Six Habits of Falling Readers
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Six Habits of Falling Readers

Written by 15 August 2012

Six Habits of Falling Readers

The following is a guest blog post from Dr. Connie Hebert.  Click here to watch Literacy Webinars presented by Dr. Connie Hebert and other education experts inside SimpleK12's Teacher Learning Community.

The first step to catching a falling reader is by becoming a careful observer so that you can identify behaviors that may, or already are, habits. The second step is to make the child aware of the habit and simultaneously offer alternative strategies for coping with the text. The third, and most important step, is to be consistent in finding ways to help the child to break the habit.

So what are the most common habits of falling readers and what should we do about them?

Habit #1: Look Up and Wait
If the text is too difficult or when readers don’t know what else to do, they simply ‘look up’ off the page and wait for someone to rescue them! Teachers can deal with this habit by frequently reminding the child that looking up will not help, and then jump in with a verbal prompt that will promote an action from the reader.

Examples of verbal prompts:

  • “Did you make the first sound? Try it.”
  • “Why did you stop?”
  • “Did you remember to check the picture?”
  • “Tell me what’s happening in the story?”
  • “What part of that word do you know?”
  • “Why are you looking up? That won’t help you. What else can we do?”
  • “Use your finger to break that word up. Now try it.”

Habit #2: Skip the Word
The basic philosophy behind this strategy is that by reading ahead, you will ultimately figure out what is happening and gain meaning. This is often true, but the problem with telling young readers to “skip the word” is that they don’t automatically return to figure out the word! Unless you’re going to teach how to go back and problem solve the new word, don’t encourage skipping until they are more experienced readers.

Verbal prompts include:

  • “Let’s take a look at that word you skipped. I didn’t hear you make that first sound. Try it…that will help you.”
  • “Take your two ‘pointer fingers’ and frame a little part you know in that word.” Now try it.
  • What word would make sense there? Does it ‘look right?’ Check it.
  • Give the child 3 choices of possible words: Could it be _______?
    Could it be ________? Could it be ______? How do you know?

Habit #3: Sounding Out Every L-e-t-t-e-r
This habit often stops the flow of the story. When this happens, there is little, if any, fluency and this can limit comprehension.

So what do we do about this habit?

  • Say, “What can you do to help yourself?” If they don’t know, remind them of a few key strategies such as first sound, rereading, and looking for known chunks within the word.
  • Prompt the reader to look for parts that they know in the word, search the pictures and check the first sound, look for common endings, break apart the word with their finger, etc.
  • Increase daily practice with sight words (both while reading and writing) so that a strong bank of frequently used words are instantly recognized. This will increase confidence and free the student’s attention for problem solving new and difficult words.
  • Add writing instruction (shared writing and interactive writing) to reading instruction time; both in small group and whole group settings.

Habit #4: Guess the Word
Readers who guess word and go on to the next words are simply not checking on themselves. In technical terms, they have not learned to self-monitor and cross-check multiple sources of information. They may frequently guess at words that start and end the same, but they fail to check medial sounds and meaning. This habit magnifies itself in upper grades, where guessing many words results in poor comprehension and the inability to recall details.

Here are a few suggestions for breaking the guessing habit:

  • Prompting early readers, as they are reading, will help to get them off on a good start. Make certain that your verbal prompts include the phrase, “Were you right?” This prompt needs to be firmly established in the head of a falling reader. Without it, they will simply guess and go on to the next word.
  • When the reader guesses at a word, take their finger and show them how to look at a part in the word that will contradict the guess. For instance, if the child read, “shrieking” for the word, “shouting,” say, “I see a chunk you know in the middle of that word. Take your fingers and frame that chunk, “out.” Then ask, “Can it be ‘shrieking?” Try it again and look for parts in the middle of words.
  • As they move into higher grades, readers no longer read ‘out loud’ to themselves. They read internally. This is an important transition and one that usually happens naturally. However, it is important that we still hear children read aloud in order to check on fluency and accuracy. You can’t be in the head of a child while they’re reading silently!

Habit #5: What’s That Word?
Every time the child asks this question, he/she relies on someone else to give them a prompt, a clue, or the word. If done often, the question replaces good reading strategies and behaviors that will lead to independence.They must not depend on others to simply tell them the word.

So what do we do about those kids who keep asking us what the word is?

  • Prompt the reader by saying, “What do you notice? What’s that first sound?” “Try it!” “Go back and try it again.” These are all verbal prompts that will encourage the child to take some sort of action. You may still decide to tell them the word, but not until you’ve given the child a chance to take some action on his own. If done consistently, this will move the reader away from constantly asking you for the word.
  • Be sure that you are matching the right books to the right readers. In the process of trying to read something that’s difficult, the child has no other choice but to depend on you for the words. Proper book choice is a key to preventing this habit.
  • Readers who already rely heavily on this habit will need to back up to easier texts so that they feel successful with the strategies you are teaching. As you slowly increase the level of difficulty, you can prompt the child to try that word again or you can ask, “What can you do to help yourself?” This is, ultimately, what we want all readers to be saying when they come to new challenges in their texts.

Habit #6: Reading Word By Word
In beginning readers, we encourage children to point to their words so that directionality and voice/print match will be firmly and consistently established. This means that while they’re reading, they don’t add any words, take away any words, skip any lines, or miss any pages. Once these early strategies are in place, however, the reader needs to begin to use his/her eyes to scan.

So what do we do about ‘word by word’ readers?

  • Encourage the reader by saying, “Now read it with your eyes. You don’t need your finger anymore!” You could also say, “Now try it again and use your eyes to read it like you talk.”
  • Flash sight word phrases daily. This will increase instant recognition of sight words while also building visual scanning and fluent phrasing skills. Tell your readers to ‘read them fast’ and play games with phrases so that the task is fun and engaging.
  • When a child is reading word-by-word you might say, “I’ll read a page, you read a page.” Just by hearing you read fluently, the child begins to imitate the way you sound. Modeling is extremely important and it works like magic!
  • Say, “Try that again and this time, put your words together like you talk.”

About the Author:

Dr. Connie Hebert is dedicated to catching falling readers by motivating, teaching, and inspiring educators around the world. She has presented literacy seminars, district trainings, and keynote addresses in 47 states and at national, state, European IRA, NAESP, and RRCNA Reading conferences. She is a nationally acclaimed teacher of teachers, reading specialist, and motivational speaker. Connie served a decade as senior national consultant for Staff Development for Educators (SDE) and 3 years as a Treasures™ reading program consultant and national speaker for  Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, NYC. She also served as national speaker for Harcourt School Publishers (Orlando, FL).

Breaking the six habits of falling readers©2008 C. Hebert
Catch a Falling Reader (Corwin Press)

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