Content Teacher’s Resource for

Helping Students Identify and Recognize Unknown Words



Student stops, stumbles or mispronounces a word while reading.


The teacher should use his/her judgment about whether it is wise to stop the students.  Generally, if the child is reading aloud, it is best to not give the word, but then take a note, where you keep other notes about the student’s reading.  The rationale is that you don’t want to detract from the meaning of the reading.  If, however, you are in a situation where you are working individually or can work individually with the student.  Think of familiar key elements that will help the child determine how to pronounce it.


 For exampleThe deer at the edge of the forest appeared to be standing and quivering in his tracks.  (Key words might be, queen, giver, and giving.


Students are having trouble with particular word elements.


You notice from your observation or record keeping that students are having trouble with words having roots and suffixes. You decide on a developing a mini-lesson to help students with recognizing and identifying these words.  It is likely that the students don’t recognize or can’t identify the roots of the words, or may be having trouble knowing where the accent in the word is for pronunciation.  They generally won’t be able to do this easily unless they can determine that the root of the word is familiar, or they know a word that is similar.


For examplelevitation 

Text:  The crowd watched in awe as the magician demonstrated in his final act the levitation of his assistant on the stage.


Discuss with children what might be the meaning using the context of the sentence.  Then continue---

1.        What parts of the word are familiar?  -levi  (from levy) (See)

2.        What is the meaning of levy? (high dike) (Associate)

How is this word like visitation?  Yes, -tation  (Associate)

3.   Add the root levi to the suffix tation   = levitation (Apply)

What do you suppose the magician is doing to the assistant?

What are some other words from the same root as levitation?

(levitate, levitated)   (Root doesn’t stand alone as does act in activate.)



Students haven’t a strategy for recognizing and identifying words.


In this situation you might teach students a strategy that will aid in using what they know to identify terms for pronunciation and meaning.


For exampleDraw a picture of a skeleton key on the board, a chart or on a transparency.  Model for the students with a word in context how to carry out the strategy relating the steps to the skeleton key, as follows:


1.       Read the total context in which the word appears.

  1. Decide what word or words might fit at this point in the sentence---make sense.
  2. Analyze the word parts----break the prefix off the word,

next, break the suffix off the word, find the root.  Is there a

            common spelling pattern?  Where can it be syllabicated?

  1. What might be a possible pronunciation of the word? 

Does it sound right?  Does it make sense in the context?



Students have trouble in determining how to break a word into syllables for pronouncing the vowel(s) and ultimately the word.


Students attempting to identify new vocabulary demonstrate they don’t know where to syllabicate words without a common prefixes.  In this situation they must first learn word or spelling patterns to know how to pronounce the vowel sound.  In teaching the common word or spelling patterns, it would probably be best to gradually introduce all of them as students encounter words they are attempting to syllabicate when unlocking a new word.  Find word examples with the patterns you need from your Word Wall, out of reading, spelling or content textbooks.


Pattern                         Example and Explanation


CVC*                  This pattern can be defined as a closed syllable as there is a

 short/regular (unglided) vowel between two consonants or

 consonant clusters, beginning and/or end (digraph or blend)

 of the word of syllable.


Examplescab     cottage    branch    pack   that   (-)at    -ob-vious 


CV                       This pattern can be defined as an open syllable as there is a long (glided) vowel at the end of the syllable.  The vowel can consist of a vowel digraph.  There are few single CV pattern words

as compared to CVC words. The consonant may be a blend or



          Examplesgo, so, no, he, she, me; (Diagraph or diphthong: day, say, may)

                                    re-mote, di-vide,  a-ble,  pa-per


CVCE                 This pattern is a closed syllable with a long

                                    (glided) vowel. As a closed syllable it has a

                                    consonant on each side of the vowel or consonant

                                    clusters or digraphs.  It is unique because it

                                    has the orthographic -e  after the last consonant.

                                    The –e  is always silent, or not pronounced.  The

                                    orthographic –e is dropped in adding endings.


          Examplesrate     write    hope/hoping/hoped/hope



CVvC                  This pattern permits a consonant digraph or blend

arrangement at the beginning or end of the syllable or in one-syllable words.  It is a more variable pattern because while the double vowel arrangement generally signals a long (or glided) vowel, there are words that fit this pattern in which the vowels are not long (or glided). These may even use the same two vowel letters.


