Dr. Connie Hebert helps kids, parents, and teachers by helping them become experts at catching "the teachable minute" anytime, anywhere! My Teachable Minute Blog offers quick tips on how to engage with younger and older kids. Comments, questions, and reflections are always welcome . . . let's catch a million teachable minutes together!

What are six of the most common habits of readers who begin to fall? Why do we need to be aware of them? How can we help children break these habits so that they can move forward in their literacy development?

I began to raise these important questions after assessing and teaching hundreds of falling readers. I observed the variety of unusual ways in which they decode, comprehend, and respond to challenges in their books. I watched what they did with their eyes, lips, and fingers. I analyzed their behaviors as well as their substitutions for new and difficult words. What I discovered was that struggling kids commonly adopt coping behaviors for deal with what is too difficult or frustrating. If left unchecked, these behaviors often become habits. Habits, as we all know, are hard to break and new strategies are even harder to put in place!


You may want to visualize these coping behaviors as ‘red flags’ that signal problems with the way in which a reader is trying to learn to read. With this in mind, the first step to catching a falling reader is by becoming a careful observer so that you can identify behaviors that may, or already are, habits. The second step is to make the child aware of the habit and simultaneously offer alternative strategies for coping with the text. The third, and most important step, is to be consistent in finding ways to help the child to break the habit. Reminding the child one or two times will not do it! The verbal prompts that we use to break habits and instill new behaviors are critically important. By using consistently using the same verbal prompts, you will ultimately lead the reader to more effective strategies. This leads to success, success increases confidence, and confidence moves the child forward in new ways.


So what are the most common habits of falling readers and what should we do about them?


Habit #1: Look Up and Wait

This is perhaps the most common behavior that many children adopt when they are learning to read. If the text is too difficult or when readers don’t know what else to do, they simply ‘look up’ off the page and wait for someone to rescue them! Over time, this behavior happens more frequently and the child begins to depend on others to problem solve new and difficult words. It is critically important that teachers, particularly first grade teachers, deal with this behavior as soon as possible. We do this by frequently reminding the child that looking up will not help. Then, we should jump in with a verbal prompt that will promote an action from the reader.


Examples of verbal prompts are as follows (not necessarily in this order):


  • “Did you make the first sound? Try it!”
  • “Why did you stop?”
  • “Did you remember to check the picture?”
  • “Tell me what’s happening in the story?”
  • “What part of that word do you know?”
  •  “Why are you looking up? That won’t help you. What else can we do?”
  • “Use your finger to break that word up. Now try it!”


With consistent and firm prompting during reading instruction, the child will come to realize that looking up and waiting just doesn’t work because nothing happens!



Habit #2: Skip the Word

Many emerging readers are prompted to “skip the word” when they come to words that are new or difficult. The basic philosophy behind this strategy is that by reading ahead, you will ultimately figure out what is happening and gain meaning. This is often true, but the problem with telling young readers to “skip the word” is that they don’t automatically return to figure out the word! Skipping the word is really a higher level strategy that is mainly used once a reader moves towards reading proficiency. In other words, good readers at higher levels will sometimes skip a difficult or unfamiliar word, but they will always return to decode that word. Young readers who are taught to skip words without ‘working out the word’ begin to rely on this behavior as a way of coping with challenging words. Over time, the reader begins to skip many words and this eventually backfires because the text no longer makes sense when reading ahead.


Breaking this habit requires consistent teaching in phonetic decoding and the way “words work.” In order words, children must be prompted and expected to check specific visual cues within a word instead of skipping and forgetting it. Verbal prompts include:


  • “Let’s take a look at that word you skipped. I didn’t hear you make that first sound. Try it…that will help you.”
  • “Take your two ‘pointer fingers’ and frame a little part you know in that word.” Now try it.
  • What word would make sense there? Does it ‘look right?’ Check it.
  • Give the child 3 choices of possible words: Could it be _______?

Could it be ________? Could it be ______? How do you know?


Skipping words is an easy out! Unless you’re going to teach them how to go back and problem solve the new word, don’t encourage skipping until they are more experienced readers.


Habit #3: Sounding Out Every L-e-t-t-e-r

We’ve all worked with readers who ‘sounded out’ every letter when they came to a new or difficult word. This type of behavior focuses on distorting the sounds in a word, rather than instantly recognizing it or decoding it. For example, a child who resorts to sounding out the word, would, might verbalize w-o-uh-l-d. They could do this all day and never get the word! More importantly, the flow of the sentence and meaning of the text are lost due to the time it takes to stop and distort the word by individual letter sounds.


