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Teaching Word Work in Guided Reading

As an upper grades teacher, there were a few times in my career that I wanted to cry. One of these times was when I worked with fourth grade students who lacked basic decoding skills in a very serious way. I remember trying to figure out how to address their needs when they were the only kids in my class who needed it.

At that point, I added a short word work component to my guided reading lesson every day. Using the strategies below, I worked on decoding skills with the kids who needed them the most.

Adding Strategies to Students’ Toolboxes During Guided Reading

Our goal for decoding instruction is that students will decode words accurately without our support. It’s instinctive (and helpful, at first) to prompt students through unknown words. But, if every time they encounter a word they don’t know, we prompt them on how to figure it out, they may be waiting for us to tell them what to do!

I know, they’re sneaky.

So what we want to do is build their toolbox by adding strategies one at a time. This is the sequence I follow to introduce and develop decoding strategies during guided reading.

1. I choose a strategy students don’t seem to have yet for decoding words. This could be reading words that follow a pattern. In this example, it’s words that end in -ould.

2. I choose a book that includes opportunities for students to practice that pattern.

3. I explicitly teach using the strategy before I introduce the book. I name the strategy, explain it, and we practice using the strategy with a few words.

4. I write it on a mini-sentence strip and put it on the middle of the table, in front of students. They begin reading. As they get to an opportunity to practice the strategy that I just taught them, I wait to see if they will use it. If they don’t, I ask, “What strategy can you use to read that word?” They usually stare for a second, and then point to the strategy. I read it out loud and say, “Now try it.” If they need reteaching, I do that right away. Then they try it and we move on.

5. After a few lessons, when students seem to be able to use the strategy well, I put the mini sentence-strip in a little pocket chart behind the guided reading table. As students encounter words in future guided reading lessons, if they don’t seem to know where to go, I ask them,” Which strategy will you use?” They can choose the appropriate one from the chart.

This method has served to build independence in my readers! I hope it helps you, too!
Below are four different strategies to teach about decoding.

Word Families or Pattern Words

Students should be able to read words that follow patterns or are part of word families. To help students identify these quickly, choose a word family that pops up in your guided reading book a lot (ideally one that students need to practice because they don’t read it accurately). Brainstorm words with different onsets and the same word family. As students read, have them hunt for that word family throughout the book.


Sight Word & High Frequency Word Automaticity

Sight words don’t follow decodable patterns. The rules might not work. High-frequency words are words that pop up in reading frequently. They need to be instantly recognized as well.

To help students identify them immediately, write sight words on index cards and hole-punch them. Put them on a binder ring. Students can practice the rules every time they arrive in your guided reading group, for a minute or two to build their automaticity.

Using different vowel sounds

Our most struggling readers often use the same vowel sounds every time. Whenever they see an “a”, the word is “cap” whether it ends with an “e” or not! Teaching students that vowels make different sounds in different words is important.

In this example, we worked on the vowel teams – ow as in plow and ow as in snow. We sorted words on cards based on the sound and built a list of words for each vowel sound. I chose a book carefully for guided reading that included those vowel sounds so students could practice immediately.

Recognizing Academic Language in Text

When students read content area texts, like science, social studies, or math, they encounter a lot of content area vocabulary! To help get their brains ready to identify those content area words, before we read that kind of text, we do a little word prediction map.

In the middle, I put the topic we expect to read about in that book (we predict the topic based on title & features before we read). Then we brainstorm all the words and phrases we might see in the book as we read. It helps students get their brains focused on the associated vocabulary and they are more likely to identify it if we’ve verbally discussed it and they’ve seen it in writing beforehand.

How do you teach decoding skills? 
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