Teaching students to decode words is the first major challenge for reading teachers. The next is helping them comprehend what they read. As a reading specialist in a high school, I've spent hundreds of hours assessing students' ability to read using everything from ACT results to the Basic Reading Inventory by Johns. Usually when they come to me they can pronounce the words. The hard part is identifying who the word callers are...those students who can say the words, but don't understand. And trust me when I say it: they exist in every classroom.
If it is frustrating to pinpoint our students' deficits, let us not forget how frustrating it must be for them. They sit in class and all too often pass for proficient reads based on their ability to real aloud, knowing the whole time that they really don't understand...too embarrassed to ask a bunch of questions. If their struggles are exposed by one of the many tests we administer, the exact struggle is not identified. And, even if it is, the results may suggest something that isn't really true.
So, what do you do? Start by teaching students vocabulary. Here are a few tips...
#1: Teach students word parts. This helps them to make associations. For example, if they know that malnutrition means bad nutrition, then they can start to connect the prefix to other words. They might not know what malady means, but they can process that it is something bad.
#2: Teach students context clues. When I introduce a reading I make a table. In the first column is the vocabulary used in a sentence. In the second column students write what they think it means based on that sentence. In the third column, they circle the context clue they used (analogy, definition, example, inference). In the fourth column they read the word as it is used in one of the sentences in the reading. In the last column they reword the sentence from the reading. This is a great pre-reading activity.
#3: Have students do word sorts. Give them words on individual slips of paper and have them arrange them in categories. This helps them work on word associations.
#4: Don't overwhelm them. Giving students a list of 5 words a week is plenty. Make sure these words are relevant to what they're studying. Pick the words that are key to understanding the lesson's central text. These are the words that they will use to discuss and write about the text, thus creating meaningful and lasting connections.
#5: Put the words on a word wall. Refer to the wall. Have them decorate it with visual cues. Make it interactive.
#6: Use word maps to allow students to interact with the vocabulary in a variety of ways. They can define it, use it in a sentence, draw it, identify synonyms, etc.