The quickest way for a student to hurt my heart is to say that he or she doesn’t like reading. I love reading so much that I take this personally, but I also realize these students (most students) were probably not encouraged to read the way I was when I was a kid: my mom took us to the library often, both my parents read a lot and the school I grew up in encouraged reading. My primary academic goal for these students–for all my students–is that they would enjoy reading and writing. If students enjoy reading and writing, they will read and write, and if they have the right guidance, they will become good readers and good writers.

One difficulty all readers encounter is unfamiliar words. Good readers aren’t discouraged by these words because they are often able to guess the meanings of these words, but struggling readers can easily become frustrated because they don’t know what to do when they see words they don’t know.

We can empower our struggling readers–all of our readers–by giving them ways to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words; we can give them the clues to solve the puzzle.

I don’t remember where I first came across the phrase word attack strategies, but I did see the phrase in Kelly Gallagher’s Deeper Reading, where he mentions two: search prefixes/suffixes/roots for partial meanings and figure out sound-alikes. Word attack strategies provide ways for students to successfully attack words they don’t know, giving them the confidence they need to continue reading.

I’ve made a list of 4 word attack strategies and examples of their use that I’ve taken from children’s, young adult and adult books I’ve read. I have collected and continue to collect the examples with middle school students in mind.

To teach these 4 strategies, give groups of students one example from each strategy (before teaching the strategies) and ask them to determine how they can figure out the meanings of the unfamiliar words. Tell the students that each of the 4 examples requires the use of a different strategy. If you have 4 groups, have each group explain to the rest of the class what they did to figure out the meanings of the unfamiliar words.

Once the students understand these 4 strategies, have them compile lists of their own examples for each of the strategies from their own reading.

Here are the 4 word attack strategies:

1. Keep reading because the definition or a synonym might be right after the word you don’t know. The author knows that the reader may not know the word, so he/she provides the definition or a synonym. (This is especially true when children are the intended audience.)


Note that the unfamiliar words are in bold and the definitions or synonyms are italicized.

*Gram truly looked like she’d seen an apparition, which is what she calls a ghost. (Becoming Naomi León, Pam Muñoz Ryan)

*Her hair looked like that crayon called maroon, the one that’s not purple and not red but something in between… (Becoming Naomi León)

*They decided first of all to go to the top of a hill overlooking the city. The hill was so steep that you had to go by funiculara kind of lift on wheels that went straight up at an alarming angle. (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr)

*“…Of course we didn’t know then that we’d be spending your tenth birthday steaming about Lake Zurich as refugees from Hitler.”

“Is a refugee someone who’s had to leave their home?” asked Anna.

“Someone who seeks refuge in another country,” said Papa.

(When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit)

*A quarrel began instantly, the arguments flying across the room. (Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson)

The three Baudelaire children lived with their parents in an enormous mansion at the heart of a dirty and busy city, and occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley—the word “rickety,” you probably know, here means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse”—alone to the seashore, where they would spend the day as a sort of vacation as long as they were home for dinner. (The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket)

“It’s because you’re too heedless and impulsive, child, that’s what. You never stop to think—whatever comes into your head to say or do you say or do it without a moment’s reflection.” (Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery)

What he saw was the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin. At nearly 800 feet long and 110 feet high, it was the largest flying machine ever crafted. More luxurious than the finest airplane, gliding effortlessly over huge distances, built on a scale that left spectators gasping, it was, in the summer of ’29, the wonder of the world. (Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand)

She gave Miss Maudie a look of pure gratitude, and I wondered at the world of women. Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra had never been especially close, and here was Aunty silently thanking her for something. (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

The stranger had come from Norway, and I had heard that straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak! Ergo (that means “therefore”) the stranger could have brought the snipe with him. (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley)

Marilla wore her amethyst brooch to church that day as usual. Marilla always wore her amethyst brooch to church. She would have thought it rather sacrilegious to leave it off—as bad as forgetting her Bible or her collection dime. That amethyst brooch was Marilla’s most treasured possession. A seafaring uncle had given it to her mother who in turn had bequeathed it to Marilla. It was an old-fashioned oval, containing a braid of her mother’s hair, surrounded by a border of very fine amethysts. Marilla knew too little about precious stones to realize how fine the amethysts actually were; but she thought them very beautiful and was always pleasantly conscious of their violet shimmer at her throat, above her good brown satin dress, even although she could not see it. (Anne of Green Gables)

2. Use word roots, prefixes and suffixes.


Note that the unfamiliar words are in bold and the roots, prefixes and suffixes are capitalized.

For a list of 100 Latin and Greek word roots as well as teaching materials for these roots, see this post.

Once, I got up in the middle of the night because I was thirsty, and I saw Mom standing outside Auggie’s room. Her hand was on the doorknob, her forehead leaning on the door, which was ajar. She wasn’t going in his room or stepping out: just standing right outside the door, as if she was listening to the sound of his breathing as he slept. The hallway lights were out. The only thing ilLUMinating her was the blue night-light in August’s bedroom. (Wonder, R.J. Palacio) *LUM = light

And Edmund gave a very SUPERior look as if he were far older than Lucy (there was really only a year’s difference)…(The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis) *SUPER = above

“This is where the bad wood-elves dwell,” whispered Anne. “They are impish and MALicious but they can’t harm us, because they are not allowed to do evil in the spring.” (Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery) *MAL = bad

…Just as Mr. Allan had finished returning thanks there arose a strange, ominous sound on the stairs, as of some hard, heavy object bounding from step to step, finishing up with a grand smash at the bottom. Everybody ran out into the hall. Anne gave a shriek of dismay.

