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Putting Word Recognition in Perspective

Before you pick this book up, you should understand fully that the
topic at issue is that of reading words. Before you put this book down,
however, you should understand fully that the ability to read words,
quickly, accurately, and effortlessly, is critical to skillful reading
comprehension in the obvious ways and in a number of more subtle
Skillful reading is not a unitary skill. It is a whole complex system of
skills and knowledge. Within this system, the knowledge and activities
involved in visually recognizing individual printed words are useless
in and of themselves. They are valuable and, in a strong sense,
possible only as they are guided and received by complementary
knowledge and activities of language comprehension. On the other
hand, unless the processes involved in individual word recognition
operate properly, nothing else in the system can either.
Operation of the Reading System
To clarify the relation of word recognition processes to the rest of the
system, an analogy might be useful. Let us say that the system that
supports our ability to read is like a car. Within this analogy, print is
like gas. The engine and the mechanics of the car are the perceptual
and conceptual machinery that make the system go.
Extending this analogy, it is obvious that print is essential to reading:
no gas, no driving. But print is not enough to make the car go. Print is
mute without the spark of visual perception. And just as cars are
designed with more than one spark plug, so too are individual letters
processed through multiple channels, all working at once, in
coordination with each other. This increases the power and
smoothness with which we progress. The associations among letters,
like the crankshaft in a car, keep the system rolling despite occasional
problems. The occasional letter that is misperceived or even wholly
illegible does not stop the reading machine any more than the
occasional misfire of a spark plug or drop of water in the gas stops a

But, of course, the engine is only indirectly responsible for making a

car go. The engine turns gas to kinetic energy, and the energy turns the
wheels. Similarly the perceptual system turns print to mental energy,
such that it can be understood.
Obviously a car could not be driven without gas, without spark plugs,
without a crankshaft, and without a differential and wheels. But it is
also important to recognize that it would not be driven if drivers were
obliged to attend to each of the details of its operation. Imagine if you
had to push a button every time you wanted a spark plug to fire.
Imagine if you had to assist the crankshaft manually in order to
transform the mechanics into motion. Imagine if the mechanics were
such that the car would not go more than a couple of miles per hour or
that it unpredictably stalled out every few moments. You would very
likely choose not to drive it at all.
These problems are analogous to the difficulties that must befall the
reader who cannot quickly, effortlessly, and automatically recognize
individual letters and spelling patterns and transform them to words
and meanings. And, in analogy, if readers' word recognition skills are
not properly operative, they very likely will choose not to read at all.
Clearly without gas, without an engine and mechanics in adequate
working order, the system will not go. Suppose, however, that your
reading system has plenty of print to consume and a fine mechanical
system. Are you on your way?
No. First, you have to want to go somewhere, and you have to have
some idea of how to get there. As you travel, you must monitor and
control your path. With respect to the route, you must periodically
assess how far you have gone, make sure you are on the right track,
and renew estimates of how far you have to go. Simultaneously you
must also pay careful attention to the local details of the road and
control your car through them. These activities correspond to
comprehension in its truest sense.

Depending on such variables as the familiarity of the route and its

navigability, how far you can see ahead and whether the route is
bumpy, windy, congested, or unpredictable you have to invest
considerable active attention in your progress. Similarly, texts that are
unfamiliar in concept or difficult in wording or structure require active
attention for comprehension. But to the extent that you are directing
that attention to the mechanics of the system, it is not available to
support your understanding. Only if your ability to recognize and
capture the meanings of the words on a page is rapid, effortless, and
automatic will you have available the cognitive energy and resources
upon which skillful comprehension depends. Only then can you
control and reflect upon your journey.
As it happens, everybody wants to go someplace. Everybody wants
stimulation, new challenges, and that sense of growth and
accomplishment that comes with conquering them. If reading seems
unstimulating or unproductive, the individual will choose other things
to do. If reading seems aversive, the individual will avoid it altogether.
Apropos of this assertion, in her longitudinal study of children in one
Texas school, Connie Juel found that 40 percent of the poor fourth
grade readers claimed that they would rather clean their room than
read. One child stated, "I'd rather clean the mold around the bathtub
than read.1
Acquisition of the Reading System
If we want children to learn to read well, we must find a way to induce
them to read lots. Moreover, the objective beneath our wish that they
learn to read well is one of instilling in them the capacity and
disposition to read freely. It is of ensuring that they will have ready
access, beyond school, to the information and the pleasures of print.
And so the circularity of the situation is extremely important: If we
want to induce children to read lots, we must teach them to read well.
While accepting that everybody wants to go someplace, we must also
recognize that not everybody wants to go to the same place. The
materials and activities used in developing reading skill are, thus, of

