The 1st word can be the hardest

There’s a song that says that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. Well I think that the hardest word is often the first word of a sentence. Why? Because there is little or no context (meaning or structure) to support the look of the word.

If your child is stuck on the first word of a sentence don’t think that you’re doing the wrong thing if you just tell him / her what it is to move the reading along.

Sometimes I will tell the word. Sometimes I will give a prompt to action and if that does not work I will tell the word.

Here are some ways that I’ve helped students to get started :

Day after day “We’d probably say ‘every day’ but the author chose ‘day after day’. Say it with me. Day after day”. (‘Day’ might be a word that is usually recognized by this student, but it is not known in this context.)

Kieron “That boy is ‘Kieron'”. (Pointed to picture and pointed to 1st word.) “Can you say ‘Kieron’?” (To become familiar with the look and sound of the word.)

Matthew “Who is still making the card?” (A call to use some visual information and meaning (print and picture) to support a decision.)

They “Does it look like ‘They’ or ‘Then’?” (Reducing the choice to 2 words. Will need to look through the whole word.)

Then “What do you think happened then?” (Giving some context and putting the word ‘then’ into the student’s mix of possibilities.)

After “What do you think will happen after school?” (Context for the 1st word, and also a call to think about what might come next (structure and meaning).)

Thunder “Look at the black clouds in the sky. Look at the beginning of the word and think about what might happen”. (Giving some context and a call to crosscheck meaning with the look of the word.)

Everyone “Can you see a part you know? Can you say more?” (A call to take the word apart as I know he knows both ‘every’ and ‘one’.)

You have to know the reader well in order to choose an appropriate prompt. If in doubt- Tell.


Common learning between reading and writing

Reading and writing go together. Reading is a message- getting, problem-solving activity and writing is a message-sending, problem-solving activity.

When you teach reading and writing together, it is a two-for-one deal (From Reciprocity Between Reading and Writing: Strategic Processing as Common Ground by Nancy L Anderson and Connie Briggs)

The strategies that the student uses to read, and the strategies that the student uses to write, are often the same and they support each other. What seems obvious to us however may not be obvious to the student, so we have to help him / her to make the connections in order to make learning easier.

Some of the common strategic actions are:

  • Searching for more information e.g. asking oneself- what do I know about the message, how words go together to make sentences, and how letters go together to make words?
  • Monitoring, e.g. checking if the message makes sense and looks right. You cannot fix a problem if you do not notice that there is a mismatch.
  • Self correcting, e.g. rereading to change a word that did not look right / sound right.

Common Ground Between Reading and Writing


Creates ideas with an audience in mind, e.g. a letter to Grandma, a story for the class library.


Uses the written message to construct meaning, e.g. what did the author want me to know / think about / enjoy?

MEANING Checks that the message makes sense.If it does not sound right then I have to check what I want to say and search for a better way of writing it. MEANING Checks that the message makes sense. If it does not sound right then I have to check what I think the author is telling me, and search for errors.
STRUCTURE Chooses the order of words based on a knowledge of what we hear / see during reading experiences, and how we put words together in sentences when we are talking (e.g. grammar, punctuation, Can I say it that way?) STRUCTURE Groups words together that sound right based on a knowledge of what we hear / see during other reading experiences, and how we put words together in sentences when we are talking and writing (e.g. grammar, punctuation, Would I say it that way?)
VISUAL INFORMATION Uses knowledge of how letters, words, and print work (e.g. letter-sound connections) to write the message. VISUAL INFORMATION Uses knowledge of how letters, words, and print work (e.g. letter-sound connections) to construct (make meaning) from the message.
MONITORING Checks and finds any mismatches between the anticipated message and the written words. MONITORING Checks and finds any mismatches between the anticipated message and the written words.
SELF CORRECTING Notices errors and fixes them. SELF CORRECTING Notices errors and fixes them.

Dr Ann Ballantyne wrote some examples of teaching explicit links between reading and writing:

The child read was for went: Teacher “You can write that word. Write it quickly. What did you write?’

Child stumbles on a partly known word in reading. Teacher: ‘that’s an important word. Have you seen it before?…That was in one of your favourite books (shows him). You can read it and you can learn to write it.” (teaches writing)

Anderson & Briggs prompted:

“Think about how you say words slowly in writing. That will help you in reading.”

If you would like to read the article called Reciprocity Between Reading and Writing: Strategic Processing as Common Ground by Nancy L Anderson and Connie Briggs click on the link (title).

Teachers might also like to take a look at Reading and Writing: teaching for reciprocal gains by Dr Ann Ballantyne.

Faster progress in writing

On Friday we attended our last Reading Recovery Ongoing Professional Learning session for the year. We discussed some research that had looked into the differences between a group of Reading Recovery students who had demonstrated fast progress in writing and the students who had made slower progress over the same amount of time.

Interestingly, the students who made the faster progress by the end of the study were not always the students who knew the most about writing at the beginning of the study.

A main difference was that the students who had made the faster progress often reread their writing as they were producing it. Rereading seemed to help them to work out what the next word(s) should be in order to make sense, and to continue the thought. They did not need to be prompted to recall what they had originally intended to write. They were also easily able to add or change words ‘on the run’ to contribute to the original idea.

