Parents everywhere know that children are naturally-curious creatures.  It could be an infant who discovers that pots and pans make noise when you bang them together, a toddler who learns (the hard way) that grown-up scissors will cut hair, or a kid who asks the kind of questions that leave parents wondering what-in-the-world to say next…“But how does a baby get inside a mommy’s tummy?”  “How does the Tooth Fairy know when I lose a tooth?” “Did Noah forget to bring the unicorns?” Or my personal favorite, “Is there less gravity in a spoon?” That last one was inspired by the way water molecules bond and stick together, making the surface of liquid in a spoon curve like the top of a bubble and thus appear as if they are “trying to float away.”  Good luck figuring out how to answer those questions!

It is important for parents to recognize that questions are how kids learn.  The constant questioning can become irritating and frustrating to an adult, but children’s bodies and brains are developing and their language and vocabulary skills are increasing rapidly, giving them the tools they need to become “little scientists.”  When children learn to read, they gain access to books and even more knowledge, which leads to an endless possibility of questions.  They start forming perceptions (however silly they may sometimes seem) about the world and the way it works.  If a child wants an answer and an explanation, they are going to ask.  It’s that simple.

Perhaps adults should take a page from the book of children.  Caregivers are becoming more and more aware of the importance of reading with kids at home everyday.  However, a lot of parents aren’t aware that they might not be maximizing learning and absorption for their child.  The best and most important oral reading skills a child can gain stems from practice at home, but as this reading specialist states, “oftentimes well-intentioned parents frequently do more harm than good when they teach their children to blend [sound words out] improperly.”  So what exactly do parents need to know in order to guide their children with beneficial reading strategies?  From Dr. Kathleen J. Brown’s excellent presentation, we have answered the question, “What Should I Say When They Get Stuck on a Word?

Here are some guidelines on how to help your child get the most out of reading practice:

General Dos and Don’ts: 

Avoid:  Asking your child to try and guess an unfamiliar word based off an accompanying picture.

Here’s why:  Never cue a picture before cuing a word.  Pictures will eventually disappear from text as children advance in school, so forming a dependency on pictures is a weakness.  Trying to guess what word an unfamiliar word might be is a bad reading strategy – there are much better ways to decode words (keep reading for strategies).

Avoid:  Immediately twitching, squeaking, or pointing when your child messes up or stops on a word.

Here’s why:  Not only will you likely make your kid feel self-conscious about their reading abilities by negatively responding to their mistake, you will also mess up the flow of their reading.

Avoid:  Saying, “You know that word!  You just read it a few minutes ago!” when your child gets stuck.

Here’s why:  Telling a child they should know something that they don’t will only make them feel dumb and potentially afraid of seeking help when they need it (at home and in school).  Chances are that if your child is struggling, they already feel frustrated and inferior and this kind of response can be more harmful than you realize.

Avoid:  Just giving the child the word they are struggling with.

Here’s why:  Mistakes are a great way for us to learn.  If you tell a child the word they cannot figure out, they won’t remember it later on because they did not use their decoding and comprehension skills to figure it out.  If children correctly use the decoding skills they have been taught to figure out the word, they will form a neural pathway and be able to commit those words and skills to memory.

Try:  If your child messes up on a word, let them finish the whole phrase or sentence.  If they self-correct, simply say, “Good fixing!”  Enforce the notion that good readers fix their mistakes, not that good readers do not make mistakes. TryIf the child doesn’t self-correct by the end of the sentence, stop them, and use a pencil to point to the beginning of the word and say, “This word tricked you.”  Then point at the beginning of the phrase or sentence and say, “Start here.”  Let the child make a running start at the word again and see how that goes.  If they are able to self-correct on the second try, reinforce with, “Good fixing!” Try:  If the child makes the same mistake or gets stuck again, put your pencil down and ask yourself two questions:  1) What kind of word is this?  2) What does my child know about words like this (what level are they on)?  Your answers will help you be more effective.


 Types of Words:

  • Closed Syllables
    • The vowel in these words (we're focusing on single syllable) is “closed in” by a consonant
    • These words are easy to sound out
    • The vowel is very likely to use its short sound
    • Examples:  “Ten,” “Jump,” and “Cap”
    • These words are good for teaching children to blend across a word orally and visually
      • “Ten”:  t(tuh) –e(eh)-n(nnn)
  • Irregular, High-Frequency 
    • These words are some of the most common and often stem from old-English, making them pronounced differently from years ago, so they don’t follow the rules very well
    • Examples: “The,” “Of,” “Who,” and “Enough”
    • “Of” would be spelled “Ov” the way it’s pronounced
  • Vowel Patterns
    • Use phonics rules and common vowel patterns
    • Examples:  “Lake,” “Barn,” and “Tail”
    • Pattern used in “Lake”: “a” – consonant – “e” (same with A, E, I, O, and U)
    • Pattern used in “Barn”:  R-controlled vowels (the bossy R)
    • Pattern used in “Tail”: Vowel teams, where one vowel is pronounced and the other isn’t

Kids should learn these vowel patterns in school, but as a parent, you can learn to recognize the patterns as well.