Juel (1988).

critical importance. To be maximally effective, they must consistently

be selected with sensitivity to the needs and interests of the students
with whom they will be used.
This book is principally about how to develop basic reading and
reading readiness capacities among young children. Fortunately for
purposes of schooling, little ones will go almost anywhere we lead
them so long as they are neither frustrated nor bored. Yet, even as that
eases our task as their guides, it greatly increases our responsibility. It is
up to us to lead them in the right direction.
Here the car analogy breaks down. So apt for describing the operation
of the system, it is wholly inappropriate for modeling its acquisition.
Building a car is a modular, hierarchical activity. From bottom up, one
screws, welds, and otherwise fastens the discrete and countable parts
of each subsystem together. One by one, only as each is completed,
are the subsystems connected to each other.
For the reading system, in contrast, the parts are not discrete. We
cannot proceed by completing each individual subsystem and then
fastening it to another. Rather, the parts of the reading system must
grow together. They must grow to one another and from one another.
In order for the connections and even the connected parts, themselves,
to develop properly, they must be developed conjointly. They must be
linked together in the very course of acquisition. And, importantly, this
dependency works in both directions. One cannot properly develop the
higher-order processes without due attention to the lower. Nor can one
focus on the lower-order processes without constantly clarifying and
exercising their connections to the higher-order ones.
The great challenge for reading educators, therefore, is one of
understanding the parts of the system and their interrelations. Only
such understanding enables methodical reflection on the needs and
progress of each student. The value of respecting the structure and
interrelations of the system lies not just in keeping the pedagogical
inventory straight; much more, it greatly facilitates the task of getting

through it. As the parts of the system are refined and developed in
proper relation to one another, each guides and reinforces the growth
of the other.
Finally, although this book is principally about developing reading
skills in young children, we must remember that the attention and
cooperation that any student invests in reading activities depends on
the degree to which her or his interests and sense of progress are
engaged. Texts and activities recommended for young children may be
wholly inappropriate for older students in content, pace, and cognitive
assumptions. Although instructional principles do not change for older
students, instructional practice must. For developing and refining the
word recognition skills of older children, computerized reading
environments might hold more promise.2 In contrast, vocationally
oriented reading instruction may be best conducted with job materials
and manuals.3 The best idea I have encountered along these lines
comes from Dorothy Strickland, who has recently proposed to help
young mothers learn about print by teaching them to read to their
Although issues of the personal relevance and accessibility of text are
beyond the scope of this book, they must always be central to our
thoughts on how to teach reading. We must also bear in mind that
skillful reading encompasses much more than mastery of the basics.
Indeed, none of us neither teachers nor students can say that we have
learned (past tense) to read. Reading is and should be a continuously
developing skill.

Organization of the Book

See, for example, Frederiksen, Warren, and Rosebery (1985a, 1985b); Roth and Beck
(1987). With special interest in improving the abilities of bilingual Hispanic youngsters, see
Frederiksen (1987).

Mikulecky (1986); Sticht (1979).

The body of this book is divided into six parts. The goal of this
introductory part is to place contemporary concern over reading
instruction in a broader historical and educational context. Thus chapter
2 begins with a discussion of the basic tension in any writing system
between the codability of meaning and the decodability of the code. It
includes a brief overview of the ways in which this tension has
expressed itself in the philosophies and instructional practices of
reading educators in the United States.
In part II attention is turned to the question of why phonic instruction,
in particular, is so often seen as the proper cure for children's reading
ills. Chapter 3 provides a review of experimental comparisons of the
relative effectiveness of different approaches to beginning reading
instruction. Collectively these studies suggest that, among broad
classes of programs, those that include systematic phonic instruction
generally give young readers an edge in spelling and word recognition
skills. Yet, the class of programs that purport to teach phonics is large
and varied, which leaves us wondering about the precise methods and
materials from which their general advantage derives.
The focus of chapter 4 is on studies of the extent to which successful
reading acquisition can be predicted by various measures of
prereaders' knowledge and capacities. This body of literature indicates
that familiarity of the letters of the alphabet and awareness of the
speech sounds, or phonemes, to which they correspond, are strong
predictors of the ease or difficulty with which a child learns to read.
Research reviewed later in the book confirms that letter recognition
facility and phonemic awareness are causally related to reading
acquisition and that each is prerequisite for the young reader.
Even so, a catch-22 emerges. Closer analysis indicates that children
who have learned their letters and acquired a solid level of phonemic
awareness before entering school have also begun to learn to read
before entering school. By implication, we are left with the conclusion
that the likelihood that a child will succeed in the first grade depends,
most of all, on how much she or he has already learned about reading

before getting there.

