Teaching Reading – Does it Make Sense? Part 1

So, your child is reading along and comes to a word she doesn’t know. What do you do?  

Do you tell her to sound it out? Say the sounds?  No. You ask her what word would make sense.

Children use basically three reading strategies when learning to read:

Does it make sense?

Does is sound right?

Does it look right?

The most POWERFUL of these is: Does it make sense?  Reading for meaning.

Mother and Daughter Reading Together --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

You’ll need to know about each of these reading strategies as you begin teaching your child. It’s quite simple. But, for this post, I’ll demonstrate the first one:

Does it make sense? 


Complete these sentences:

Little Red Riding ____________ was such a nice, little girl.

“I’m going to ___________ you”, said the Wolf.

“Go straight to Granny’s ___________ and don’t stop to talk to any ____________.”

How did you know what the words were?  Did you use phonics! You couldn’t have. No letters, no phonics.  You know the story of Little Red Riding Hood. You used the context or meaning of the story.  The word that you chose made sense.

This meaning strategy is the most powerful reading strategy your child can use.  It drives reading. I can’t stress this enough.

The meaning of the story in your child’s head is like a scaffolding.  As your child reads along and stops when she comes to a word she doesn’t know, her brain is working hard to make meaning, to make sense. What could this word be? What word would make sense here? Each word choice your child makes has to fit. It has to make sense given what the story is about.

child wondering

This is precisely the reason it’s okay to tell your child what the story is about briefly before he or she begins to read it.  You can quickly look at the pictures in the book which helps predict what the story is about. You are providing that much-needed scaffolding. Teachers do this when teaching how to read.

On the other hand, when you’re reading a story to your child for pleasure, you don’t have to tell them what the story is about. Surprises are fun!

So, what about phonics? What about telling your child to just “sound it out”?   

Phonics alone does not work.  Blasphemy, you say?

Okay, Smartypants, sound out this word by sounding out each letter:  the

Did it work?  No?  Hmmm.

How about this word?   saw

Did it work?  No.

What about this word?  rough

Not having much luck, are you?  Do you think it might be a tad frustrating for your child if you tell him or her to just “sound it out”?

Asian Girl

The process of learning to read is a magnificent accomplishment of the human brain. It’s easy and complex at the same time. Yes, phonics is important! It is important to know the letter names and their sounds, but that’s not all you need to know. It’s much more important to teach the reading strategies mentioned above. But, teach the letter names and sounds, too.

As a teacher, I was fortunate to be trained in Reading Recovery. It is an early literacy intervention program invented by psychologist/educator, Marie Clay, from New Zealand. I worked with grade one students who were having the most difficulty learning to read. My job was to teach them these reading strategies because, for whatever reasons, they had not yet acquired them.  It was my greatest joy to see these little people become proficient readers over a few short months once they got the hang of things.  I taught them much more than the letter names and sounds.

In the next post, Teaching Reading – Does it Make Sense? Part 2,  I’ll show you how to teach the “Does it Make Sense?” reading strategy to your child.


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