At the bottom of the stairs lay a big pink conch shell amid the FRAGments of what had been Mrs. Barry’s platter… (Anne of Avonlea) *FRAG = to break

…She was braced for trouble of this kind, though not of this MAGNitude. (The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra) *MAGN = great, as in very big

…he looks all around to be sure it’s safe for him to speak. Then he clears his throat, but his emotion is so great that his voice comes out in an almost IN/AUDible quaver: “Do you think we’ll ever be able to hear music in Kabul one day?” (The Swallows of Kabul) *IN = not; AUD = to hear

Then I heard what sounded like a great MULTitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.” Revelation 19:6 *MULT = many

3. Look for clues in the words around the word you don’t know.

Note that the unfamiliar words are in bold and the clues are italicized.

From the top of the hill you could see Zurich clustered below at one end of an enormous blue lake. It was so big that the town seemed quite small by comparison, and its far end was hidden by mountains. Steamers, which looked like toys from this height, were making their way round the edge of the lake, stopping at each of the villages scattered along the shores and then moving on to the next

The steamer trip in the afternoon was a great success. Anna and Max stayed on the open deck in spite of the cold wind and watched the other traffic on the lake. Apart from the steamers there were private motor launches and even a few rowing boats. Their steamer went chug-chugging along from village to village on one side of the lake. These all looked very pretty, with their neat houses nestling among the woods and the hills. Whenever the steamer was getting near a landing stage it hooted loudly to let everyone in the village know that it was coming, and quite a lot of people got on and off each time. After about an hour it suddenly steamed straight across the lake to a village on the other side and then made its way back to Zurich where it had started. (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit)

…so that in a very few minutes everyone was drawing up their stools…and preparing to enjoy themselves. There was a jug of creamy milk for the children…and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought—and I agree with them—that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago. And when they had finished the fish Mrs. Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle onto the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

Marilla wore her amethyst brooch to church that day as usual. Marilla always wore her amethyst brooch to church. She would have thought it rather sacrilegious to leave it off—as bad as forgetting her Bible or her collection dime. (Anne of Green Gables)

“…Diana and I just imagined the wood was haunted. All the places around here are so – so – commonplace. We just got this up for our own amusement. We began it in April. A haunted wood is so very romantic, Marilla. We chose the spruce grove because it’s so gloomy. Oh, we have imagined the most harrowing things. There’s a white lady walks along the brook just about this time of the night and wrings her hands and utters wailing cries. She appears when there is to be a death in the family. And the ghost of a little murdered child haunts the corner up by Idlewild; it creeps up behind you and lays its cold fingers on your hand—so. Oh Marilla, it gives me a shudder to think of it. And there’s a headless man stalks up and down the path and skeletons glower at you between the boughs. Oh, Marilla, I wouldn’t go through the Haunted Wood after dark now for anything. I’d be sure that white things would reach out from behind the trees and grab me.” (Anne of Green Gables)

We nodded and looked down at our books. Then Jack whispered: “Are you always going to look this way, August? I mean, can’t you get plastic surgery or something?”

I smiled and pointed to my face. “Hello? This is after plastic surgery!”

Jack clapped his hand over his forehead and started laughing hysterically.

“Dude, you should sue your doctor!” he answered between giggles.

This time the two of us were laughing so much we couldn’t stop, even after Mr. Roche came over and made us both switch chairs with the kids next to us. (Wonder)

The next afternoon the girls fared forth on their platter-hunting expedition. It was ten miles to Spencervale and the day was not especially pleasant for traveling. It was very warm and windless, and the dust on the road was such as might have been expected after six weeks of dry weather.

Oh, I do wish it would rain soon,” sighed Anne. “Everything is so parched up. The poor fields seem just pitiful to me and the trees seem to be stretching out their hands pleading for rain. As for my garden, it hurts me every time I go into it. I suppose I shouldn’t complain about a garden when the farmers’ crops are suffering so. Mr. Harrison says his pastures are so scorched up that his poor cows can hardly get a bite to eat and he feels guilty of cruelty to animals every time he meets their eyes.” (Anne of Avonlea)

4. Think of a word that looks like the unfamiliar word.

“Couldn’t we have some stratagem?” said Peter. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) *stratagem looks like strategy

My family had gotten into the habit of calling any literary figure “my friend” because I had begun to write poems and stories in English class. (“Names/Nombres,” Julia Alvarez) *literary looks like literature

“So where are you from, Judy?”

“New York…”

“I mean, originally.”

“From the Caribbean,” I answered, for if I specified, no one was quite sure what continent our island was on. (“Names/Nombres”) *specified looks like specific

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny looked at one another and grinned. Any objections? The Baudelaire orphans had just been living with Count Olaf, who had made them chop wood and clean up after his drunken guests, while plotting to steal their fortune. Uncle Monty had just described a delightful way to spend one’s time, and the children smiled at him eagerly. Of course there would be no objections. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny gazed at the Reptile Room and envisioned an end to their troubles as they lived their lives under Uncle Monty’s care… (The Reptile Room, Lemony Snicket) *envisioned contains the word vision

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