Tackling Tricky Words - Mid-Pacific Institute

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Tackling Tricky Words

Posted on October 27, 2017

by Coral Balubar on October 27, 2017

As children read, they inevitably come to words that they do not know. In class, we have been referring to these words as "tricky words." The children have learned that when they come to these words, it is NOT time to shrug their shoulders, say, "oh, well," skip over the word or give up on the book entirely. Rather, it is an opportunity to challenge themselves to solve the word using word attack strategies. Decoding (sounding out the word) is what we typically ask readers to do in order to solve unknown words. However, it is important that young readers learn other strategies as well, as many words in the English language do not lend themselves to decoding, and the act of sounding out words letter by letter can sometimes slow the reader down to the point where the meaning is lost. Children who are learning to read need strategies besides decoding to read unknown words.


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The children have been building up their toolbox of strategies to use when they come to these tricky words. These strategies are not only ones they utilize when they are reading at school, but should also be used when they are reading at home, and even as they read environmental print in the world around them. These are some of the strategies that they have learned and have been using:

  • "Use the Picture:" This is an important strategy, particularly for beginning readers. When they come to the word 'flower' and are unsure of the word, they can glance at the illustration of a flower on the page and solve the word quickly and accurately.

  • "Cross-Check:" This strategy combines "Use the Picture" with "Looking at the Beginning Letters." A reader that came to a word like 'pelican' might first look at the picture and guess that the word was 'bird.ʻ It is important that they do not stop there, but use the "Cross-Check" strategy to then notice the beginning letters p-e-l and think about what the word could be (a word like bird but one that has the beginning sound of /pel/).

  • "Chunk the Word:" This is one that all of the children use frequently and proves to be successful time and time again. Rather than breaking words up into the sounds of individual letters, "Chunk the Word" has readers look for familiar letter chunks. They may be sounds, beginnings, endings, or even smaller words within a longer word. The children read each chunk by itself, then blend the chunks together and sound out the word. If the word 'pumpkin' was a tricky word, a reader might chunk the word into two parts 'pump' and 'kin' then put it together to read the whole word.

  • "Skip, Read On, and Come Back:" Oftentimes when readers encounter unknown words, if they read on, they are able to gather enough context clues that can help them determine the word that would most make sense.

  • "Replace the Word:" This strategy is helpful not only when the word itself is tricky to read, but when the meaning of the word is unknown. The children have learned to read on, gather context clues, think of what the word could be, and try that word in place of the 'tricky word.' For example if a reader didn't know the meaning of the word 'cauldron' but read on about a witch stirring a potion and tossing in strange ingredients, the reader might replace the word 'cauldron' with 'pot' and still be able to understand the message of the text.

The children are becoming very adept at using the strategies, as well as recognizing when and how they are able to reach into their toolbox to solve tricky words. Throughout our reading block, I will hear children proudly telling their neighbor--"I chunked the word" or asking me, "Can I share how I used cross-check today?" This is wonderful and shows that they are active problem solvers--taking charge of their own reading and striving to figure out words that are challenging. I ask that over the next week that you listen to your child read aloud to you, asking them to show you how they use some of these strategies when they encounter those tricky words.


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