Helping Students Keep Their Eyes on the Words

An almost universal habit that struggling readers exhibit is looking up from the words when reading. Learn the three primary reasons why students look up as they read, and then find out how to respond to each case in the most effective way. 

An almost universal habit that struggling readers exhibit is looking up from the words when reading. In an earlier article First Rule of Reading: Keep Your Eyes on the Words, I stressed the importance of teaching students to keep their eyes on the words when they read.  I also noted that for almost all students, accuracy improves almost immediately when they stop looking up and start looking at the word in order to use decoding strategies.

A number of teachers responded to the previous article. Many wrote that they had not been aware how often their students looked to them for approval or for help with reading. Several teachers asked what they could do to help their students develop the habit of keeping their eyes on the words when they read. This article offers some suggestions.

Helping students change the “looking up” habit requires diligent attention and patience, patience, patience.  It helps to understand the different reasons students look up so teachers can respond in the most effective way.

Students look up from the page for three primary reasons:

  1. Students look to the teacher for approval. These students look directly at the teacher and they wait for the teacher to say “good job” or something similar.
  2. Students look up to signal the teacher that they don’t know the word and need help. These students also look directly at the teacher. In many classrooms, the teacher or another classmate tells the student the word.
  3. Students look up to think about what the word might be. These students are trying to pull the word from memory and generally look into space, not directly at anyone.

Students who look up for approval

Helping students who look up for approval is the easiest of the three behaviors to correct. Please don’t mistake “easiest of the three” to mean easy.  As with any habit, this one can take time to change.

One respondent to the first post wrote about a technique we also use: “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.”

Some students look up for approval just two or three words before they finish reading. Often, this causes them to misread one or more of the final words. To change this habit, every time a student looks up before  

finishing reading, the teacher reminds the student he or she looked up, and then has the student reread. The teacher has the student reread whether all the words were read correctly or not. Doing this each time a student looks up will foster the habit of keeping eyes on the page at all times. We have found that if we have the student reread only when words are misread, the habit doesn’t change nearly as fast, if at all.

Some students have a difficult time recognizing that they look up before finishing the sentence. In this case, the teacher can put a hand lightly on the student’s head and tell the student not to look up until the teacher takes the hand away. Another technique is to have the student say “period” when he or she comes to the end of the sentence, then tap a fist on the desk before looking up. We have used both these techniques successfully with a number of students.

Students who look up because they want the teacher to tell them the word

Students who look up because they want the teacher to tell them the word need to be reminded to keep their eyes on the word. The teacher can say, “Remember that you need to say ‘Word, please.’ Start from the beginning and say ‘Word, please’ when you come to any words you don’t know.”  Many students say “Word, please,” but still look up as they say it. Teachers need to remind students to keep their eyes on the word even after they ask for help, and then follow up by having the student repeat “Word, please” with eyes on the word.

After a student asks for help with a specific word, the teacher can elect to (1) have the student sound out the word if the spelling patterns are ones the student should know or (2) provide the word if the student is not expected to know how to read it.

Students who look up to think about the word

Students who look up to think about the word are perhaps the most difficult to train to keep their eyes on the page. These students generally have poor decoding skills and strong language skills. Their experience has taught them that glancing at the word and thinking about possible words is easier and sometimes more successful for them than taking the time to decode the word.

Students who look up to think about the word are different from those who look up because they want teacher approval or want to be told the word. They think that they can “find the word in their heads.” Therefore, teachers need to ask these students to continue to look at the word as they try to read it. If they can’t read the word, they need to say “Word, please.”

Kindergarten and first grade teachers can keep the “looking up” habit from developing. First, they can teach that accuracy is critical when reading. All teachers can help students achieve accuracy by insisting that they look at words the entire time they read. When any student misreads a word, the teacher can stop the student at the end of the sentence or word list, and follow these steps:

  1. Tell the student the number of words read correctly (or say, “You read perfectly up to this word” as you point at the missed word).
  2. Ask the student to sound out the word if it is decodable or give the word if the student hasn’t learned its spelling patterns.
  3. Have the student read the sentence again (up to three times) until he or she reads the sentence accurately without looking up.

Using effective teaching strategies helps

Teachers can also stop teaching strategies that encourage students to take their eyes off the word. These ineffective strategies include: “guess based on context,” “look at the first letter and think of a word that fits,” and “look at the picture.” We wish all educators understood that 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.

About the author

Linda Farrell is a founding partner at Readsters, an Alexandria, VA-based firm that helps schools implement research-based reading instruction. She is committed to effective early reading instruction in, to helping struggling readers become strong readers, and to ensuring that strong readers achieve their full potential.  Linda works in schools throughout the U.S. training and coaching teachers and modeling effective reading instruction. She also has designed curricula in Niger and Senegal for children to learn to read in their local languages. Linda is a former English teacher. She was a National LETRS trainer for seven years. She has co-authored assessments and curricula for teaching reading, as well as several other published works. Linda can be reached at linda@readsters.com.

Linda Farrell (2019)

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