify that, you can select more specific reading prompts to target what your child needs more specifically.
You may discover that all you needed to do was ask one of those 3 basic questions, “Does it sound right?” “Does it look right?” “Does it make sense?” And your child did all the rest!
Ready to Move Beyond “Sound it Out?”
I hope this post shed some light on what to say when your child gets stuck during reading. There is so much you can offer beyond “sound it out.”
To get started, print off a copy of What to Say to Beginner Readers to refer to when you’re listening to your child read. I’d love to hear how it goes for you, so please leave a comment.