Word attack: single word reading

Photo by Mile Ribeiro on Pexels.com

The skills required to read polysyllabic words are typically not taught but acquired naturally by the more proficient readers in class. Readers for whom reading is effortless are of course likely to read more and therefore to improve reading fluency and accuracy. They typically have a good memory for spelling patterns/good word recognition and apply this readily from reading to writing.

How important is it to teach word attack skills, the skills to deconstruct and decode polysyllabic words?

In her talk at the PATOSS conference this year, Dr Marketa Caravolas talked about the importance of the Triple Foundation Model : Rapid Naming, Phoneme Awareness and Letter Knowledge.

These areas appear to be significant predictors of early reading across alphabetic orthographies (writing systems). Rapid naming measures the speed at which a student can access the name for an object – typically a noun – or glyph (such as a number or letter), this ability strongly correlates with word recognition.

Phoneme awareness measures a student’s ability to acknowledge and manipulate units of sound, and letter knowledge is knowing not just letter sounds, but the names of letters and how to recode the sounds in writing. Both of these elements improve with practice and explicit teaching.

Dr Caravolas shared research which suggests that as word reading becomes more efficient in more consistent orthographies (such as Spanish), its contribution to reading comprehension reduces and the role of oral language increases.

However, as English is low consistency, word reading is a stronger predictor of reading comprehension compared to e.g. Czech and Spanish.

The danger of using word reading/fluency skills as an indicator of higher-level comprehension skills was pointed out: code-related and oral language/comprehension skills are not necessarily correlated. This means that as Professor Wagner (author of the CTOPP) discussed, oral or listening comprehension may be higher than reading comprehension.

It was interesting to hear that word reading is not necessarily a predictor of comprehension in more transparent orthographies but that this skill does impact in English.

There is a move in the States led by people such as @natwexler, away from the importance of skills-based instruction, such as summarising, toward the importance of subject knowledge in reading comprehension based on research indicating that predominantly skills-based instruction does little to improve overall reading proficiency for many students.

In the baseball study which has created an impact, for example, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie found that “struggling readers who knew a lot about baseball did better on a reading comprehension test about the topic than strong readers who knew nothing about the sport,” (Holly Korbey). Similarly, high school students who “met a basic knowledge threshold on a dense topic like ecosystems had much stronger performance on a reading test about ecosystems than those who didn’t,” Korbey notes. “For low-income students and students of color, these disparities were particularly pronounced.”

This makes sense of course and teachers are much better placed to teach knowledge than to teach reading (in which they receive no – or little – training). Nonetheless, single word reading is the driver for comprehension, particularly in a complex orthography like English.

How do we ensure that a reading comprehension test measures what is is supposed to measure – understanding – rather than the ability to decode?

Teach inference and prediction.

Whilst Reading Recovery has had a lot of bad press – it did not focus enough on phonics and was a very expensive intervention – longitudinal data shows that students go on to continue to make steady gains in reading. One of the reasons for this is probably because the skills of inference and prediction are coached and embedded.

By the way, I would NEVER say ‘Use the picture for a clue!’. Research here:


If skills of inference and prediction are taught, pupils are able to try and work out what the new vocabulary means, just as they do in spoken language, via multiple exposures to the words, in different contexts.

Furthermore, the tools used to measure comprehension ought to be broader in their scope, reflecting a broader range of experiences and not just white, middle class ones. Indeed, the construct of the ‘Word Gap’ which has been so popular, based on extrapolated data from seven families, might better reflect a gap in the tools used to measure vocabulary.

More about this here:

After the basics of reading are taught in KS1, reading is left to develop for most children with many of them getting lost as words grow in syllables and complexity.

Students tend to stop reading aloud after a point and develop bad habits such as skimming over new words and either replacing them with a non/made up word or for something similar, which may impact negatively on comprehension.

I would argue for a second wave of explicit teaching, aimed at single word strategies to include morphology (word structure) and syllable division – including the important role of vowels (in open and closed syllables).

Tips for single word reading:

Teach the study of word structure (known as morphology), more on that here:


Teach how to split words into syllables and the role of open and closed syllables – do students know what the 5 vowels are and that they can make 2 sounds in words? Encourage them to trial both sounds if the word does not sound right (known as Set for Variability).

Where a vowel digraph or trigraph can be pronounced different ways, encourage students to trial both sounds to see what sounds right.

Where a word has prefixes and suffixes, encourage the student to identify these first, decode the rest of the word and then add them on at the end e.g., cious = /shus/

The process of decoding involves sounds being identified and sequenced (involving working memory), in order to pronounce the word, there is another step where sounds must be matched to a word in the individual’s lexicon (private dictionary).

