Click play below to hear a 5-step process for decoding big words:
As students move up into upper elementary, reading can sometimes turn into a struggle with the exposure to more multisyllabic words in texts that they’re reading. Coming across big words can be intimidating for students and overwhelming to try and decode.
That’s why I’ve come up with a simple strategy that you can start using with your students immediately. In today’s episode, I’m sharing this strategy, my 5-step process for decoding big words.
While this process is simple on paper, teaching students how to read big words is challenging, which is why I break down each step and provide examples on how it can be implemented. Decoding big words can become easier when there’s a visual and chunks, which this process has.
Along with helping students with decoding big words, it also can help you pinpoint where a student needs support, as it pertains to certain foundational concepts. Knowing those struggle areas helps you effectively implement this process to give them academic success in reading multisyllabic words automatically.
As a literacy teacher, it can be challenging knowing how to support students who struggle with decoding big words. But with the implementation of my 5-step process, your students will have learned a tool that supports and scaffolds for students until it becomes automatic, which makes them successful in reading multisyllabic words!
In this episode on decoding big words, I share:
- A breakdown of a 5-step process for decoding big words
- The concepts students need a foundation in before implementing this process
- How this process will also help you identify struggle areas with your students
- Why this process supports your students decoding big words on their own
- How to effectively implement this in your classroom
- Reading Big Words Poster FREEBIE
- Check out the Stellar Teacher Reading Membership
- If you’re enjoying this podcast, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts!
Related episodes and blog posts:
- Episode 121, Your Guide to Teaching Syllabication in Upper Elementary
- Episode 94, 4 Word Study Concepts Every Upper Elementary Teacher Should Teach
- Episode 93, 3 Steps to Having Effective Word Study Instruction This School Year
- 7 Syllable Types to Teacher in Upper Elementary
- Word Study Activities to Support Four Key Word Study Concepts
Connect with me:
More About Stellar Teacher Podcast:
Welcome to the Stellar Teacher Podcast! We believe teaching literacy is a skill. It takes a lot of time, practice, and effort to be good at it. This podcast will show you how to level up your literacy instruction and make a massive impact with your students, all while having a little fun!
Your host, Sara Marye, is a literacy specialist passionate about helping elementary teachers around the world pass on their love of reading to their students. She has over a decade of experience working as a classroom teacher and school administrator. Sara has made it her mission to create high quality no-fluff resources and lesson ideas that are both meaningful and engaging for young readers.
Each week, Sara and her guests will share their knowledge, tips, and tricks so that you can feel confident in your ability to transform your students into life-long readers.
Hey, friend, happy Monday. I am so glad that you are joining me today on the podcast. And I’m glad that you’re joining me every week on the podcast. But I’m super excited about today.
Because today is going to be one of those podcast episodes where I am going to jump right into the content. So we’re gonna get straight to the point. But before I do that, I wanted to let you know about a freebie that I created for the listeners of this episode. I really love anytime I can create something or share something with you, that allows you to immediately implement what it is that you hear on the podcast.
And in this episode, I am going to share and really explain a five step process that you can teach your students that will help them read and decode these big and multisyllabic words that they encounter in their text. And if as you are listening, if you think that this strategy is something that would benefit your students, then you can go to stellarteacher.com/bigwords, big words is all going to be one word together, no hyphens or anything, to grab a free poster that I made that outlines this five step process.
So you will be able to easily share it with your students, you can have them glue it in their journals, I even created a little mini version if you want to put it on a ring to have it at your small group table. But I wanted to make it easy for you to teach this five step process to your students this week.
And I figured if I could create a visual for you that you could share with your students, that is a great place to start. So once again, you can grab that free poster at stellarteacher.com/bigwords. I will include the link in the show notes as well.
So we’re going to jump right in. Like I said, I’m going to be sharing today a simple five step process that you can teach your students that will help them read big words that might feel overwhelming to them, or words that they can’t, you know, they just don’t automatically know. And as I’m sharing these five steps, you’re maybe going to be thinking really, that’s it? It’s that simple?
But stick with me because I’m going to break it down and explain how this will help your students. So the five step process is step number one, students are going to circle the prefix in the word or prefixes. Sometimes words have more than one prefix. Step number two, put a box around the suffix. Step number three, look at what is left. And we’re going to have students look for word parts or underlined vowels. And then step number four is to say the word parts slowly. And then step number five is to say the entire word.
