Tear Down the (Word) Walls

My husband and I had a flat tire, and both of our phones were dead. (Note to self: Next overnight camping excursion- Bring phone chargers!) And, we had no spare tire. When a police officer stopped to ask if we needed help, we could not recall a single phone number of someone who could lend a hand. Not one. We stammered and stuttered until my husband thought he might recall one of our boys’ numbers.

We made it home, but I realized that we had been incapacitated by our reliance on the very tools that were designed to put information at our fingertips. Without those tools, we had no access to essential information when we needed it.

I believe that word walls are commonly used tools in early childhood classrooms that are negatively impacting children’s reading and writing achievement. They are relied upon to such a degree that children do not have access to essential information without them.

During an individualized spelling assessment, I asked a student to write the word can. He confidently wrote l-o-o-k. I was baffled. I asked, “What word did you just write?” He said he had written can. I asked him to make the sounds he saw. He read /l/-/oo/-/k/. He knew the code. (He is in my class!) He just hadn’t learned to rely on it. But I’d finally gotten through to him about the importance of recognizing the sounds represented by the letters rather than simply grabbing a word from his bank of memorized words.

The same thing happens with readers. When readers, who have been taught words on sight, approach an unfamiliar word, they go into what I call the guess and go mode. They may see the word three and read there. Parents fear their children have dyslexia, but it’s typically a problem of children trying to recall the picture of the word they’d memorized with no consideration of the sounds represented by the letters in any particular order.

Here’s another problem. Kids begin to believe that ALL words should be recognized on sight, and they have no patience for muddling through unfamiliar words. They have not been taught the work of sliding through sounds and decoding words.

It’s common for young students to memorize sight words that include in, is, and it. When asked to read if, sight word readers say, “I don’t know that word.”

They don’t use the code.

When readers embrace a sound-by-sound approach to reading and writing, they are equipped with a strategy that can be used–even when there is no word wall available. They read sight words just as fluently as their peers. The difference? They can tackle words they have never seen before. They do not guess and go. They persist, using the code, to read every word they encounter.

Most words kids approach can be decoded. Some words, however, must be taught as sight words-they deviate from the code-but most words can (and should) be decoded.

What are common miscues (misread words) your children make when reading?

More coming on how to teach the code and how to teach true sight words…

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