First Rule of Reading: Keep Your Eyes on the Words

By Linda Farrell

I’ve worked with hundreds of struggling readers ages 5 to 81. Almost all students I meet who have decoding weaknesses share a common behavior. Can you guess what it is? They look up from the page before they finish reading a word or sentence.

Many just glance at the word and guess what it is as they look at me for approval. Others may look at the word more carefully, yet they still look at me for approval after they say what they think the word is. A few look at the word before staring at the ceiling or somewhere in space while they try to figure out what the word is. Every elementary school teacher and every reading interventionist I meet recognizes these behaviors and can associate them with specific students.

Teachers often ask how to help their struggling readers. My first response is, “Make sure all students keep their eyes on the words the entire time they read.” I also suggest that teachers avoid saying things like “good job” or “nice work” when the student looks up for approval. The only time a student should look up from the page when reading is to say, “I need help with that word.” In that case, the teacher either helps the student sound out the word or gives the word if it is too difficult for the student to decode.

Many teachers tell us they need to give students, especially struggling readers, positive feedback for the student’s self-esteem and confidence. At first blush that seems reasonable because beginning and struggling readers want to know if they read correctly, and teachers want students to feel good about reading. In reality, teachers are training students to rely on them for affirmation rather than helping students develop confidence in their emerging skills. Instead of saying “good job” or “nice work” when a student looks up, the teacher can reinforce the importance of looking at the words by saying, “Remember to keep your eyes on the words when you read. I’ll let you know when I need to help you.”

Recently I was in a school to work with students, and the reading coach was with me all day. I started with four students in a low second-grade reading group who were working on phonics at the silent “e” level. These students had scored between 28 and 42 words-correct-per-minute on mid-year DIBELS Oral Reading Fluency (benchmark is 68). Their accuracy ranged from 76 to 91 percent. They were reading decodable text focusing on words with silent “e.” All four students had the habit of looking up for approval at the end of each sentence. And, not surprisingly, all four often misread the final words in the sentence. I had them practice keeping their eyes on the words for all four or five sentences that were on the page. Their habit of looking up was not easy to change. By the end of 25 minutes, albeit with conscious effort on the students’ part, all four were keeping their heads down and their eyes on the words while they read. Just this small change in behavior noticeably increased their accuracy.

The reading coach and I spent the afternoon working one-on-one with four third-grade and fourth-grade students who had the lowest reading scores in their grade. They were all receiving decoding intervention. We assessed the students’ decoding skills by having them read words in isolation. None of the students did more than glance at words and look up before saying the word, and none read more than 18 of 30 decodable and high-frequency words accurately. It was apparent that these students weren’t looking at the words long enough to apply any decoding strategies. We worked with each student for about 20 minutes, reviewing the short vowel sounds and encouraging them to keep their eyes on the words. After this short time, they were all able to read with greater accuracy and more confidence. None had fully overcome their habit of taking their eyes off the words before finishing reading, but all were catching themselves every time they did look up.

Early in the day, the reading coach remarked that she was surprised at my “fixation” on teaching students to look at the words until they finished reading. At the end of the day, she told me she fully understood why I was such a zealot about insisting students keep their eyes on the page. Yes, I am fixated on having students look at the words when they read because we can only read when we look at the words.

I implore all kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade teachers—as well as reading interventionists—to teach students to keep their eyes on the words so that they do not have to later struggle with breaking a habit that hampers effective, efficient reading. After all, the first step good readers take is to look at the words they are reading. In my experience, many struggling readers have difficulties partly because they never mastered this first step.

Linda Farrell is a founding partner of Readsters, an Alexandria, VA-based firm that helps schools implement research-based reading instruction. She is committed to helping struggling readers become strong readers and to helping strong readers achieve their full potential. Linda is a former English teacher and has coauthored several publications and videos on effective reading assessment and instruction, including Teaching Reading Essentials (2006), DIBELS: A Practical Manual (2006), and Colleague in the Classroom (2003). She can be reached at linda@readsters.com.

About Linda Farrell

Books by Lindar Farrell: Teaching Reading EssentialsDIBELS: The Practical ManualColleague in the Classroom

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Categories: Assessment, Literacy | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “First Rule of Reading: Keep Your Eyes on the Words

  1. Yvonne Larme

    Wow! Thanks for this wise and simple tip. It makes great sense. I certainly recognize that pattern in students.

  2. We emphasize maintaining focus on the word from beginning to end with a few simple techniques. For those students having difficulty breaking the habit, I’ve tried standing/sitting behind them while they read! Worked like a charm- it was very evident to the student how often they broke focus, how reliant they were on teacher approval and how self-sufficient they became so swiftly.

    • This is one of the most effective ways to get students to realize they are looking up and not at the words.

      It is sometimes the case that students look up two or three words before they finish reading. Sometimes this causes them to misread one or more of the final words, and sometimes they read them correctly. To change this habit, when you see a student look up before finishing reading, have the student re-read the sentence again, even if all the words were read correctly. This will help the student develop the habit of keeping eyes on the page at all times. We have found that if we only have the student re-read when he misreads words, the habit doesn’t change nearly as fast, if at all.

  3. Christine

    Great tip. I have seen this problem and will write to parents to enlist their help also. thanks!!

  4. dianne m.

    i noticed that same behavior with a student im working with. I found he read more fluently when i stood behind him. He wasnt able to look at me for approval.

  5. I agree that this eyes-off-the-text behavior is emblematic of decoding problems. This is a symptom that suggests the child has a language processing weakness in the phonological-morphological-orthographic domains of language. The guessing-from-context and other guessing “strategies” that are commonly taught in general education are typically counterproductive for children with these language processing differences. The anecdote is the Multi-Linguistic or Component Model of Language Therapy that interweaves the phonological, morphological, orthographic and semantic, syntactic and discourse components. See: http://support.lexercise.com/entries/253764-the-multiple-linguistic-factors-approach-to-language-literacy-therapy

    Sopris West’s Language! Curriculum is an example of this kind of method.

  6. I wish everyone could understand that strategies such as “guess from context” and “look at the first letter and think of a word that fits” and “look at the picture” encourage students who do not learn to decode easily to develop poor habits that hurt their reading comprehension in the long run. These strategies encourage the student to look away from the words as they consider how to guess what the word might be. No good reader looks away from the words when reading (except maybe a kindergarten or first grade teacher who is reading a very simple book to the class!).

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