The University of Iowa

Nine Tips for Helping Children Read Unfamiliar Words


Carla Coleman

Reading Recovery Teacher Leader, Iowa City Community School District

Posted on: April 12, 2016

Parents frequently ask how they can support their children when they encounter an unknown word while reading. Often, the first thing a parent says to the child is, “Sound it out.” Unfortunately, that strategy doesn’t always work. There are many English words that can’t be sounded out or decoded. Fortunately, there are other ways to help a beginning reader figure out the unknown word. Here are nine suggestions for what you might say.  

1. Reread and Try That Again

When your child stops at an unknown word, you might have her go back and reread from the beginning of the sentence. This allows her to gather up the meaning and structure again so that she can think about what word would fit in the sentence.  

2. Something Wasn’t Quite Right. Read it Again and See if You Can Fix it

When your child has read to the end of a line and has made a mistake, ask him to reread the sentence to see if he can identify his error. If he is unable to identify the error, point it out by providing the correct word. Then, have your child read the sentence again.  

3. Think About What is Happening in the Story

Sometimes the child loses the meaning of the story while reading. It can be helpful to remind her to reread up to the unknown word and think about what is happening in the story. Using the meaning of the story might support her in figuring out the unknown word. If you think she is guessing, ask her to look at the letters to check whether the word she offered would fit with both the meaning of the story and the way the word is written.  

4. Could it be “River” or “Water”?

Sometimes when a child reads up to an unknown word and doesn’t know how to solve the new word, you can support him by giving him choices. For example, if the sentence says, “They went down to the river,” your child might stop on the word “river.” You can ask him if the word is “water” or “river.” Direct his attention to the print as he thinks about the choices. This allows him the opportunity to decide which word looks right based on the pattern of letters.

5. Look at the Picture and Think About the Story

The purpose of reading is to make meaning. In books for beginning readers, the pictures are critical in helping a child understand the story. When she comes to an unknown word while reading, try prompting her to look at the picture and think about what is happening in the story. After she has offered a word, ask her to reread the sentence to determine if it makes sense and matches the letters printed for the word.  

6. Do you know a word that starts like that?

It is helpful to understand how to use known words to solve unknown words. For example, if the child is trying to figure out the word “stay,” you can prompt him to think about another word he knows like “stop.” Suggest he look at the first part of “stop” and use his knowledge of those letters to sound out the first part of “stay.”  

7. Do you Know a Word that Ends Like That?

You might encourage a child to link other parts of known words to new words. For example, if the new word is “cook,” you can ask her if she knows a word that ends in the same way or has the same last letters as that unknown word. She may know the word “look,” so she can use that information to help her figure out the new word “cook.”  

8. Reread up to the Unknown Word and Sound out the First Part

Sometimes the child just needs a little support in starting to sound out the first part of an unknown word. You can help by rereading the sentence out loud, allowing him to focus on the meaning. When you get to the unknown word, sound out the first part and offer him a chance to decode the rest of the unknown word.  

9. Tell the Child the Word

Sometimes the best thing to do is tell your child the unknown word. This allows her to continue reading fluently and comprehending the story. Telling the word may be particularly important if the word is not in her oral vocabulary or is a rare word that she is unlikely to encounter in other books or conversations.   There isn’t one right way to help a child to problem solve unknown words. It depends on the individual child and the book being read. Remember the goals should be for your child to enjoy the story as well as improve his reading skills.