And like I said, this sounds really easy, and it looks really simple on paper. But let’s be honest, helping our students learn how to read big words successfully, is really challenging. And if we think about this five step process, this five step process, well, the actual process is very simple, in order for this strategy to work, there are several things that really need to be in place in your classroom and several things that your students need to have a foundation in.
So first of all, you need to have explicitly taught common prefixes and suffixes to the point where your students can easily identify them and know how to read the prefixes and suffixes that they see. You need to have explicitly taught syllable types. So when students are looking at the middle part of the word, they can easily break apart that word into syllable types.
And or students need to also have familiarity and awareness of common roots, so if they recognize a root in the middle of you know what is left in between the prefixes and suffixes, they can easily identify the root and they know how to pronounce it as well as all the variations because sometimes roots have different variations depending on the spelling of the word.
But then students also need to have a baseline of just general phonics rules. You know if your students see the letter combination OA together in the middle of a word, but they don’t know that OA says the long o sound, then they’re still going to struggle with that word, even if we’ve given them this five step process to follow.
And your students need to have in addition to you teaching all of these things, right prefixes, suffixes, syllable types, roots, just general phonics rules, if you’ve taught it, we also need to make sure that your students have retained and can easily recall all of these wonderful word study concepts that you have taught them.
So now you realize that, okay, this five step process is simple. But everything that has gone into preparing students to use this five step process, that is a lot. But I know that a lot of you have been focusing on word study this year. So hopefully, you can implement this five step process, and your students can experience success with it pretty quickly.
But here’s the thing that I want you to understand. This is like the really good news. This is like the I don’t know, this is like the silver lining of it all. So if you’re like, well shoot my students, I already know my students struggle with roofs or I already know that, you know, we haven’t taught syllable types where we need to, or I have these students that don’t have a strong foundation and phonics.
Here’s the thing that I want you to keep in mind. If you teach this routine to your students, and you put it in place in your classroom now, this week, and your students start to practice and use it, you’ll be able to easily identify where your students struggle. So really, this routine can kind of serve as somewhat of a diagnostic for you.
Because if your students are going through and using this routine to help them read big words, and you’re you know, having a conversation with your student at a small group table, and you realize that the reason why a student is unable to read a multisyllabic word is because they don’t know prefixes or suffixes, then you know that’s what you need to work on with them.
Or maybe they can identify the prefixes and the suffixes, but it’s because they lack an understanding of syllabication and they can’t break down what’s left in the middle. And that’s why they can’t read the big word. But then you know, you need to work on syllabication with your students.
Or maybe you realize that as your students are going through the strategy, they actually are able to identify the prefixes and the suffixes and all of the word parts, and they can break it down into individual word parts, but they struggle with blending and putting all the word parts together. But then you know that you can target that.
So with this routine, not only is it going to help your students read big words, but it is also going to help you to pinpoint where their hang up is, so that way you know exactly what areas your students need support in, and you can target those specific areas, while they continue to use this routine to break down big words.
So if you teach this to your students, and they don’t master it right away, or if you teach this routine to your students, and you realize, okay, it’s not necessarily helping them read the big words and how I wanted, pay attention to what it is that they are still struggling with, because that is going to be a clue to you as a teacher, that that’s what they need help and support with.
Now, of course, with any routine, and you guys know, I freaking love a routine, if you want it to stick, and if you really want it to work, then you need to make sure that you are you know really introducing it and practicing it to your students in the right way. So a couple things to do when you’re getting ready to introduce this routine. And I really do hope that you introduce this routine to your students this week.
So the first thing you want to make sure is you want to make sure that you are introducing and modeling it to your students. Now this does not mean that you’re going to print off this free poster that I’m sharing with you and give it to your students and be like here, use this routine when you come to a big board.
Okay, you actually have to take some time, and you want to introduce this routine, go through all five steps, explain to them what each step is, and model what it looks like. So you’re going to show them what this routine looks like with maybe two to three words. And then you’re going to practice 2,3,4 multiple words with your students whole group, let them practice in partners and let them practice individually. But you’re still there to give feedback. Practice it with your students in small groups.
You know, you want to make sure that your students get multiple opportunities to observe you using this routine to observe their classmates using this routine, and that they get opportunities to practice it as well. So do a very thorough job of introducing it and modeling it.
