Telling Struggling Readers To Sound It Out

“Come on, now…

Just Sound It Out!”

Can you read the blue sign above? No matter how hard I try, I just can’t figure it out.
Our students have probably been told to “just sound it out”
since they were in first grade. (In fact, I said those words myself the first year that I tutored.)
But if students could sound it outthey would. “Sounding it out” just doesn’t work for our struggling readers, and it’s our job to find strategies that do.

Here are some alternatives that your student might find useful:

• “When you come to a word you can’t make out, try to find some smaller chunks within that word that you might know the sound of.” (See our page on Word Families. Working with word families really can help.) Sometimes I might cover part of the word with my fingers, to expose the “chunk” that I know my student will recognize.

• “Let’s think of what might make sense here. Let’s try to get some hints from the rest of the sentence, or from the pictures.” If there are too many difficult words in a sentence for the child to get a sense of the context, then that book may be too difficult for fluent, meaningful reading.

Once the student figures out the word, allow him or her to finish reading, but be sure to write down the word so you’ll be able to discuss it later. If the word in question had an irregular spelling that follows no pattern, you may just need to help the student find ways to memorize it. (We’ll discuss these ways some time in the future.) More often, however, that word may have some components that the student should learn to work with in the future, like the sounds of certain letters or letter groups.

Keep in mind that your student is most likely doing the best that he or she can. (Imagine how humiliating illiteracy must be!) He or she needs our help, not our exhortations.