With this finding in focus, consideration is turned to studies of the
linguistic and literacy support that preschoolers normally experience.
Research indicates that this support varies enormously in both nature
and amount across neighborhoods. In the typical American home,
parents read to their preschoolers daily resulting in hundreds and
thousands of hours of literacy exposure prior to school entry. But such
practices are not normal in the homes of all preschoolers. Data from
ethnographic studies indicate that some groups of children rarely even
see a storybook before entering school. Unless ways are found to
compensate for these differences in preschool literacy preparation,
such children are unlikely to succeed with formal reading instruction.
The goal of part III, to establish more precisely the knowledge and
skills that are required for proficient reading, is pursued through a
review of research and theory on skillful readers. The forceful
conclusion is that reading proficiency is strictly limited by the speed,
accuracy, and effortlessness with which readers can respond to print as
coherent orthographic, phonological, and semantic (meaning-bearing)
patterns. In the course of proficient reading, the processes supporting
orthographic, phonological, and semantic identification of words
occur interactively and interdependently; without the complete and
proper operation of all three, the reader is left with neither capacity
nor support for comprehension.
The interactive and automatic manner in which skillful readers perceive
and interpret words derives from a complex of associations among
elementary perceptual units. As the associations bind frequently seen
sequences of individual letters into coherent spelling patterns, they also
connect them to pronunciations and meanings. Importantly the strength
of the associative links between any two units or complexes of units
depends directly on the frequency with which the reader attends and
has attended to both in the course of perception. It follows from theory
and with ample empirical support that the speed, accuracy, and
effortlessness with which proficient readers move through print
depend on the extent to which they have learned to process the

sequences of individual letters in the words they read.

An ancillary issue that emerges in part III is that skillful readers' word
recognition and comprehension processes depend on sophisticated
syntactic abilities. The process through which they interpret the text is
regulated by the grammatical structures and interrelationships of its
phrases and clauses. Furthermore, analyses indicate that as proficient
readers proceed through connected text, they identify the grammatical
function of each word as it is encountered. The course through which
such syntactic sensitivity develops is an area that has received too
little attention from researchers.
In parts IV and V, concern is turned to the acquisition of reading and
word recognition skills. Part IV lays the groundwork, discussing the
general nature of learning and of what we hope to establish through
beginning reading instruction. Rules may serve usefully to point out
important commonalities and distinctions between experiences and
thereby to help learners organize their experiences most productively.
For some types of difficulties, they may also provide strategic or
consciously mediated recourse for the reader. In either case, however,
such guidance is useful and interpretable only as it applies to and can
be absorbed by the readers' direct knowledge of the instances to which
it pertains. Productive knowledge is acquired through experience and
depends on thought and understanding.
Chapter 10 makes the case that in both its acquisition and fluent
operation at every level, the system prospers not from unit-by-unit
resolution of the information it receives. Instead and at each level of
processing, recognition depends jointly on the individual units and the
context in which those units occur and is critically mediated by the
perceiver's prior knowledge of and familiarity with both. For example,
a reader's identification of a printed word is interactively resolved
through recognition of its letters both individually and in familiar
sequence or relation to one another. The same holds in the
identification of phonemes, words, and meanings.

More generally, to the extent that the received assemblage of

information is familiar, the identities of the units and the interrelations
between them will be recognized automatically and effortlessly. To the
extent that it is not, its perception or understanding will require the
reader's active attention.
Yet one's active attention is limited. For productive reading, it must be
reserved for the process of discovering the higher-order relationships
that divulge the meaning of the text. Again then, we arrive at the
implication that productive reading depends on thorough familiarity
with the lower-order units and relations of the text.
The goal of instruction on word recognition is to develop the reader's
familiarity with frequent spelling patterns so as to enable automatic
translation from spellings to meanings. To this end, as discussed in
chapter 10, relationships between the spellings and sounds of words
are invaluable for the young reader in a variety of ways. Nevertheless,
the ability to sound words out must not be mistaken as an instructional
end in itself.
In part V, concern shifts from questions of learning to those of
teaching. