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Strategies and Techniques Readers Use

Beginning readers learn to use several clues or problem solving strategies to figure out unknown words and to make sense of written texts. Individual learners develop and use these techniques in varied ways and at different times. Emergent readers and writers generally start out using just a few strategies, such as looking at pictures and using memory, and as they become more fluent, they add more. As a tutor it is important to see what a child already knows and does use so that you can build on that knowledge and extend it. Ultimately the goal is to help readers learn and integrate the whole range of strategies, so that they do not overuse just one.


Emergent and Early Readers successfully use their memory of story and specific language patterns to help them "approximate" or "role play" reading. This is an important first step. That is why patterned stories, and repeated reading of engaging texts are successful for these very beginning readers.

Picture Clues

Most children will be attracted by illustrations, and as beginning readers they should be encouraged to use that source of information as they try to make sense of print. Emergent readers will use pictures and memory to construct the story, with little attention to the print; gradually they will use the pictures to help them predict and confirm individual words in the text. Eventually, as they develop other strategies and become more fluent readers, they will rely less on the pictures. However, even fluent readers, should be encouraged to create mental images, to visualize, as they read texts with fewer illustrations.

Context Clues

Successful readers use the surrounding ideas and words of a sentence, as well as their own background knowledge, and sense of language to figure out words, and to understand text. For example: "Do you know ---- time it is?" is easily read by using the surrounding words to predict the missing one. Early Fluent and Fluent readers, too, should be taught to use this strategy, building on their expectation that written language will make sense and sound like spoken language.

Visual Clues

In addition to pictures, early fluent and fluent readers learn to use the configuration of words (length, shape, specific visual details) to recognize whole words. Gradually, too, they notice patterns of letters within words to figure out new words (ear in hear; -ing in thing, swing...). Caution: While successful readers will eventually learn to recognize many, many words instantly, especially exciting content words like "elephant" and "Exterminator" some of the more common words (high frequency words) such as "the", "this", "what", "who", "then", "there" are much harder to learn because they look so much alike to a new reader. Rather than drilling these and other similar words in isolation, they can be better taught and read within the context of whole sentences (i.e.: "Who is that at the door? " "What time is it?") (See Sample Games)

Phonetic Clues

Readers use knowledge of letter sound associations, especially initial and ending consonants to help them figure out words. This is sometimes called "sounding out" and works best when it is combined with the use of context or picture clues. Tutors can help Emergent and Early readers develop "Phonemic Awareness" (awareness of the sounds and sound patterns of spoken words) through a variety of reading and writing activities and through games (see: Sample Games; Writing Activities).

Early Fluent and Fluent Readers and writers gradually learn to distinguish more sounds within words and to apply that knowledge in reading and writing; they are increasingly aware of the middle sounds, or sound patterns such as "tion".

Caution: Although phonemic awareness is important for reading, mastery of phonic knowledge is not a prerequisite; many children gain knowledge of the sound system of language in the course of listening to and reading meaningful books, and through opportunities to write. Furthermore, while phonetic clues are useful as one technique, it is usually not very efficient to sound out entire words. Phonetic clues work best when combined with other strategies.

Also, remember that beginning readers should not be expected to sound out words such as names or concept words that are not already part of their spoken vocabulary.

Structural Analysis (Word Parts)

Early Fluent and Fluent Readers can use their increased awareness of the structure of words (word parts) to help figure out new words. They can be helped to notice roots and endings (play, played, playing; fast, faster, fastest) and suffixes and prefixes (un/help/ful). They also can learn about "compound words" (some/thing, every/body).

Remember: No single element works all the time for everyone. Successful readers use different combinations of strategies and word analysis skills. Some approaches are easier for some readers than others. That is why it is essential to help beginning readers learn to use all the approaches as they become ready to do so.