Students with dyslexia often struggle here. It is not that they don’t know the word, but that they struggle to match the phonemes and pronounce the word from their lexicon AT THE SAME TIME.

Professor Richard Wagner (author of the CTOPP) spoke about this: in dyslexia, the semantic information (meaning of the word) often comes before the phonemes are in Long Term Memory.

Therefore, my next tip is to LOOK AWAY from the phonemes when pronouncing a known word (that they haven’t read before/ often) – they have decoded the word and know what it means, the phonemes are distracting as they need to access the semantic information from their lexicon in order to sequence them. This works.

Teach students to self-monitor – ‘Does what I have just read make sense?’.

Teach inference and prediction: What might the word mean in this context? What is the author going to say next?’

Teach etymology – if a student knows that ‘fort’ is French for strength, it gets them to ‘fortify’, ‘fortitude’ and ‘effort’.

For some students, it’s helpful for them to write the novel word out as they get to experience its structure in this way.

Teach single word reading together with spelling as part of word study, teach word class which will enhance the knowledge of word structure e.g., adding ‘tion’ can change a verb into a noun: inform -information.

Ways with words

I’ve always loved words and never ‘dumb down’ my language for children.

I had an early spat with one of the edu Queens of Twitter, who blocked me and called me ‘nasty’ because I said challenging vocabulary should be used and she… er disagreed:

The author of Wonder understands that children respond well to adults who don’t adapt their language:

There has been much interest in the ‘vocabulary gap’ which suggests that social disadvantage can be bridged with words. It was found that the number of words a child knows can be measured and children who know more words (usually middle class) do better. Social disadvantage and inequality within society is clearly a lot more complex than a vocabulary deficit within the student though.

Schools have primarily middle class mores and values.


The way they communicate these, and interact with parents and children, typically benefits the middle classes who know how to get the most out of the system. In my experience, this is even more pronounced during the Primary phase where competition is intense, a student’s trajectory is set by year 6.

SATs (when they occur) are used to predict GCSE grades.

The acquisition of language is a biologically primary function (we do it naturally). However, verbal ability is dependent to some extent on external factors i.e. an individual’s exposure to language, education and reading.

There are two verbal subtests in IQ related assessments: one explores the ability to define words, the other looks at analogies or relationships between words. These are primarily measures of receptive language – there are also measures of expressive language which require the participant to retrieve a word following a stimulus.

Performance here is affected by the ability to find a word quickly and can be related to difficulties with rapid naming (linked to reading difficulties).

The ability to retain speech sounds, and make semantic links ensuring vocabulary goes into long term memory is affected by working memory and the phonological loop (auditory rehearsal). Working memory in turn can be diminished due to poor sleeping patterns and diet. Low working memory affects a student’s ability to attend to lengthy auditory teaching input.

The ability to retain speech sounds is affected by the ability to feel the sounds in the first instance and for some children, proprioceptive feedback is low.

Studies suggest ways to facilitate language processing and acquisition: a pause after new vocabulary is introduced is beneficial, the orthographic representation of the word helps processing.

The visual aspect of working memory (Visuospatial sketchpad) can be strong and may be utilised to support low auditory memory – using a visual cue with the sound of the word. Actions also help with the processing of language and this is used to great effect in the early years – why not throughout the Primary phase?

The language of instruction, particularly in grammar, maths and science (in Primary) has Latin roots, and can be especially problematic- these words are frequently used but are also subject specific so confined to a particular lesson. They are often never explained so the students that need semantic knowledge struggle to master them. It’s not unusual for a KS3 student not to know what a noun is, let alone a subordinate clause (noun means ‘name’ in Latin. These students test teacher knowledge.

In maths, where new schema is often introduced, confusion can be caused e.g. in division, moving from ‘sharing’ on plates and repeated subtraction, to bus stop can leave students confused about what ‘division’ *is* (from Latin – to force apart, remove.)

Retention of vocabulary can be affected by syntax, clarity of speech and even tone:

Students with good memories do not need to be given semantic information- they retain the word – understand and use it, but may not be able to define it.

Students with dyslexia are assumed to have sequencing difficulties- in truth- they cannot learn without meaning attached. Simply chanting the seasons will not make them stick, same with days of the week, months and times tables. They need meaning.

1) Use actions and context, this example is based on the seasons:

In this example, actions are used to learn a quote from Shakespeare:

2) Use etymology:

3) link all aspects of a word: spelling and meaning (etymology here):

3) Use images:

4) morphology:

5) A repertoire of strategies is required, different methods suit different words:

Vocabulary is best taught in context where it carries meaning and will be retained:

Students may struggle to process language for many reasons: they may be learning English, have lower SES, have low working memory or an ASD-type profile which impacts on the nuance of language.

