If you are assigned to work in a classroom during instructional reading time, chances are you’ll need to apply reading skills that you use in order to help students learn. Here are some very specific techniques that will be the most useful in this regard.
It is important to know all of the necessary ingredients of good reading ability. They are especially important when working with young children, but a deficit in any one of them can affect readers of all ages. As a paraprofessional, you may be the one to spot the problem which can be a great help to the teacher. You might even be asked to provide some of the necessary remediation. A good reader is competent in each of these areas:
Notice, first, that this is not the same as phonics. Phonemic awareness is not a matter of attaching a sound to the letter(s) that make it—that would be phonics. Before a student can tackle phonics, he or she must have an awareness of sounds around him or her, especially those of the language. Activities to develop phonemic awareness include listening to and saying nursery rhymes, making different sounds with the mouth, telling whether two spoken sounds or words are alike or different, and orally breaking words into individual sounds.
When a student has developed phonemic awareness, he or she can be taught the correspondence of letters and sounds and how they form written words. This study includes not only the common sounds made by the 26 letters of the alphabet, but also other sounds created when letters combine. Letter-sound correspondence does not always work when deciphering words as the English language has many exceptions, but phonics provides a solid foundation for word analysis. Phonics knowledge is what enables a student to “sound out” unknown words. (See below, under Word Analysis Skills.)
A person who reads fluently does not just read fast or “sound nice,” but also probably understands what he or she is reading very well. This makes sense if you think about how hard it would be to gain meaning from a sentence if it was read very slowly, like with a few seconds between each word. By the time you got to the end of the sentence, the beginning would be forgotten! So, fluent reading is one goal of effective reading instruction.
Sometimes even older students have trouble with fluency and, thus, comprehension. A good way to develop greater fluency is with activities that prompt reading aloud, such as plays and choral reading (reading the same passage aloud as a group). Tape-assisted reading and partner reading are also good strategies. Students can also practice reading the same sentence over and over to develop fluency that can be used in other situations.
When a student has a rich reading vocabulary, there are lots of words he or she can recognize in print and understand. Students who have an extensive oral vocabulary are more likely to develop a broad reading vocabulary because, when encountered in literature, many words have “instant meaning” for them. Whatever you can do to put more written words in front of a student and help foster encounters with rich oral language will be helpful in the reading process.
A part of vocabulary development is the acquisition of a basic “sight word” vocabulary. These are words that a reader knows instantly, without having to “sound them out.” Many sight words, like the and little, would be difficult to sound out anyway. You can search for lists of sight words online. These lists contain words that have been determined to appear most frequently in print and their memorization is necessary to improve fluency.
Being able to orally say the words in a written passage without understanding what they mean is pretty useless. When we talk about a good reader, we assume that he or she understands what was read and doesn’t just “wordcall.” Many times, it is necessary to ask frequent questions as a student reads to prompt deeper thinking and closer reading for meaning. You can check for basic understanding with recall types of questions (like, “What color was the car?”) but to truly extend thinking, you need to go further. Ask questions that require the reader to take information from the material read and think about it to produce an answer. An example would be, “This car was red. Do you think the story would have turned out differently if the car had been a different color?”
Reading problems often occur when a student is unable to decipher a word. This causes the inability to gain meaning from the sentence and affects comprehension of the entire text. There are things you can do to help the student.
Sounding Out Words
This involves phonics, as discussed above. When a student encounters an unknown word, he or she can use the sounds of the letters in it to “sound out” the word. For example, if the word is cat and the c, a, and t sounds are known, it’s just a matter of putting them together to form the word. If you are in charge of teaching these sounds or helping with sounding out, be sure to make the sounds as smooth as possible so they can be easily combined. Here are a couple of examples: teach that m says “mmm” instead of “muh” and that r says “rrr” instead of “ruh.”
Consonant Sounds— Consonants are all the letters of the alphabet except a, e, i, o, and u. Some of them have more than one sound, such as c in cat and c in city. To complicate matters, some of their sounds are changed when they appear with another letter. One example of this is the c when it’s before h in chart. But, it doesn’t change when preceding an h in chorus. Yes, it’s very confusing at times, so be ready to explain exceptions to students.
Long and Short Vowel Sounds— Each of the five vowels automatically has two sounds and many more are created when they are used in a different word or with other letters. Sometimes these other letters are not even beside them. Consider the a in these words. They all make, or combine to make, a different sound:
cat: This is a simple short a sound, usually found in words with only a consonant before and after a.
cake or rain: This is the long a sound, usually created by a silent e at the end of the word or by an i following the a.
caught or ball: Here, the a makes a short o sound.
what: In this word, the a sounds like a short u.
And there are probably more!
