Back to Basics: Word Attack Strategies

Welcome to our Back to Basics series! In this series we explore some of the foundational methods, practices and terminology for teaching reading. This series is for those new to the field of literacy, beginning tutors or those who would just like a refresher. This week we are discussing word attack strategies.

All readers will encounter words they don’t recognize. Emerging readers may quickly become frustrated when coming across these unfamiliar words because they don’t know what to do. Word attack strategies are ways that help learners to decode, pronounce and understand unfamiliar words. These strategies empower learners, much like giving them clues to solve a puzzle. There are many strategies available, but here we outline three.

Word patterns

An effective word attack strategy is studying word patterns, also called word study. Here is an example of two patterns:

The letters –dge like in judge make the /j/ sound. The d is usually silent.

The letters –tch like in sasquatch make the /ch/ sound. The t is usually silent.

These two patterns are only found at the end of a word or syllable or after a short vowel.

To teach word patterns, tutors choose a group of words that demonstrate a specific spelling pattern and sequence these patterns to match the learner’s level. A good teaching strategy is to have learners compare and contrast features in words. One method is for learners to use their existing word knowledge to separate examples that go together from those that don’t.

Word families

Word families are groups of words with the same ending. For example, -ight, -ound  or  -ain. Word families are great for demonstrating the connection between the spoken word and the written text. Word families sound and are spelled the same at the end. This consistency helps learners gain fluency.


Like the strategies listed above, recognizing the syllables in words helps to break the word into more manageable chunks. There are six syllable types that make this possible: closed, open, silent e, vowel pair, r-controlled, and final stable syllable. Every word has at least one vowel. And every syllable also has one vowel sound. Therefore, words with multiple syllables will have one vowel sound for each syllable. The learner can identify the vowel sound in each syllable type and use this knowledge to decode unfamiliar words.

Word attack strategies are essential tools for every emerging reader to use. Teach a variety of strategies, model their use, and your learner will be well on their way to becoming a good reader. To learn more word attack strategies, see the resources listed below.


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