Word Recognition Skills and Strategies

The following are widely acknowledged as skills that readers use to identify printed words.

Instant Recognition
Mature readers identify words with remarkable speed and accuracy. Indeed, fluent word identification appears to be a prerequisite for comprehending text. If a reader must slowly analyze many of the words in a text, memory and attention needed for comprehension are drained by word analysis.

Beginning readers recognize very few words instantly. Through repeated exposure to the same words, instant recognition vocabulary grows. It is particularly important that developing readers learn to recognize those words that occur very frequently in print. A mere 100 words make up a full 50 percent of the words read, even by adults. The, and, to, you, he, it, and said are examples of these high-frequency words. Developing readers also need to learn to recognize high-frequency words instantly because many of them are not phonically regular. Based on phonics generalizations, to should rhyme with go, said should rhyme with paid, and so on.

Children's ability to recognize words can be developed by teachers' pointing out the words, by a variety of game-like activities, and by writing those words. However, it appears that instant recognition of words, especially high-frequency words, develops best when students read large amounts of text, particularly text that is relatively easy for the reader (Cunningham, 1995).

Context Clues
There is a good research base for concluding that students can use meaning or context clues to help identify words and that instruction can help improve their use of such clues (Johnson & Baumann, 1984).

Three different types of context clues are frequently distinguished:

Context clues are often helpful, but they often are not specific enough to predict the exact word. Often several choices are possible, as in the example given. However, when context clues are combined with other clues such as phonics and word-part clues (for example, the sounds associated with j and mp), accurate word identification is usually possible.

Context clues allow readers to "crosscheck" their identification of words. For example, a reader encountering the word scratch for the first time should look carefully at the letters of the word, apply what he or she knows about phonics and word parts, and check to be sure that an attempted pronunciation matches the letter clues. In addition, the reader should always crosscheck to be sure that the word makes sense in terms of syntactic and semantic cues. Cunningham (1995) offers examples of activities that build and extend children's crosschecking activities.

Word Structure Clues
There are many groups of letters that occur frequently in words. These are generally perceived by more mature readers as clusters of letters. Among these letter groups are prefixes (un-, re-, in-), suffixes (-ful, -ness, -est), and inflectional endings (-ed, -ing, -es). Common prefixes, suffixes, and inflectional endings should be pointed out to students. Being able to associate sounds with a cluster of letters leads to more rapid, efficient word identification.

Analogy Clues
As readers build an increasing store of words that they can recognize with little effort, they use the words they know to help them recognize words that are unfamiliar. For example, a child who has seen the word will many times and who knows the sound associated with the consonant f will probably have little difficulty recognizing the word fill. Building phonemic awareness for onsets and rimes builds a foundation for being able to identify simple words and syllables by analogy. Many teachers encourage developing readers to use analogy strategies by engaging students in word family (man, ran, pan) and initial consonant substitution ("What word would I have if I changed the m in man to an r?") activities. One clear advantage to the use of analogy strategies is that vowels, which can be variable in the sounds they represent, are much more stable within rimes (-eam).

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