Dyslexics process language differently- the full extent of this is not yet understood but the processing of language impacts on reading too:

A thread with some ideas:

Ultimately of course vocabulary knowledge impacts on reading comprehension. However, reading and vocabulary knowledge have a reciprocal relationship.

Encourage curiosity and stimulate enjoyment of our rich, varied and nuanced language- this is the best possible intervention.

Start today.

Intervention and the medicalisation of SEND.

I’ve never liked the word ‘intervention’. I first heard it with regard to my son; it seemed so clinical and impersonal.

There is the sense is it is being ‘done to’ the child, not with them. It is any wonder learners become passive?

In schools, the word is used to describe 1-1 or small group sessions wherein students receive support outside of the classroom to help them progress (usually ‘evidence’ based).

Do children even know what the word means?

A closer look at the history of the word does not reassure:

Inter = between, and venire = to come (to come between).

It doesn’t feel like a collaborative process does it?

Children will often refer to it as being ‘taken out’. They can’t miss a core subject so it is often during a lesson which is low in the hierarchisation of subjects, one which they enjoy or a have a talent in: art, drama, PE.

There was one particular child who did not like being ‘taken out’ and I realised that this active process wherein an adult was seen to extract him from the classroom and walk with him to our destination led to embarrassment for him. I considered a process which was less passive for him: an appointment card; supported by the teacher to be timely, he would come and find me at the allotted time.

Research into the efficacy of interventions suggests they are not effective, read more here:

TAs and interventions

The language comes from the medical model:

Intervention: The act of intervening, interfering or interceding with the intent of modifying the outcome. In medicine, an intervention is usually undertaken to help treat or cure a condition.


Of course, there are a great many talented practitioners who make interventions engaging and enjoyable for students. However, the knowledge is not always transferred to the classroom. Why?

Is it because the lessons are discrete and students see them as ‘other’?

Is it because there is not enough time for teachers to communicate with those intervening: to learn about strategies that work, or new learning targets, and embed them?

Teachers have the biggest impact on learning. Sensitive to the staff hierarchy, children often do not afford the same focus, effort and respect to support staff.

Clearly some children get behind in learning and need help. Focus should be on early identification: the Early Years phase. Practitioners are still reluctant to identify students in the EYFS phase. Why?

It is perhaps a phase which sees itself as separate (it has unique training and may be physically located separately); embattled by changes to its ways of working, entrenched. The phase is concerned with protecting the right to play and with a linear model of development, soandso is …’not THERE yet’.

Focus has been on Reception for good reason. It is here that learners start to fail and they don’t catch up. Research shows that quality teaching has a significant impact here:

Impact of Reception attainment

We know a lot more about learning and cognition since Piaget. I am a huge advocate of leaning through play by the way.

Perhaps if children were identified and supported early: with working memory difficulties, dyslexia, speech difficulties there would be no need to ‘intervene’ later on.

There are many ways to encourage students to be active participants, facilitating metacognition (thinking about thinking and learning) :

Engage them in targets:


Embed teaching points within the classroom:


Ask for their feedback:


Handwriting: five tips



3 INTEGRATE handwriting with vocabulary learning: reading and spelling, link this with a word’s meaning:

4 PRACTICE: develop a regular handwriting practice. Students need to know that practising can be enjoyable and leads to success!

5 SETTING: ensure the student is seated correctly (feet flat, paper angled slightly) and using the right tool for them:


See previous post:


Just breathe

Taking full and purposeful breaths is a wonderful way to calm the parasympathetic nervous system. Beneficial for student and teacher!

The techniques can be practised anywhere, but if seated, feet should connect with the ground, back straight so that the lungs are not compressed.

The science of slow breathing

Take time each day to practise different techniques. Here are a few ideas:

My students showed me this technique, using the hand to track the breath:

Using a hoberman sphere; as the sphere expands encourage students to place their hands on the ribs and feel the lungs expand:

Using sense of smell:

Lotus mudra:

Tummy breathing:

Encourage chdn to breathe deeply by placing a toy or hands on the tummy – using the diaphragm to breathe deeply. Chdn will often shallow breathe when they’re upset which makes them panic.

Ways with phonics

Teach sound awareness:

Try linking patterns together with visuals:

A thread on digraphs and trigraphs:

Link the pattern eg from hair to chair, use colour:

Use mind maps:

Reinforce with picture books:

Use phonic frames:

Teach phonics in High Frequency Words, rather than ‘look say’.