And then make sure that you just have ongoing practice with your students. You know, encourage your students to use this when they’re reading independently. Remind your students of this routine when you’re reading with them with a small group table. Tell your parents about this routine, so that way when your students are at home and they’re reading independently, their parents have a tool that they can support them with.
You know, and if you really want this routine to help your students and to become automatic, and that’s when we start to get the benefit of any routine is when something becomes automatic, then you need to really make sure that your students are getting at least one, if not more opportunities to practice using this routine on a daily basis.
You know, so display the poster, blow it up and display it in your classroom so you can constantly refer to it dirty or read aloud. You know, have students put it in their reading journals, make a strategy card available at your small group table. And every time you sit down, remind your students of it, you know, you want this routine to be automatic for your students so that when they see a big word, they don’t feel paralyzed, they don’t skip it, they don’t guess they don’t just sit there and say, I have no idea what this is.
They’re like, wait a minute, I know the steps that I can take to help me break apart this word and attempt to read it as best as I can. So those are some tips to help you get this routine started in your classroom.
Now, I want to take a few minutes and kind of break down the five steps in this routine, so that you can really understand how this is going to help your students. So the first step of this routine is to circle the prefixes. And this is the first thing students are going to do, they’re going to simply look at the word and they’re going to see do I recognize a prefix at the start of the word? And then they’re going to circle it.
And this helps them with pronunciation, if they can identify a prefix and they know how to read the individual prefixes. You know, prefixes are usually two, three, sometimes four letters, they’re short. And students, usually when you’re teaching them, they also know how to pronounce them.
But it’s also going to help them with meaning. So if students are familiar with how to pronounce a common prefix, when they see a prefix at the start of the word, it really gives them a boost of confidence that they can read the entire word because they, they know how to start it, right. Like sometimes we just have to get started in order to be successful with something. And a prefix is kind of like their their kickstart, it’s like, alright, I don’t know the entire word yet, but I’ve got the prefix down.
But in addition to giving them some confidence with how to pronounce it, if students know the meaning of common prefixes, then they already have a clue as to what the word is going to mean. You know, because being able to read and decode big words is really only half the battle when it comes to helping our students be successful readers.
Obviously, students have to read the word if they’re going to understand it, but we, we don’t just want to focus on Okay, reading the word and you’re good. It’s like read the word and know what it means. So once they can read it, they also need to figure out the meaning. And having students identify the prefix and the meaning of the prefix can help them.
So kind of as a side note, you could also have students write down the meaning of the prefix as well. So they’re gonna circle it and then if they remember the meaning of the prefix, just have them write, you know, like, un means not, pre means before, they just write that word next to it somewhere.
And like I said, I think this can be a really great confidence booster. Because students are starting off with some success, knowing great, I know how to read part of this word.
Okay, the second step is to have students put a box around the suffix. And this is very similar to step one, we want students just to put a box around the suffix. And this is just going to help them by circling the prefix and putting a box around the suffix, it’s going to help them create some visual separation in the word, which might make it easier for them to visualize.
You know, sometimes when students see a really long word, it’s just like, Oh, my goodness, I don’t even know where to begin. But if they can knock off the prefix and knock out the suffix, they’re left with a much smaller segment in the middle to figure out, so putting a box around, the suffix is going to help them know how to end the word.
But it also might help them figure out, you know, suffixes can be clues to meaning, but also, suffixes often dictate the part of speech of a word. So in addition to being able to read the word, and possibly figure out the meaning, the suffix can give them a clue as to the function of the word in the sentence.
And, you know, kind of as a side note here, all of these things we really want to have happen automatically in our students brains, we want them to read the words correctly, we want that to be automatic. We want students to understand the meaning of the word, we want that to be automatic. And we want students to understand the function of a word and how it relates to other words in the sentence, and we want that to be automatic.
You know, but if we have a student who struggles with reading, we really need to give them a tool or framework to think about words. And so this process might seem slow and a little bit laborious, but eventually, if your students think about these things frequently enough pronunciation, word meaning, word function, eventually they will become automatic.
I think we don’t often give students enough practice with these sort of small minut details enough in order for them to become automatic. So just know that the more they practice, with this whole five step strategy, the goal is not every single multisyllabic word they see students have to pause and break it down. But this is there as a way to support and scaffold students until they become automatic with their reading. So this is one tool that is going to help them on their journey to becoming an automatic and fluent reader.
