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Reduce Guessing Among Older Readers

Jun 29, 2022

As students progress through elementary and into secondary school they encounter a greater proportion of unknown words. Texts from content area subjects include new terms and many examples of technical vocabulary are multi-syllabic. For example, in science students will likely encounter solubility, diffraction, neutron, and isotope. History is full of terms that explain international relationships including regulation, commerce, decrees, and descriptions of government functions like executive, legislative, and judicial power. In ELA class students will encounter terms related to literature and learn about superlatives, interpretations, metaphors, allegory, associations, and comparisons.

Multisyllabic words can be intimidating for students whose word attack skills have not been solidified and many will resort to compensatory strategies like guessing or skipping. As Lindsay Heggie and Lesly Wade-Wolley wrote in their article, Reading Longer Words: Insights into Multisyllabic Word Reading "they tend to have neither a systematic approach for reading these words nor the confidence to persevere."

Yet, multi-syllable terminology often serves a pivotal role in text, and when the keywords are omitted students’ comprehension will likely suffer. For example, see an example of the original text below and the same text with the multi-syllabic words removed. It is easy to imagine the ways in which the missing information can hamper knowledge acquisition.


The Perseids (original text, from DIBELS 8th, Progress Monitoring Passage for 8th grade)

If you go outside on a dark night in the middle of late summer in the Northern Hemisphere, you might get lucky and see part of the Perseid meteor shower. A meteor is the flash of light we see when a meteoroid, a piece of dust or debris left behind in the wake of a comet, enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year. At its peak, during the second week in August, in the hours just before dawn, as many as eighty meteors per hour may be visible. The parent body of the Perseid meteor is the comet Swift-Tuttle discovered by Lewis Swift and Horace Parnell Tuttle just three days apart. The Perseid meteor showers are called that because they seem to originate from the large constellation of Perseus in the northern sky. However, the real source of the meteor shower is the dust and debris left in the wake of the Swift-Tuttle comet.

 

The _______ (with uncommon multi-syllable words removed)

If you go outside on a dark night in the middle of late summer in the _____ _____, you might get lucky and see part of the _____ ______shower. A _______ is the flash of light we see when a _______, a piece of dust or ______ left behind in the wake of a comet, enters the Earth’s _______. The ______ ________ shower occurs every year. At its peak, during the second week in August, in the hours just before dawn, as many as eighty _______ per hour may be visible. The parent body of the ______ _______ is the comet Swift-Tuttle discovered by Lewis Swift and ______ ______Tuttle just three days apart. The ______ ______ showers are called that because they seem to ______ from the large _______ of _________ in the _________ sky. However, the real source of the meteor shower is the dust and ______left in the wake of the Swift-Tuttle comet.


Strategies for Reducing Guessing

The newly released educator’s practice guide for Providing Interventions for Students in Grades 4 – 9 (Institute of Education Sciences) reiterates the importance of teaching students key strategies for decoding multi-syllable words by anointing them as a primary recommendation. In fact, several bodies of research have demonstrated the significant effect of multi-syllabic skills on overall reading fluency and comprehension (See Appendix C).

Although the English language is often considered complex, many multi-syllable words can be read accurately with simple strategies. Prior to beginning any instruction, it is beneficial to administer a reading inventory that can identify areas of skill development and areas for further instruction and support. Once a better understanding of the students’ needs has been established, these strategies are helpful:

  1. Break off suffixes and prefixes. Familiarity with the spelling and meaning of common English affixes support both reading fluency and comprehension. When attached to base words, affixes not only increase the length of a word but also change the meaning or tense. The most common English affixes can be found in Table 1, and teaching spelling, meaning, and application to a base word are considered effective instructional strategies. In the example below, the prefix “mis” and the suffix “tion” have been broken off the word “misinterpretation.” 
  2. Underline the remaining vowel sounds. This includes underlining vowel teams or consonant letters that work together with the vowels to make a vowel sounds (for example, r-controlled vowels, or ay/ey/oy). 
  3. Practice the pronunciation of each syllable using common patterns as clues. In this step, students are going to rely on some of their letter mapping skills to recognize larger unit within a word. For example in the first part of the word the following units (syllables) are likely to be familiar: mis-in-ter. Students can either be explicitly taught or supported as they attempt pronouncing the other syllables: pre-ta-tion.
  4. Practice with spelling. A follow-up dictation routine will help consolidate student learning. The teacher presents the word and uses it in a sentence. After repeating the word students identify any prefix and suffix, and writing them in an allotted space, the student breaks up the root word into syllables to spell. At the end of the dictation routine – students can re-write and re-pronounce the entire word.

    Used consistently, for even brief instructional sessions, these strategies can support students who have mild difficulties with multi-syllable words in reading accuracy, fluency, and spelling.

    Table 1. Providing Interventions for Students in Grades 4 – 9 (Institute of Education Sciences, 2022)

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