Why do falling readers resort to ‘sounding out’ individual sounds within words?

Here are a few reasons:


  • For years, someone has told the young reader to ‘sound it out’ when they read. That’s what they’ve been told, so that what they do!
  • Readers don’t know what else to do because effective strategies and skills have either not been introduced or they are being ignored by the reader. In the later case, falling readers find it easier to stop and ‘sound out’ because eventually someone will come to their rescue and tell them the word.
  • These readers often ignore clues from the meaning and structural (grammatical) cueing systems, thus only relying on the visual (phonetic) system.
  • Over-emphasis on isolated phonics skills without a link to context was taught, in the early years, to the exclusion of processing strategies. These strategies include sight word recognition, searching pictures for meaning and inference, rereading the line when stuck, checking for grammatical ‘sense,’ and identifying common chunks within words.


The ‘sounding out’ habit is very hard to break, but it must be broken or readers will continue to struggle. This habit often stops the flow of the story. When this happens, there is little, if any, fluency and this can limit comprehension.

So what do we do about this habit?


  1. Tell your struggling readers that ‘sounding out’ every letter will not help. Say, “What can you do to help yourself?” If they don’t know, remind them of a few key strategies such as first sound, rereading, and looking for known chunks within the word.
  2. Verbal prompts that you give to a reader as they’re reading are vitally important for breaking ‘bad’ habits. Be sure to prompt the reader to look for parts that they know in the word, search the pictures and check the first sound, look for common endings, break apart the word with their finger, etc. Your prompts should be consistent in their wording and your voice must carry a sense of urgency so that the reader will engage in the action you are seeking.
  3. Increase daily practice with sight words (both while reading and writing) so that a strong bank frequently used words are instantly recognized. This will increase confidence and free the student’s attention for problem solving new and difficult words.
  4. Add writing instruction (shared writing and interactive writing) to reading instruction time; both in small group and whole group settings.


The bottom line regarding the ‘sounding out’ habit is not to tell young readers to ‘sound out’ in the first place!



Habit #4: Guess the Word

Readers who guess word and go on to the next words are simply not checking on themselves. In technical terms, they have not learned to self-monitor and cross-check multiple sources of information. They may look at the word, “winter” and say, “water.” They may frequently guess at words that start and end the same, but they fail to check medial sounds and meaning! They may get close to the meaning, however, so they accept their substitution and move on. An example of this would be when the reader says, “shrieking” for “shouting.” The beginning and ending sounds are similar. The guess is grammatically correct and the reader is able to get a sense of the meaning. Early on, the reader learns to merely guess, without checking to be sure the word is correct. This habit magnifies itself in upper grades, where guessing many words results in poor comprehension and the inability to recall details.


Here are a few suggestions for breaking the guessing habit:


  • Don’t let it get started in the first place! We all need to take risks at words when we’re reading, but our brains tell us to ‘check it’ for accuracy. Prompting early readers, as their reading, will help to get them off on a good start. Verbal prompts might sound like this: “You said, ground.” “Check it! What letter would you expect to see at the end of ‘ground.’ Were you right?” Make certain that your prompts include the phrase, “Were you right?” This prompt needs to be firmly established in the head of a falling reader. Without it, they will simply guess and go on to the next word.
  • When the reader guesses at a word, take their finger and show them how to look at a part in the word that will contradict the guess. For instance, if the child read, “shrieking” for the word, “shouting,” say, “I see a chunk you know in the middle of that word. Take your fingers and frame that chunk, “out.” Then ask, “Can it be ‘shrieking?” Try it again and look for parts in the middle of words.
  • As they move into higher grades, readers no longer read ‘out loud’ to themselves. They read internally. This is an important transition and one that usually happens naturally. However, it is important that we still hear children read aloud in order to check on fluency and accuracy. You can’t be in the head of a child while they’re reading silently! But, you can ask them to read aloud when you come behind them and you can take frequent running records in order to determine whether ‘guessing’ is a problem, or not.


Habit #5: What’s That Word?