Okay. Students have circled the prefixes, they’ve put a box around the suffix, and so then we look at what is left. And so now, there is going to be a chunk of letters probably in the middle of the word. And one of the things that you can have students do you know, students need to figure out how to read the entire word.
And so two things that you can really have students do to sort of like look at this middle section, is first of all, you can have them look for word parts, they already know. So maybe they can recognize a root they know or a base where they know. Because the goal is not to necessarily break down every part of the word into individual letters, or sounds or even the individual syllables, but the goal is for students to be able to quickly identify the words.
So the, the smaller the chunk, the easier it’s going to be for students to put them together. You know, so for example, if students see the word nonadjustable, and they’ve circled the prefix non, and they’ve boxed the suffix able, then they recognize adjust in the middle as being what’s left. If they know that that word says adjust, they don’t need to break it down into syllables if they can recognize the entirety of what is left.
Now, if they don’t recognize what is left, then we do want them to break down the base or route into syllables. And this is where having knowledge of syllables can be super helpful. And if you happen to miss my episode, last week, episode number 121 go back and give it a listen because I did talk all about syllabication. And why it’s super important in upper elementary.
Okay, but if students do have an understanding of syllables, you can start by having students look at you know, we’re looking at this middle section, what is left between the prefixes and suffixes, and have them underline the vowels, because we know that every single syllable has to have a vowel sound. And if students can figure out and identify the vowels that are left, then that is going to be the first step in helping them to identify the syllables, which is going to help them correctly read the word.
So then it’s a matter of just using what they know about syllables to try to break apart that middle word and identify the syllables that are left.
So once students have circled the prefix, boxed the suffix, and figured out what is left in the middle, then they’re simply going to say the individual word part slowly. And like I said, this is where having, you know, the prefix circled and the suffix box can be helpful, because you know, students can sort of see the visual representation and the separation of the sounds.
You could even have students put a separator like a vertical line, or, you know, if they’re underlining the follows that they can have some sort of visual separator in what is left, especially depending on how big that section is, that can also help them so that way, they’re getting you know the word parts that they need. You can possibly even have students rewrite the word to create more space in between, so that way, when they’re blending it, they can see the separation between the sounds.
But you want students to say the word part slowly, maybe two to three times, and it can be helpful to have students either point to the individual sounds with their pencil or with their finger, so that way, they’re not rushing, or they’re not skipping any. And then as they speed it up, they can move their pencil in a sweeping motion under the word to help them put it all together.
And then the final step, the simple step, right, is just to say the word, they’re going to read the entire word. And as a bonus, you can have students after they’ve read the word, and they’ve read it at a normal pace, you can have them sort of check in with themselves. And they can ask, okay, is this a real word? Do I recognize it? And does it make sense in the sentence?
And to be honest, I love these questions. But we also need to use them with caution. Because the questions don’t always work if a student doesn’t automatically recognize the word they are meaning. So for example, a student might have actually read the word correctly, and you know, they read it accurately, but they might be clueless on the meaning. And it might actually be a word that is brand new to their vocabulary, and they have never heard it before.
And so if they’ve never heard it before, if we’re having them ask this question of you know, it doesn’t make sense in a sentence, they’re gonna say, Well, I don’t know. You know, and so it’s the sort of tricky thing is, is we we really want students to get in the habit of reflecting on big words for both pronunciation and meaning. But I think we don’t want to put any sort of like, a guaranteed statement that you have to recognize it. And it has to make sense in order for you to know that you pronounced it correctly, because sometimes it just might be a brand new word.
And this is where I think is super important to bring in, you know, discussion and collaboration and letting students work through these big words with their classmates so that way, they can at least get validation from some other source, if they have both pronounced it correctly and understand the meaning of it.
So let’s sort of look at this just an example. Let’s say your students encounter the word disentanglement in a sentence. Now, that’s a pretty big word for third, fourth, fifth grade, even, that’s just a big word in general, I’m not even gonna say for any age range. That word has five syllables, and it’s 15 letters long and just looking at it can be overwhelming and discouraging to a student who doesn’t have much confidence in reading.
But if your students have a strategy that they can apply, then they have some steps that they can take. So rather than just saying, This is too big, I give up I don’t know, I’m going to skip it, they can say, all right, I’m going to tackle this bit by bit.