  • Words with Affixes and Polysyllabic Words
    • Words with endings, suffixes, and prefixes
    • Multiple syllables

 Best Strategies for Each Word Type:

  • Closed Syllables
    • Blend (sound the word out)
      • “Ten”:  t(tuh) –e(eh)-n(nnn)
  • Irregular, High-Frequency Words
    • Point to the word.  Get kids to give you the first sound of the word (example the “th” sound in “the”)
    • Then give the child the word (say “the”)
    • Back the child up to the beginning of the sentence and have them read it again using the word
  • Vowel Patterns
    • Ask the child, “What is the vowel pattern here?”
      • Example word, “Barn”
      • Child answers: “a-r”
    • Ask the child, “What sound does the combination a-r make?”
      • Child answers: “ahr”
    • Say, “Now sound the word out.”
      • Child answers, “b(buh) –ar(ahr) –n(nnn)”

In vowel pattern words, it is not as simple to sound the word out.  There are orthographic patterns, such as silent letter E’s and the way the letter R dominates vowels.  Explicit phonics instruction is very important when teaching blends, digraphs, and vowel patterns.

  • Words with Affixes and Polysyllabic Words
    • Use your thumb or index cards to help kids decide where to break the word up (separate the syllables) and blend the word in pieces
    • “Incandescent”: In-can-des-cent
    • “Pretest” – take off the prefix “pre” and have the child look at “test.”  Then add “pre” to “test” for “pretest.”

 Best Strategies by Level: 

  • Early Grade 1 to Mid-Grade 1 Readers
    • If the word is short and blendable (closed syllable), let the child sound it out.
    • If not, point to the first letter and ask:  “Sound?”
    • After you receive the sound from the child, give the word.
    • Have the child read again from the beginning of the sentence, and move on.

Children on this instructional level will not be working on learning vowel patterns yet.  Also, you may be asking yourself, “Why is backing up important?”  The repetition helps build the orthographic (spelling) representation of the words in the child’s memory, along with helping to build fluency.  It also strengthens comprehension that may have been impeded because the child had to stop their train of thought and figure the word out.

  • End of Grade 1 to End of Grade 2 Readers
    • If the word is blendable (closed syllable), let the child sound it out.
    • If not, does the child know the vowel pattern being used?  If so, focus on the pattern with your pencil, then have the child sound the word out.
    • If they don’t know the vowel pattern, prompt them for the first sound in the word and then tell them the word.

Children on this level should be working on vowel patterns, so ask for the vowel sound before diverting to prompting for the first sound and then telling the word.  At this level, the child may encounter some complicated, high-frequency words (such as “bought”) with vowel patterns (ough) that they may not have learned yet. Going back to the first sound and giving the word is the next step if the vowel sound is unknown because the vowel pattern is too developmentally advanced.

If it is a simpler vowel combination the child has stumbled on 3 or more times that it seems like they should know, make a note of where they are struggling and send your child’s teacher an e-mail so that the teacher can know where your child is struggling and adjust instruction.

  • Early Grade 3 Readers and On
    • Is the word one syllable?  Prompt the child to blend or to look at the vowel pattern.
    • Is the word more than one syllable?  Use your thumb to help break the word into syllables.  Index cards also work well.

 Other Important Guidelines to Keep in Mind:  

Stay on level.  Make sure that the books you are reading with your child are not too hard.  It is important to stay on your child’s instructional level when it comes to oral reading practice because if a text is difficult and laborious for the child to read, they will become frustrated.  If your child is making 1-2 mistakes per every ten words, the text is too hard.

Get the right books. When trying to pick out books for your child, remember the five-finger rule as well.  Have your child read 100 words from a book they of their choosing and tell them to stick a finger up each time they come across a word they cannot figure out.  If the child raises more than five fingers, the book is too difficult.  Click here for help if your child insists on reading a book above their reading level.

Define words ahead of reading.  Sometimes, children will have to read texts in social studies and science with many difficult words, but if that science or social studies content is on level, then you will have to help the child learn the words.  In these cases, it helps to pull out all the difficult words to read and define them separately before trying to read them in the text.  This will help build comprehension of difficult subject matter because the child will have the knowledge beforehand and be able to read the text without getting interrupted by trying to both identify the word and figure out the meaning.

Practice irregular, high-frequency words.  Flash cards are a great way to practice the words that have to be memorized.  Parents can even make a word bank  (how to).  If there are particular words that your child is having trouble with, have them trace the letters of the word written on an index card two times will reading the letters out loud.  Then have them trace the letters of the word with their finger on the table while reading the letters they trace aloud (two times again).  Last, have them write the letters of the word in the air twice, again while reading the letters aloud as they write them.


Parents have to remember that reading instruction in school alone is not enough.  Practice is also necessary to help raise a successful reader.  Reading Horizons programs offer not only explicit and sequential phonics instruction, but also lots of guided opportunities for readers to use and refine their skills.  To learn more, click here >. "I am confident that you will be more than pleased with the results. I have already received more than my money's worth in seeing the success it has brought my daughter.” - Michelle Reeder, Dubuque, Iowa