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How NOT to Teach Reading

I Guess Not!

Part One of a 12-part video series (full series listed below) showing the flaws of common word reading strategies taught in schools — Moral: Do not teach struggling readers to guess!


When we begin Structured Literacy therapy with a struggling reader we often find that the child is tripping on inefficient and ineffective word-reading strategies.  The nature of dyslexia naturally pushes students towards a whole language approach to literacy.  Weaknesses in phonological awareness, rapid naming, and/or working memory mean that learning to sound out words is hard.  When these weaknesses are combined with a strength in listening comprehension, students may even appear to be typical readers for years!  The problem is that these strategies are based on the mistaken premise that English spelling is largely irregular or “crazy” and therefore not useful.  In truth, English spelling is largely sensible and most English words can be both read and spelled by sounding out.

This tendency towards these ineffective word strategies is exacerbated when students receive direct instruction on what these “word solving” strategies are and how to implement them.  Attached to cute and catchy terms, this type of instruction sends the message that words are so unreliably structured that rote memorization or guessing are the best options.  While this may be harmless for the many (~70%) children whose language processing skills have equipped them with an in-born sensitivity to word-structure,  many (~30%) children are not as linguistically attuned and can not intuit enough to become fluent readers and competent spellers.  Since these students prefer to use the less accurate but easier-for-them strategies to read, it is especially important that we not teach or reinforce those strategies, but point them to the actual, consistent structure of the English language.

So, what are these strategies?  Over the next few weeks, we will highlight “strategies” taught in school that are ineffective for children with language-processing weaknesses (i.e. dyslexia) and how to teach the same concept using the Structured Literacy approach.

To start off this series on how NOT to teach reading, let’s first look at the “Chunking” Strategy.


Chunky Monkey Strategy

This strategy aims to teach children how to break down an unknown word into smaller parts (e.g. the <st> in <stop>) and familiar suffixes (e.g. the <-ed> in <stopped>). The problem with teaching chunking as a strategy is that, unless the child has first been taught what “chunks” to look for (i.e., word structure elements), it is a haphazard, guessing approach. Children who are not attuned to linguistic structure may struggle to notice sub-word parts and/or to know how to pronounce them.

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Jennifer Salisbury

In 2004, Jennifer joined Teach for America as a special educator where she taught kindergarten through fifth grade. Her passion for reading instruction led her to be trained in a program based on the Orton-Gillingham method. After achieving significant results with her students, she began conducting trainings to help strengthen other teachers’ reading instruction. “My motivation as a teacher is to share my love of learning, and my gift has been working with struggling readers. There is no better feeling than to help someone become a strong reader and independent learner.” Jennifer earned a B.A. in Global studies University of California Santa Barbara and M.S. in Special Education from Lehman College.