Phonics, Decoding and Word Identification Defined

Reading, like listening, speaking, and writing, is a facet of communication. Reading and writing build on the wealth of oral language skills that children begin developing long before they enter school (Loban, 1963; Sticht & James, 1984; Strickland & Feeley, 1991). Oral and written language share many common features: the same vocabulary, the same grammar and syntax, and similar purposes. However, to construct meaning from the printed language (reading) and to use printed language to convey a message (writing), students must be able to recognize in print the language that they use orally (Mason, Herman, & Au, 1991). This ability is referred to as word identification, though some writers use the term decoding (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985; Williams, 1985).

In effect, written language is a code that stands for oral language. Beginning readers must become familiar with the printed code in order to equate it with oral language. Young children can understand and enjoy a book if someone reads the text to them; however, in order to understand and enjoy the book on their own, they must learn to recognize printed words as the equivalent of what was read to them (Sticht & James, 1984). To gain this ability to appreciate written text independently, a child must develop word identification, or decoding, skills (Mason et al., 1991; Johnson & Baumann, 1984).

The Differences Between Word Identification and Phonics

The terms word identification and decoding are broader than phonics. Using phonics is only one of several important approaches to identifying words. Other clues include the grammar and syntax of a sentence, meaning (semantic) clues, word parts (prefixes, suffixes, base words), and familiarity with similar words (analogy) (Adams, 1990; Anderson et al., 1985; Mason et al., 1991).

As an example, consider this sentence: "The _______ ran to meet his dad, who picked him up and spun him around." The first clue that the children might use to identify the missing word involves syntax; while they do not know formal rules of grammar, their implicit understanding of oral language helps them know the missing word is a noun. Another clue comes from the meaning of the other words in the sentence; the word his and the information that he's picked up by a dad strongly suggest that the missing word might be something like boy or lad or son. If the letters b-o-y were in the sentence, and if the readers knew the sounds typically associated with the letter b and the combination oy, the word would become even clearer. Finally, children who had already seen the word boy in print many times would probably recognize it quickly, without much analysis, in this sentence.

Phonics works in harmony with other language-cuing systems to help children identify a printed word (Johnson & Baumann, 1984). Syntax and meaning clues often help predict what the word will be (Francis, 1977); phonics and word parts help to specify the word; word identification skills work together to confirm that the choice is the best one and that it makes sense.

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