         Examples:  seed                coat                  rain                   blow                 tied

                                    seat/head  tied/field       bead/head


CVrC                       This pattern also allows consonant blend or digraphs in the initial position and final consonant position.  It can also be used to explain the–l influence on vowels (–w with the vowel may actually identify a diphthong at the medial or end position as well). In the CVrC pattern the final consonant frequently appears unpronounced

                                    in some dialect and the vowel becomes more like a schwa sound (soft unaccented).


          Examples: dart    heart/hart          bird      flirt/hurt   thwart

 for       art       her          father    doctor   dollar   



Resources for Word Recognition and Identification Mini-Lessons Reliable Phonic Generalizations


The following generalizations are useful and worthwhile for teaching to students in mini-lessons in the middle grades when children demonstrate they aren’t able to use them correctly.  In teaching the generalization, present vocabulary in context, model using the generalization with the words, associate to known elements in other terms fitting the pattern and provide practice.  Application can be done through strategies such as word sorts.


1.      A medial vowel in a one-syllable word is usually a regular or “short” vowel (unglided).  (CVC)


2.      A vowel at the end of a syllable or word is usually a long vowel (glided or diphthong).  (CV) Note, however, that –aw, -oy, -oi, -au- while not actually a vowel sound in this pattern, are, however, highly consistent and worthwhile in learning.


3.      While double vowel clusters tend to be confusing and may seem inconsistent (CVVC), there are vowel cluster arrangements that are consistent enough and warrant teaching.  For example: play, coat, feet, rain, join, boy.  Some of the double

vowel clusters can be used in word sorts for collecting words with same patterns:

snow/how; blew/view; boot/boat; eight/either; seat/heat/fear; out/touch/your; field/tied; toes/shoes/does; build/fruit; piano/Asia.


4.      An - e at the end of a word generally has a long vowel (glided) sound. (CVCV) There are many common words that do not conform to this pattern, however, that end in –ce, -ge, ve.  Some common words also have same pattern but vowel isn’t long/glided: come and one.  Words with e vowel sound and  -e at the end have extremely low regularity.


5.   Vowel clusters –ai , -ay, -oa, -ee, -ey are highly regular and worth teaching as are

vowel variants with –r such as –ar.  Learning activities involving sorting are very helpful when students are ready to learn these.


6.      The vowel –i followed by -ght is pronounced as a glided vowel or long vowel sound. The –gh is always silent.


7.      When –y is the final letter of a two syllable word it usually is a long vowel,

diphthong, or long vowel sound (glided or diphthong).


8.      The orthographic letters –ch makes only one sound, never two, whether “soft” or



9.      When  -c is followed by –e or -i it has the sound of  /s/, when followed by –o or –a it

has the sound of /k/.


10.  When -j is followed by an –e or -i, it has the sound of / j /. 


11.  Initial consonant digraphs or clusters kn- and wr-  have the sound of the second consonant /n) and /r/.  The medial or final consonant cluster –ck has the sound of /k/.


12.  When two identical consonants are side-by-side only one is pronounced, the first.

The first consonant usually ends the first syllable.  The two consonants are divided only for orthographic purposes.


13.  In two syllable words without a prefix, the first syllable is accented.


14.  Most prefixes (a, in, re, ex, de, be) and suffixes (-y, -er, -ture, -tion) are normally unaccented as in decide and detain.


15.  When words end in –le, the preceding consonant usually begins the second syllable.


16.  Consonant digraphs –th, -ch, and –sh are never divided in syllabication when in a medial position in a word.      



Johnston, F. P. (2001). The utility of phonic generalizations: Let’s take another look at

            Clymer’s conclusions.  The Reading Teacher 55(2), 132-143.


Clymer, T. (1963)/1996).  The utility of phonic generalizations in the primary grades.

            The Reading Teacher 16(50), 252-258 and 182-185.


Anderson, R. C., Hiebert, E. H, Scott, J. A. & Wilkinson, I. A. G. (1985). Becoming a

            Nation of Readers: The Report from the Commission on Reading.  Washington,

            D.C: National Institute of Education.


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