Recognizable Rhyming Parts— If a new word rhymes with a known word, decoding it may be simpler. When working with a student on the word wake, you might remind him or her that we know the rhyming word cake and the same letters are in wake. Substitute the w sound and, presto, you know the new word!
Sometimes, attempting to read a whole word is just too much and it is helpful to break it into smaller parts. These are some techniques for doing so.
Syllables— Model hiding all but the first syllable of the word with your finger and have the student attempt to decode just that part. Move on through the word, adding syllables and working on one at a time. Encourage the student to use his or her own fingers to do this while reading.
Root/Base Words— Sometimes, a long word is just a short word with added parts. Ask the student to look for an easier word inside the longer word. This is often the base or root word.
Prefixes— Once you’ve found the base or root word, look at any part that comes before that. This is usually a prefix. Help the student learn common ones, such as un- and pre-, and apply them to the base word to derive meaning of the entire word.
Suffixes— Just like prefixes, suffixes change or enhance the meaning of the base word. The difference is that a suffix comes after the base word. You know the meaning of quick and the suffix ly just makes it an adverb (a describing word).
Compound Words—Upon examination, you may be able to see two complete words combining to make one longer word. Identify these and put them together to make the unknown word. Examples are something, doghouse, and lunchbox.
This strategy simply means using the words around an unknown word and in the rest of the sentence. You can encourage students to do this by having them read the whole sentence, saying “blank” in place of the unknown word. Then, see if they can guess the word using the sounds in it. For example:
The student does not know the word quiet in this sentence:
“We had to be very quiet since the baby was asleep.”
The student would say,
“We had to be very
____ since the baby was asleep.”
You would say, “Now what word do you know that starts with the qu sound that would make sense in this sentence?”
Sometimes, pointing out the relationships of words helps a student read them. Knowing these three word relationships can be a good reading tool.
Synonym— Synonyms are words that have basically the same meaning as a given word with, perhaps, slightly different connotations. Synonyms are generally interchangeable and are helpful for writers to ensure that they don’t repeat themselves in their writing by using the same word over and over again. Synonyms can also help build vocabulary, as students may be able to make connections between a new word and a synonym with which they are already familiar.
Antonym— Antonyms are words that mean the opposite of a given word. Antonyms can be used to show contrast and can also be useful with vocabulary development and learning new words in the context of being opposite to a word known already. For example, if the sentence was, “It was not at all light outside, but very dark.” If the student stumbled over the word dark, you could say, “Read the first part of the sentence. The last word is going to mean not light so what could it be?”
Homonym— Homonyms are words that have the same spelling and the same or similar pronunciation but mean very different things. Take, for example, the word yard. There is the definition of a yard as being the space around a house (“The neighbors have a trampoline in their front yard.”) or a unit of measurement (“Grandma cut three yards of fabric for her new dress.”). Reading it in context should identify which yard the author intended.
Though not directly related to reading a specific word, students are sometimes asked to put words in alphabetical order and it can help them recognize similarities and differences in these words. You should start with words that all begin with a different letter. Then, when this process has been learned, try a short list of words that begin with the same letter, but have different second letters, and so on. During the first lessons and with younger children, it is helpful to have an alphabet chart handy on the desk or wall for their reference.
Besides assisting with reading single words, a paraprofessional can help students form effective reading habits so they can be better readers on their own. Here are some important ones to teach.
There’s a lot that can be done, even before the actual reading, to enhance a reading experience. As the student looks at the cover and back of the book and flips through the pages, he or she can predict what the book is about. Pictures can be used to prepare the reader for some of the words he or she might see. Older students may read the blurb on the back of the book or the introduction and make their predictions from there. The student may even spot some words that are known in advance of actually reading the text. All these things serve as sound preparation for reading.
If you are listening to a student read aloud, ask questions periodically to ensure understanding. You may set “check times” for older students, and they can let you know when they finish a chapter or other milestone. Don’t forget to ask higher-level questions that require thought, like, “Why do you think the character ran away from home?” in addition to simpler questions that just require basic understanding of the text, such as “Where did the character go?”
Feedback to Students
Engage students in conversation about what they are reading and ask questions to increase their comprehension. An example would be, “I see that you have thought about what the character did, but can you tell why he did this?” Also, ask for reasons for the student’s interpretation of the text. In other words, confirm student efforts and encourage them to think more deeply.
Reading Written Directions
Many classroom assignments require students to decipher directions before they can begin. The correct reading and understanding of these directions is vital to success. One two-part way to assist with this is to ask the student to read the directions out loud, then ask what they mean, in the student’s own words.
Reading instruction may require the use of other materials than those the student is given. Encourage the access and correct use of available resources such as dictionaries and atlases. Model their proper use and assist students who have trouble. Teaching skills like guide words on dictionary pages is a valuable use of your time. Dictionary skills can be extremely useful to students in a variety of learning experiences.