Building an Effective Strategy

Although a review of the available research makes it clear that failure to include phonics instruction as part of a beginning reading program results in poorer reading achievement, a full discussion of word recognition such as that by Ehri (1991) points out that phonics is but one aspect of word identification. Recognition of words whose printed form is not familiar to a reader may be facilitated through the use of meaning or context clues, through identification of word parts, or through analogy. Research (Johnson & Baumann, 1984) makes it clear that different readers use different combinations of these word-identification clues and that over-reliance on any one cuing system, such as meaning clues or phonics clues, results in problems for the reader.

Strategic combining of the various sources of information results in effective, efficient word identification. Consider the following example from Byron Barton's retelling of the folktale "The Little Red Hen." One sentence in this story is "Who will help me plant these seeds?" Assume that a child who is in mid-first grade can recognize, with little effort, the high-frequency words who, will, help, and me, but hasn't seen the printed word plant before. If the child had been reading the previous page of text for meaning, he or she will remember that the hen had just found some seeds, and that she is now approaching her animal friends (the general context). The syntax (grammar) and the meaning (semantics) of the sentence cue the reader that the hen is asking (cued by who) for help to do something. By thinking about the sounds for pl, a, and nt, the probability is good that the child might think of the word plant. Indeed, the child may have perceived the pl, the an (since an is a frequent letter combination in beginning reading), and the t. Reading the rest of the sentence, plant the seeds makes good sense and serves to crosscheck the word plant as the correct choice.

Even this brief example shows the complexity of the process of identifying words and points to the fact that different children, based on experiences in reading and instruction, may use different routes (for example, an and t versus a and nt versus ant) to arrive at a word's pronunciation. It also points out how phonic, syntactic, semantic, and word-part clues interact and strategically complement one another. As a result of frequent opportunities to identify words independently, children learn effective strategies for recognizing new words.

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