As well as rereading, the students who made the faster progress could often be heard saying the next word(s) or the beginning sound(s) of the next word. (My friend Colby stayed at my house for a s / sl (sleepover). They were more likely to say the parts of the word as they wrote them (sl-ee-p-ov-er) and checked themselves and made changes if they were not happy with the look of the words (slipova – sleepova – sleepover).

We all reflected on our teaching. Were we letting our students become more independent, or were we doing too much of the thinking, checking and problem solving for them (i.e. holding them back)? I am going to make sure that I give my students every opportunity to reread, check, and help themselves before I intervene with their writing in order to promote faster progress.

Say it like it is in boxes

One way of solving a word during reading is to think about how it could be broken down during the process of writing.

During the writing component of the lesson, the student has been shown how to match sounds to (probable) letters through the use of sound boxes. The student pushes counters into boxes as he / she slowly says the word. This is repeated until all of the sounds are heard and represented.

During reading, this knowledge of sound boxes can be used to match letters to  (probable) sounds to solve a word. The student runs his / her finger underneath the unknown word to slowly look through the word as if it was in sound boxes, and chooses sounds that could match those letters, e.g. l-i-tt-le. (See Slow check and sound boxes)

I have recently been making this task more explicit by actually using the magnetic letters and a magnetic board with sound boxes drawn on it.

The student had read ‘got’ instead of ‘get’. I placed the letters for ‘get’ under the sound boxes and asked him to push each letter up as he was saying the corresponding sound. This helped him to make a better connection between the look and sound of the word.

Some other words which were solved this way by various students were:



Some students worked out a word before pushing up all of the letters. Other students needed to push up the letters a number of times before being successful. We would not want to be doing this task very often as it takes the student away from the book, but it is a very useful scaffold when extra help is required.

What is a rocket card?

Sometimes students return to school after the holidays reading slower than they were before the missed lessons. If I think that a student is still capable of reading faster I might reach for a masking card.

I use a card that looks like a rocket.This card encourages the eyes to sweep ahead of the words being said out loud. As the student reads a known book, I move the card along the line of the print (just a little behind the student’s oral reading, but at a constant speed). If the student is reading too slowly the card will cover the words before he / she sees them, and therefore the student is greatly encouraged to look ahead as quickly as possible.

Some students (who are very familiar with the rocket card) pick up the pace of their reading when they see me reach for the card. They realise that they need to speed up, and they want to show they can do it without my interference!

I do not use a rocket card on the new book as the ‘reading work’ is understandably slower, and I want to promote problem solving over guessing. (If there is too much emphasis on reading quickly the student can treat it as a race and neglect the meaning or look of the words.)

A masking card can be a very useful tool but it should be used sparingly and l would not recommend that you use it at home as it can be a distraction or a hindrance if it is not used very carefully.

Effective Literacy Practices

Every now and again the media reports that Australian students are not learning to read the ‘right way’. Some ‘experts’ have their own preferred style of teaching reading (e.g. an emphasis on phonics) and do not acknowledge the benefits of  ‘Whole Language’ (an emphasis on meaning and strategic actions). During Reading Recovery, and across our school, the students learn to use what they have already learnt about language through listening and speaking. They learn that the stories they hear (and write) are made up of sentences, sentences are made up of words, and words can be broken into chunks and individual letters / sounds. ‘Phonics’ (sounds within words) IS taught within Whole Language, but it is only a part of reading, not the starting point of learning to read.

The following 2 videos are from the Reading Recovery Council Of North America. They show some practices that your children experience at our school during Reading Recovery and within their classrooms.

Effective Literacy Practices – Learning About Phonology & Orthography

Teachers explore ways that children learn about relationships between letters of written language and sounds of spoken language.

Effective Literacy Practices – Making It Easy to Learn

Teachers build on a child’s strengths to create situations where the child will experience success in early literacy learning.

The main points of the videos are:
Teachers should start with what the children already know and build on those strengths.
Students enjoy a challenge that is within reach.

A writing sample

One day last week Miss N was told she could write about anything, and I would not be helping her with the spelling. (I wanted to check what she would do by herself.)She chose to write about a familiar story from her book box. Grandad had helped Max to rehearse his role as the wolf in the class play. Unfortunately on the day of the play Max was not well and Grandad took his place.  Miss N wrote:

Max was sick because he had a sore throat. Then Grandad pretended to be the wolf.

Miss N showed that she could easily compose 2 sentences that made sense. She began each sentence and name with a capital letter and she finished each sentence with a full stop. She confidently wrote the words that she knew and she willingly had a go at unknown words. She regularly reread what she had written so far and she often said the next words aloud before she wrote them. She made some changes as she went. She self corrected ‘he‘ and she crossed out ‘a’ but then chose to write it again.

