December 3, 2023

What is the difference between helpful and harmful verbal strategies?

The main purpose of this blog and video series was to explore and explain some of the differences regarding the terms used in the field of literacy. Today I’m going into the field a bit to compare two kinds of word strategies.

The comparison will be between the strategy word I used years ago that I now understand to be harmful, and the strategy word I use now that is helpful to the reader.

Quick disclaimer

Please understand that I am No however, the use of the term “harmful” is indicative anyway that teachers or parents who use {or have used} these strategies are intentionally harming their students. I have spent many, many years using these harmful strategies with beginning and struggling readers.

That’s what I was taught. I knew this. Back then, I felt like I was doing my best to help my readers.

But now that I know better, I teach better. And I think that’s all we can ask of ourselves. {No guilt required.}

The text in this blog post is the text from my video.
Watch the full video on my YouTube channel.

What are word strategies?

Vocabulary strategies are what we teach readers to help them figure out unfamiliar or unknown words. So if they come across a word they don’t know in the text, how do they come up with it? First, let’s look at the strategies that don’t help our readers much.

Harmful verbal strategies

Harmful word strategies are the ones we teach our readers it depends heavily on the context to figure out unknown words.

For example, when students are just beginning to read and come across an unfamiliar word, we can say, “Look at the picture” to find the word. In this example, we teach the reader to use a picture, not the word itself, to think of an unknown word or words.

harmful word strategy - skip the word

Another example would be, “Skip the word and continue reading the sentence. Then guess a word that makes sense.” This advice teaches students to use the context of a sentence to figure out an unknown word.

These were some of the strategies I taught my beginning and struggling readers. So why exactly do I call these “harmful” verbal strategies?

In her article “At a loss for words,” Emily Hanford shares the story of a lady named Molly Woodworth.

Molly admits that she wasn’t a good reader at school, but she developed certain coping strategies that allowed her to get by almost unnoticed. She shares that she learned to memorize as many whole words as possible, guess words based on the context of what she was reading, or even skip words when she didn’t know them. She called these strategies her “dirty little secrets.”

And when Molly visited her daughter’s school, she noticed that the teacher was teaching the class to use some of the same strategies she had learned herself to deal with her reading difficulties.

At that moment Molly thought…

Oh my…those are my strategies. These are the things I learned to look like a good reader, not the things good readers do. These kids have been learning my dirty little secrets.

In other words, using context clues is a major problem-solving strategy that readers ALREADY USE to help them figure out unfamiliar words. These simply they are not useful strategies that build strong readers. {See my article, Using context while reading.}

What We Got Wrong With the 3-Cueing System - This Reading Mom

Ken Goodman was one of the leaders who advocated the use of these harmful strategies on readers.

In his 1967 article “Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game”, Goodman revealed that letters are highly unreliable. That readers were left to “guess” as they read. In other words, context had to be relied upon because words alone could not.

All the reading movements were based on his faith {or should I say “disbelief”}. And many harmful verbal strategies have come out of these movements, even though they are not really that at all.

Okay, so what are some useful word strategies?

Useful word strategies

Useful vocabulary strategies are strategies that teach readers apply your knowledge of phonetics to figure out unknown words. Instead of looking for context clues as the main strategy, we teach readers to use the phonics knowledge they know to research and figure out the word.

One example of a useful word strategy would be: “Look for bits of the word that you know.”

Or “slowly say the whole word, start from the beginning”. In both examples, readers are asked to LOOK AT THE WORD and use what they know to find the word.

Helpful free word strategies from This Reading Mama

Keep in mind…

There are a few things to keep in mind when using verbal strategies:

  1. It is necessary to read the texts again for understanding. During the first few attempts in the book, students are likely to focus most on making up the words rather than figuring out what the story or text means. Once they become familiar, their brains can focus more on making sense.
  2. Context not a bad word. Context makes the book fun and easy to understand. The difference is that proficient readers do not use context to find words.
  3. The children of the texts we choose are important. In our next blog post/video, we will explore the differences between level books and decodable books. And even within decodable books, it is important to choose books that do not use distorted or manipulated language that makes it difficult for our readers to understand.

More videos/posts in my “What’s the Difference?” Series

Enjoy the tutorial!

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