Sunday, May 1, 2011

Modeling Word Solving (Frey & Fisher)

This post is courtesy of Drs. Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher, professors at San Diego State University. Visit their website. They are the co-authors of several professional books for educators, including In a Reading State of Mind: Brain Research, Teacher Modeling, and Comprehension Instruction. Key ideas from their book are discussed below, where Nancy and Doug describe how to model "word solving" so students might learn to infer word meaning when reading independently. This entry builds on the previous post by Fisher and Frey, describing how to decide which words to teach.

Although selecting words worthy of being taught is one of the hardest things about explicit vocabulary instruction, modeling is one of the most underutilized instructional routines for ensuring students’ progress in word knowledge and word solving. Modeling word solving strategies does not focus on specific words, but rather the skills of figuring out unknown words. It’s habit building and students need to develop this habit if they are going to apply what we have taught them on their own.

Our thinking about modeling word solving focuses on students learning to look inside words and outside words for clues about meaning.
And we say this to them all of the time, “Let’s look inside the word and outside the word to see what we know.” That’s what we hope that they start to say to themselves, over time, as they come to words they don’t know.
In thinking about word solving, we have identified three categories worthy of attention during modeling: word parts, context clues, and resources (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2008). Of course, modeling word solving should be integrated with other attempts at understanding the text, such as comprehension strategies and using text structures and text features. We are not suggesting that teachers focus only on modeling word solving, but rather add word solving in their shared readings and think alouds so that students have access to examples of expert thinking about words. As we will see in the examples below, modeling requires the use of an “I statement” in which the teacher shares his or her thinking with others.

Looking Inside: Word Parts
When readers come to an unknown word, one of the things that they can do is look inside the word to see if there are any clues to the word’s meaning. Understanding morphology, including prefixes, suffixes, roots, bases, and cognates, helps the reader make an educated guess about an unknown word. For example, if the reader has never been exposed to the word paleozoology, she or he can make an educated guess about this field using knowledge about prefixes and suffixes. In fact, the word is fairly easy to figure out when you remember that paleo- means old or ancient, zoo relates to animals, and -ology relates to the study of something.

But simply providing students with a morphology list is not likely to change their behavior when they come to unknown words. Instead, teachers need to model the use of morphology in understanding words. For example, while reading a sentence that contained the word heterozygous, the biology teacher modeled his use of morphology saying, “I know that hetero means different, so this must be the one that has two different alleles, or different versions, of a specific gene.”

Of course, morphology does not always work and students should be provided with examples that remind them to check other clues as well. Our favorite example of this occurred in an English as a Second Language classroom when the teacher got to the word repeat. She said, “I got this one. I know that re- means to do again. So I’m going to peat again. Wait, I have no idea what that means! I better check the context clues and look outside the word to see if I can figure this out.”

Looking Outside: Context Clues
In addition to looking inside words, students have to be taught to look outside of words to figure out their meaning. This happens through an understanding of context clues. Although context clues are not infallible, they can be helpful. There are a number of different kinds of context clues, such as embedded synonyms, antonyms, direct definitions, and the use of punctuation. Again, students need to be taught how to use these tools. Modeling provides students examples that can be built into habits.

For example, when reading about the “supermoon” predicted for March 19, 2011, the teacher noted the word fatalities in the news report. There had been quite a bit of news coverage around the world that this astronomical event, which brought the Moon into close range of the Earth, would cause widespread flooding and earthquakes. She made the connection between fatalities in the beginning of the sentence and the use of “the number dead” later in the sentence. Another example occurred when the teacher modeled using punctuation, in this case a dependent clause that contained additional and specific information about a more difficult word. As with word parts, teachers should also model when the use of context clues fail.

Again, the goal is for students to develop a habit that they can use independently when they come across unknown words. Like most of the systems we use when reading and trying to make meaning, they don’t always work. When these two systems--word parts and context clues--fail, it’s time to look further outside the word and use resources.

Looking Further Outside: Using Resources
“When all else fails, look it up” is a common motto of teachers, and with good reason. When the systems we have for figuring out unknown words within a the text do not help, it’s time to turn our attention to the resources we have at our disposal. Once upon a time, that was limited to printed dictionaries and glossaries. Today, we have a plethora of resources at our fingertips because of the Internet. For example, the visual dictionary is a great resource that student can be taught to use. The same holds for the many specialized dictionaries such as:

• Science: TSD: The Science Dictionary

• History: History Dictionary

• Mathematics: A Maths Dictionary for Kids

• Art: Artlex Art Dictionary

• Sports and fitness: Sports Dictionary

As with word parts and context clues, teachers should model their use of resources such as these as well as the appropriate ways to ask other people. This can be as simple as calling a friend on the classroom phone or texting someone for more information.

Modeling is an important part of explicit vocabulary instruction, but it is not sufficient in and of itself to ensure that students learn words deeply. In addition to modeling, students need intentional instruction and multiple opportunities to practice the words they are learning.

Editorial Note: To see how Frey and Fisher's "word solving" fits into the third of four components of a comprehensive vocabulary plan (Graves, 2006), read Four-Ply Vocabulary Plan.  To read about the problem with relying only on context clues to infer word meaning, read Context: Good News and Bad. To see another example of using morpheme clues and context clues to infer meaning and solve unknown words, see the portage example embedded in English: A Large Language. To see how the strategy discussed by Frey and Fisher applies to English Language Learners, see The Mindful Zen of Morphology. Also, for Spanish-strong language learners, see A Morphological Approach for English Language Learners by Carolyn Eddy. Finally, to see how to teach morphological reasoning in a deductive approach that prompts critical thinking, see the prior post by Peter Bowers.


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2008). In a reading state of mind: Brain research, teacher modeling, and comprehension instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


  1. This is a great addition to the blog. Thank you!
    I really like this 3-step procedure for word solving.

    Do you teach these three steps in order? If so, might I suggest a slight change?

    Reverse steps 1 and 2, putting context first. By seeking context clues first, we set our schema for the type of word we need (verb, noun, positive, negative, etc.), making it possible for us to better utilize the prefixes, suffixes, roots sought out next. Of course, this happens automatically, as we are reading in context when we approach the unknown word, but we want to make the search for context clues more deliberate, and we also want readers to read ahead, in the upcoming sentences, for context clues.

    What do you think?

    (PS..Love the dictionaries, too. Thanks for sharing the wealth!)

  2. Thanks for sharing! Love the dictionary links.


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