What she did not do was stretch out any words aloud in order to hear the parts. After she was finished I helped her to think about the words that were not correct. I drew a letter box for each letter of a word and I slotted in the letters that were correct in her version. She easily recognised what was missing from ‘sick‘ to make it look right. (She wrote ‘ck’ in the one box until I clarified that only one letter was to go into each letter box.) After I pronounced the word ‘throat‘ for her she easily added ‘th‘ to replace the ‘f’ in her version. I told Miss N to stretch out ‘sore‘ before she wrote it and she quickly realised that the word contained ‘or‘, a word she knew, and then she added the ‘e’ on the end herself.

The trickiest word was ‘pretended‘. Together we said the parts pre-ten-ded. She wrote pre-en-ted, so I had her slowly say each part again until she heard all the sounds in order.

The following day Miss N independently stretched out some words as she was writing. Every day there are opportunities for Miss N to try out ways of solving words. She knows that some letters go together to make a sound, e.g. ‘oa‘, ‘th‘. She knows that some words are a bit like other words she knows, e.g. or / sore, and she thinks about what she would expect to see, e.g. ‘e’ on the end of sore.

First graduate

It was very pleasing to return after the holidays and to observe that each student had maintained their new skills. Some students were reading a little slower but they quickly picked up the pace again. Remember that reading should sound like talking.

One of my students has just finished Reading Recovery. She is so proud of herself. Her classroom teacher has commented on her overall increased confidence in the classroom. However her learning hasn’t finished. We all learn new things every day.

What we don’t use can be easily forgotten. Reading Recovery graduates should continue to read at home every day. Teachers will monitor their progress and continue to give some extra support when required.

‘Miss Graduate’ wrote a message about her experience with Reading Recovery.




She is proudly showing a book that she read when she first began  Reading Recovery, and a book that she can read now.







Her favourite story to read is Goldilocks And The 3 Bears.


As one student graduates, another one begins Reading Recovery. I have a new student who has already begun Roaming The Known.  (Roaming 2, First 2 Weeks)  


Growth with Reading Recovery

Enjoy the next 2 weeks of holidays! Don’t forget to have your child do lots of reading, and some writing too.

If you read the last post and followed the links you may have noticed the video Growth With Reading Recovery (Reading Recovery Council of North America, 2012)
If you did not see the video, I have linked it to this post.

The video is celebrating Chase’s journey from being a student who was reading below the other students in his class, to being a confident student who was reading above the level of the average students in his class.

After 5 weeks of Reading Recovery, Chase’s RR teacher tells us that he was using strategies such as slowly saying a word (moth) in order to hear what he would expect to see at the beginning of the word (m). He was then asked to check if the word did begin with m, and it did.

Chase was able to hear many dominant consonants. Consonants are letters that are not vowels (aeiou). Dominant consonants are the ones that are easiest to hear within a word, e.g. Chase would probably hear c-s-n (or k-z-n) in cousin. He is not likely to think the word cake would be cousin if he is using what he knows about matching sounds with probable letters,

Chase was also learning that there was a connection between reading and writing. When we are reading we go from letters to sounds. When we are writing we go from sounds to letters. We can hear individual sounds and parts of words, we can write down letters to represent the sounds and parts of words, and we can look at the letters and parts of words and think of sounds that could match those letters.

Even after 5 weeks, Chase’s classroom teacher had noticed that he was taking risks with his writing, i.e. he had the confidence to try writing words that he did not know.

Chase had 15 weeks of Reading Recovery. By then he had caught up to the average students in his class and he sounded like a good reader. Chase was using word parts (e.g. st-art-ed) and word patterns (day, away) to solve words.

At the beginning of Reading Recovery Chase could only write 5 words. After 15 weeks he could write 42 words.

Chase continued to progress without the extra support that he had previously needed. Chase was reading above the level of the average students in his class by the end of the school year, and his classroom teacher was very pleased with what he could do, including solving words on the run. That means he could work out many unknown words as he was reading, without having to stop, reread and think about ways of taking a word apart.

Chase understood what he was reading as he could answer questions about his book and write about it. Chase was now confident to try new challenges and he enjoyed reading and writing. He had learnt many things about reading and writing (giving him background knowledge) that he can now use in the future. The teachers were proud of him and no doubt so were his parents. Most importantly, Chase would be very pleased with himself.

This is the kind of journey we want for all of our students!

Advice for parents and teachers

I find that searching around the World Wide Web provides lots of good advice (and some questionable advice too!).

I was very pleased to find this website- It advertises itself as ‘a site dedicated to resources for literacy learning and teaching’.

There is a lot of very valuable information for parents related to Reading Recovery.

Parents will be especially interested to read Ways to Help At Home.
There are some ideas that you can use as your child is reading the take-home book, and unjumbling the cut up sentence that comes home each day.
Your own copy of Ways to Help At Home can be downloaded here.

Parents and classroom teachers may also be interested to read A Reading Recovery Lesson.

Each part of the Reading Recovery lesson is explained- Familiar ReadingReread of Yesterday’s New Book for AssessmentWord and Letter WorkComposing and Writing A Story, the Cut-up Sentence, and the New Book Introduction & First Read. There is quite a bit of ‘teacher talk’ so parents might like to revisit The Lesson page on this blog as it also explains the parts of the lesson without the ‘teacher talk’.