Little-big word approach for young or remedial readers

By Bill Welker

“Big words scare me!” said countless youngsters throughout my years as a tutor and reading specialist. I wondered how I could make multi-syllable words less threatening to a number of my students. Where should I start? Why not start at the beginning — my own “beginnings” in learning to pronounce large words. Thus, I developed the Little-Big Word Approach (LBWA) — and it worked!

Now before I explain the particulars of this strategy, you must understand that it is only a teaching aid, not the “gospel truth,” for improving student confidence with multi-syllable terms. Likewise, you should not teach your students to depend on this approach because it is by no stretch of the imagination foolproof. It is only one small, helpful alternative that can be incorporated into your varied reading program.

In LBWA, students simply look for smaller words in multi-syllable terms. This approach demonstrates that some large words are not as overwhelming as they may seem. Below are a few examples of little-big words:



At – ten – dance


Can – did – ate


Her – ring – bone


In – dig – nation


Per – cent – age


Real – is – tic


Super – in -ten – dent


Whip – poor – will

Let me now walk you through a typical vocabulary lesson that includes LBWA terms. The students are exposed to 10 new words each week. Only 2 or 3 of them are from the LBWA list which I compiled over the years. This is a list you can easily make up on your own.

Essentially, direct instruction, which promotes student deep processing, encompasses the following:

(1) Teaching the proper pronunciation, applying all the word attack strategies at your disposal.

(2) Explanation of word meanings.

(3) Examples of the words in context.

(4) Synonym and antonym word-association practice.

(5) Student construction of sentences, using and spelling the terms properly.

(6) With the cloze-variation format, the students write the correct lesson words in the blank spaces.

(7) The use of various word games to motivate the students in learning the new terms.

When I introduce the LBWA words, I say, for example, “Dave, look at this word. What little words can you find in it?”

On the black or white board he sees — Indignation.

David then searches the term for little words and correctly answers, “In, dig, and nation.” (Note: As a variation to this strategy, I sometimes underline the smaller word parts prior to instruction.)

Next, I have Dave gradually pronounce the word faster and faster with all the little words together. Finally, I proudly assert, “There, you see, David, you can pronounce the big words – and all by yourself!”

At this point, I teach David the various meanings of the LBWA word, applying the methods noted above. In some cases, he already knows the meanings via his oral language background.

Please keep in mind, I also teach other long words during each lesson that have no little-word cues. Still, by periodically taking advantage of the LBWA, I offer David an opportunity for success and much needed confidence which he otherwise might never experience.

It is imperative not to give students too many LBWA words at one sitting. I don’t want the children to build false hopes on an alternative method that has the same limitations found in other phonics techniques.

In essence, the LBWA is just another strategy to assist students in acquiring a better understanding of the words they need to know, both in pronouncing the terms and knowing their meaning in context.

Bill Welker, EdD, is an educator who has 40 years of experience as a K12 classroom teacher in both public and private schools. He was the recipient of the “Jasper N. Deahl Award” from West Virginia University for his accomplishments as a certified reading specialist.


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