So the first thing that they’re going to do is they’re going to circle the prefixes. Now this is tricky, because disentanglement actually has two prefixes, it has dis and then it has e-n, en. So if your students can identify both, that’s great. But even if they can only identify dis, they’re going to put a circle around it. And hopefully they know that this means not or opposite of.
So already, they have that first syllable identified, and they have a clue to the meaning. The second step is they’re going to put a box around the suffix. So they’re going to put a box around ment. So now they know how to read the beginning of the word, they know how the word is going to end, and hopefully, if they have a strong understanding of suffixes, they know that ment usually means you know the action or process of and it usually indicates that the word is a noun.
So now they’re looking at what is left. And depending on if they identified both prefixes dis and en, they might just see the word tangle, or they might see en tangle. And they might immediately you know, if they’ve got a good vocabulary, they might recognize the word tangle. Or they might say, Okay, I’ve not seen this word before, but I recognize en is a closed syllable, I recognize tan as a closed syllable, and I recognize consonant gle at the end.
You know, so either way, whether they can identify, tangle or entangle, or if they put en as a prefix, in either case, however, they choose to use this strategy, they are left with a much smaller chunk of letters that they have to figure out how to read than when they were started, you know, so rather than saying, there’s 15 letters, and I’ve got no idea how they work together, they’re just looking at a much smaller set.
So once students have identified the word parts, and hopefully with this example, you can also see that there’s some flexibility with how students choose to use this. So now students just need to put everything together slowly. This is where the, you know, the boxing and the circling and the underlining really helps because it creates visual separation with the sounds.
So students might simply read it as dis en tangle ment, and they might read that two or three times dis en tangle ment, dis en tangle ment. And then when they put it together, they’re gonna get the word disentanglement.
And then you have to think and hopefully celebrate with your students, you know, if your students feel confident in being able to identify prefixes and suffixes, and if they have a strong foundation with syllables, where they can, you know, figure out what is left in a base or root word, then they really have the tools to break apart and read big words. I mean, five syllable 15 letter words.
And think about the competence that that would give your students who have historically struggled with reading. So this strategy, this simple five step strategy of circling the prefixes, putting a box around suffixes, looking at what is left, paying attention to vowels and word parts, and then saying the word parts slowly and saying the entire word.
While there’s nothing necessarily special, or any hidden trick or secret, we are simply giving students a set of steps that they can take and apply when they are reading big words. And we are really giving them the gift of confidence on how to get started with reading big words.
You know, we are showing students how things like prefixes and suffixes and syllable awareness can help them break words, we’re sort of putting a much bigger purpose and meaning to some of these words study concepts that we’ve taught them throughout the year. And really, we’re giving students a starting point to feel equipped, like yes, I can tackle this word, it does not need to be scary, I don’t need to be afraid of it.
So hopefully this strategy, this routine, this process, as you’re hearing it, you can envision teaching it to your students, and you can see how it can really help your students feel empowered to read big words. And hopefully you also understand how this strategy can help you as a teacher, identify word study concepts that you can continue to focus on and teach your students so that they can become more successful with applying this strategy.
So don’t forget, grab your free download of this reading big words routine poster at stellarteacher.com/bigwords. And like I said, I’ll link to that in the show notes.
And I would also encourage you and maybe even challenge you a little bit, plan on introducing this routine to your students sometime this week. You know, I know that we are at the end of February, but there is still three months left this year. And think about this. If you introduce this routine this week, you’re gonna have three solid months left this year to help your students feel really really confident in their ability to read and tackle big words, which is just going to set them up for more success next year.
So I’m excited to hear how this routine is going to help your students. I would love it if you reached out to me on Instagram to let me know how it goes. And then be sure to tune in next week. We’re going to be taking a break from our typical literacy conversation.
But I am interviewing Emily and Heidi who are sisters and they’re also the host of the Teacher Approved podcast which is a fantastic teacher podcast if you’re not already listening to it, and they have some really great tips that they are going to share on what to do when your classroom management system stops working in the middle of the year.
And I feel like regardless of how long you’ve been teaching, you probably have had that experience where it’s like, wait a minute, what we were doing at the start of the year is no longer working. So you’re not gonna want to miss this episode. Be sure to tune in next Monday and until then have a stellar week.