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How to Help Emergent and Struggling Readers Develop Automaticity

Emergent reader reading a book

There are stages that Emergent and Struggling Readers must go through in order to develop automaticity at the word level. One thing that we are constantly reminded of as Reading Interventionists is that students don’t inherently know when to take their skills to the next level. Students must be shown when and how to move on. This is true for automaticity too!

In this post we will walk you through a real life example of moving a student from learning to apply phonics to reading with fluency. We’ll call this student Sam.

Stage One: No Guessing!

Sam began intervention, like many of our students do, with a tendency to look at the picture and guess when she encountered a word with which she was unfamiliar. When told to look through the word and say each sound, Sam protested loudly, “But that picture is a picture of a boy so I said boy.”

I responded that yes, the picture did show a boy and then pointed to the first letter of the word lad. But when we are reading we have to use the letters in the word to help us read the word the author wrote. The author used another word for boy so we need to tap out the word. Then I showed Sam how to tap the word lad, /l/…/a/…/d/, lad.

Students learn to use the letters in a word, rather than the picture, to decode with automaticity.
Using decodable texts helps students develop automatic word recognition of specific phonetic patterns.

I then explained that the exciting part about reading is that we can learn lots of new words if we use our tapping strategy. (We’ve written previously about how the strategy of MSV often limits vocabulary development.) Sam was skeptical and murmured that her teacher told her it was ok to guess and she was supposed to use the picture.

Stage Two: Successive Blending

Thus began the battle of fighting the guessing monster. When shown whole words, Sam would typically look at the first letter and guess. So, I had to dial it back with the use of letter cards.

I began with three letter cards face down on the table. Then I flipped the first card over and prompted Sam to say the first sound, /k/.

Next I turned over the second card, a. Upon seeing the letter a, Sam proudly guessed, “CAT!” To which I responded, “how do you know what the last letter is?” Sam said, “I just know.”

Using letter cards, and turning over one letter at a time can help stop guessing at words.
The use of letter cards can help students slow down and apply letter sound knowledge to read words correctly.

“We’ll see,” I said. “For now, just say the first two sounds, /ca/.” Sam begrudgingly complied.

Finally I turned over the third card and prompted Sam to make the sound of the third letter, /p/. She did.

Last, we blended the sounds together, /ca/…/p/, cap.

I reminded Sam that it is important to use all the letters in the word to read it.

I used this procedure over and over again until Sam could be trusted not to guess. Believe me when I tell you, this did not happen overnight!

Here’s a quick video on successive blending.

Stage Three: Tapping to Blend

The next step in helping emergent and struggling readers develop automaticity is tapping to blend. Once Sam understood the process of tapping every letter to blend, I took away the scaffold of showing only one card at a time and presented three sound words in their entirety. Sometimes I used cards and sometimes the words were on paper.

word lists with and without successive blending

Sam became consistent in her use of tapping to read and applied this strategy to decodable texts with only a few slips back into guessing. Along the way, I noticed that Sam had begun to over-rely on tapping. What I saw was her tendency to tap words even if she was familiar with the word. I knew it was time to move her to the next stage of word reading.

Stage Four: Keeping Your Voice On

I proclaimed that Sam had come a long way in her reading and reminded her of how she used to guess at ‘so many words’ but now she had become an excellent decoder and was able to use tapping and blending to read the words the author wrote. I told Sam that there was a smoother way to read words using the letter sounds and that was by ‘keeping her voice on’. I demonstrated this by writing the word map and stretching out the sounds in the word: /mmmm/aaaaaa/p/, map as I read the word.

Then I asked Sam to try keeping her voice on while reading the word map. We practiced with a few more words. Click here for a video demonstration of ‘keeping your voice on’.

Stage Five: Read It If You Know It

The last stage is to simply read it if you know it. Believe it or not, many beginning and struggling readers don’t move onto this stage on their own. Because they have worked hard to master tapping and blending, and are feeling successful, they may be hesitant to let go of the technique. Or, they may not even be aware that there is a next step. It is inherent upon educators to show them the way.

As Sam read connected decodable text, she began to over-rely on keeping her voice on, even with familiar words. Teacher modeling was critical for this next step. I explained to Sam that she had been reading with accuracy and doing a wonderful job of keeping her voice on. “But,” I suggested, “you already have learned so many words and they are probably in your visual memory. So, when you come to a word you know, you can just read it without blending. This is different than guessing, because it’s a word you know. Let me show you what I mean.”

I brought out a new decodable book and read aloud, demonstrating interchanging blending unfamiliar words by keeping my voice on and automatically reading words I had in my visual memory. After I demonstrated each strategy, I discussed why I used that particular one. Then Sam tried reading a page using various strategies as needed.

Are there additional practices that can help build automaticity?

Decodable Word Lists and Sentences

Yes! Repeated readings help students build confidence in their abilities. Wilson Academy has a fluency kit that contains decodable words, phrases, and stories. We like this resource because the words and phrases that students practice in isolation are derived from the story. Hint: It helps to remind students that the same words and phrases that they just practiced are in the story. We also have a series of Decodable Word Lists & Sentences that guide students through this process.

It’s important to use decodable texts to help emergent and struggling readers develop automaticity with phonetic patterns.

If you find that your students need more support, and even after instruction on keeping on their voice they still resort to tapping, fluency grids can help.

What’s the moral of the story?

Even as a veteran teacher I need to be aware of when my student(s) are ready to take their reading to the next level. Many beginning and struggling readers don’t make the quantum leap on their own, so it is incumbent upon me to lead them to the next level.


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  1. This post was so helpful. I’m a veteran teacher and I’m always looking for ways to support my students who need more reading interventions. Do you know the name of the Wilson Academy fluency kit you made reference to in this article. I’m very interested in looking at purchasing it for the upcoming school year.

    1. Hi. We are so glad you found this post helpful! Thanks for reaching out with your question. The kit we use is Wilson Fluency Basic. The focus is on Wilson Steps 1-3.

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