Teach/discuss consonant blends:

Making the word into a picture can improve fluency, but remember to refer to phonics as well.

Link back/generalise the orthographic patterns:

Phonics provides the foundations for reading but there are many other elements and over-emphasis on phonics, in my opinion, can lead to poor comprehenders:

Schwa: what it is and how to avoid it.

The schwa is the most common (non) sound in our language.

I posted a 3 part video back in 2018 modelling ‘pure’ sounds:

The etymology of ‘schwa’:

From Michael Rosen, this is why the schwa makes it difficult to blend (reading) or spell (writing):

For children who are effortless decoders and encoders (around 10 in every class) it doesn’t really have an impact – for the rest it does!

The schwa is not just connected to phonics and the making of ‘pure’ sounds but lurks in many words, making spelling so difficult.

This is why the teaching of affixes as units is so important:there’s a schwa in ‘ment’ and many other suffixes:

See this extract from Joe Moran’s excellent ‘First You Write a Sentence’:

Start write: supporting your new dyslexic student

Dyslexia has been ringfenced by the scientific community as requiring specialist support.

This approach can make teachers feel powerless, however, teachers are experts and the classroom teacher has the most powerful influence on a student’s learning journey and outcomes.

Graduated Approach

What is dyslexia anyway?

Think beneath the behaviours and consider how dyslexia looks across the curriculum for each child. There are more similarities than differences, but it can manifest in nuanced ways depending on support at home, when and how diagnosis occurred and the teaching received.

I tried to illustrate the bigger picture here:

Dyslexia is a sensory difference, reading and writing are largely physical, procedural skills. It takes longer for dyslexics to acquire them and the current system does not allow for this. Actually, the more rote styles of instruction in these areas, now so disliked, benefit them.

There is a difference between these core skills and knowledge. They are very good at retaining facts and information, when given the semantics (they need meaning, they need to know ‘why’) they are:

Interconnected thinkers


Think outside the box, excellent critical thinkers.

Very imaginative with an ability to visualise.

The important thing is to support them with language because if they haven’t processed the language, they can’t retain the knowledge.

This is linked to working memory weaknesses which I wrote about here:

Working Memory

There are lots of ways to explore language and spelling, phonics becomes less helpful as language becomes more complex:

When delivering a teaching point, be rigorous with your teaching and don’t assume – especially around language.

eg plan for teaching relative clauses


I had a long think, how do I approach the presentation of concepts to my students?

I came up with these principles:


Build a relationship, trust is so important. Knowing they can come to you for support means everything.

Have high expectations

Give the student opportunities to practise key skills

Praise specific progress

Be present to subtle bullying within class.

See previous posts:

Supporting Dyslexia KS2

Spelling and metacognition

Top ten spelling tips

1. Contractions

2. Open and closed syllables

3. Learning a word as a picture

4. Voiced and unvoiced sounds

5. Link reading and spelling as words are deconstructed.

6. Cut words up to show the syllables.

7. Use magnetic letters, this example uses stop motion video. You can also take a word and mix up the letters so the student has to rearrange them.

8. Simultaneous Oral Spelling – using letters names aloud whilst spelling.

9. Make videos, use play doh – good for irregular High Frequency Words.

10. Teach affixes and link concepts:

Catch up and keep up: ed suffix

The suffix ‘ed used in a past tense, regular verb is a year one target (together with ‘ing’ for good reason)

The ed suffix is an important entry into the world of morphology and represents an important move away from a phonics-only approach as ‘ed is never spelled as it sounds.

Previous post on morphology:


From https://www.etymonline.com/word/-ed

Originally fully pronounced, as still in beloved (which, with blessed, accursed, and a few others retains the full pronunciation through liturgical readings). In Old English already the first and third person singular past tense form of some “weak” verbs was -te, a variant of -de (see -ed), often accompanied by a change in vowel sound (as in modern keep/kept, sleep/slept).

A tendency to shorten final consonants has left English with many past tense forms spelled in -ed but pronounced “-t” (looked, missed, etc.). In some older words both forms exist, with different shades of meaning, as in gilded/gilt, burned/burnt.

The past tense can be seen as spelled ‘d in historic texts.

Activities which help students to differentiate include word sorts:

I made up a narrative for my students and invented the character of ‘Ed’ who makes 3 sounds:

At the time fidget spinners were all the rage so I turned spelling practice into a game:

I also make videos with students, wherein Stikbot Ed turns verbs into the past tense.

My principles are always:

Tell students what they need to know.

Make it relatable.

Engage the imagination.

Provide practice opportunities.

Encourage independence through self-checking.

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