Definitions of Reading and Word Identification

Establishing a clear definition of reading provides an important perspective for evaluating approaches to teaching word-identification skills. Most educators would agree that the major purpose of reading should be the construction of meaning -- comprehending and actively responding to what is read. Two of the most widely cited and agreed-upon definitions of reading are the following:

Older, mechanistic definitions of reading as the translation of printed symbols into oral language equivalents are incomplete, given the progress made in understanding the nature of the reading process. There is widespread agreement that without the activation of relevant prior knowledge by a cognitively active reader and the melding of that prior knowledge with the text information, there can be no reading of text.

Even definitions of reading that emphasize meaning indicate that reading is activated by print. The reader must be able to translate the written words into meaningful language. Virtually all four- and five-year-old children can communicate with and learn from oral language, but very few can read, because they lack the ability to identify printed words. While simply being able to recognize or "say" the printed words of text without constructing the meaning of that text is not reading, constructing meaning from written text is impossible without being able to identify the words.

The terms word identification, word recognition, and decoding are frequently used interchangeably. The new Literacy Dictionary (Harris & Hodges, 1995) defines both word recognition and word identification as "the process of determining the pronunciation and some degree of meaning of an unknown word" (pp. 282-283). For words that are in a reader's meaning vocabulary, unlocking the pronunciation leads to the word's meaning. If a printed word is not in a reader's meaning vocabulary, word-identification skills may allow access to the word's pronunciation, but not its meaning. Being able to arrive at the pronunciation of a printed word constitutes word identification in the most minimal sense; however, if the reader is unable to attach meaning to the word, then he or she has not read the word, since reading must end in meaning construction.

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