Ah, now there’s a line we’ve all heard a million times! Readers come to a word they don’t know and shout, “What’s that word?” Why is this question a problem that needs to be addressed? It is a signal that the reader is learning to depend on others to solve print problems. Every time the child asks the question, he/she relies on someone else to give them a prompt, a clue, or the word! If done often, the question replaces good reading strategies and behaviors that will lead to independence. Remember, the idea is to gradually release responsibility to the reader. This is the heart and soul of our work with falling readers. They must not depend on others to simply tell them the word.


Easier said, than done? You bet! So what do we do about those kids who keep asking us what the word is?


  1. Prompt the reader by saying, “What do you notice? What’s that first sound?” “Try it!” “Go back and try it again.” “What can you try?” These are all verbal prompts that will encourage the child to take some sort of action. You may still decide to tell them the word, but not until you’ve given the child a chance to take some action on his own. If done consistently, this will move the reader away from constantly asking you for the word. Consistency is the key word, however.
  2. Be sure that you are matching the right books to the right readers. By this I mean that if the reader is asked to apply strategies on text that is too difficult, he/she may simply ‘give up.’ In the process of trying to read something that’s frustrated, the child has no other choice but to depend on you for the words. So he says, “What’s that word?” each and every time he feels defeated. Proper book choice is a key to preventing this habit.
  3. Readers who already rely heavily on this habit will need to back up to easier texts so that they feel successful with the strategies you are teaching. As you slowly increase the level of difficulty, you can prompt the child to try that word again or you can ask, “What can you do to help yourself?” This is, ultimately, what we want all readers to be saying when they come to new challenges in their texts. Right?


Habit #6: Reading Word By Word

One might say that reading ‘word by word’ or what I refer to as painful reading, might be merely a lack of fluent phrasing. You would be right to assume that, but what happens when this ‘painful reading’ becomes the status quo? What happens when, to the child, is it the way they read and that’s that? Now, it’s a habit and we know how hard those are to break! So, we need to move readers forward with fluency so that they don’t get use to hearing themselves read word by word.


Why do many falling readers read this way? One theory is that they are encouraged to use their finger to point to each and every word, long after they need it. What is the pointer finger for, anyway? In beginning readers, we encourage children to point to their words so that directionality and voice/print match will be firmly and consistently established. This means that while they’re reading, they don’t add any words, take away any words, skip any lines, or miss any pages. Once these early strategies are in place, however, the reader needs to begin to use his/her eyes to scan. Good readers move their eyes ahead as they read. Think about yourself as you are reading. Your eyes are never actually ON the word that you are reading. As proficient readers, we scan our eyes ahead and this leads to fluency or ‘putting our words together like we talk.’ Fluency increases our reading rate and ultimately, our comprehension of the text.


So what do we do about ‘word by word’ readers?


  • Encourage the reader by saying, “Now read it with your eyes. You don’t need your finger anymore!” You could also say, “Now try it again and use your eyes to read it like you talk.”
  • Once readers have established directionality and voice/print match or one-to-one correspondence, you can begin to flash sight word phrases daily. This will increase instant recognition of sight words while also building visual scanning and fluent phrasing skills. Tell your readers to ‘read them fast’ and play games with phrases so that the task is fun and engaging.

Note: My 50 Sight Word Phrases (Sets 1 and 2) are available through Crystal Springs Books (www.crystalspringsbooks.com).

  • When a child is reading word-by-word you might say, “I’ll read a page, you read a page.” Just by hearing you read fluently, the child begins to imitate the way you sound. Modeling is extremely important and it works like magic!
  • Say, “Try that again and this time, put your words together like you talk.”
  • Encourage fluent reading by engaging students in Readers Theater. There are many books that lend themselves well to this approach. Simply assign parts and have the children perform the story with expression, fluency, rhythm, attention to punctuation, and good diction. I have the children turn their backs to the audience (or the teacher) so that they stay ‘on their toes’ when it’s their turn to read. This also keeps the audience engaged, as well. If done often, Readers Theater is a wonderful way to build fluency, confidence, visual scanning skills, and a movement away from word-by-word reading. Try it!



If we truly want to catch every falling reader, then we must strive to be like doctors; observing and analyzing symptoms, prescribing antidotes for addressing these symptoms, and recommending preventative care for the future. This is a tall order, given the structure and organization of our schools. Ideally, we should be providing one-on-one, short term intervention for each and every child who starts to fall. Bad habits are hard to break and even harder to stop…especially when a child’s ability to read is at stake.




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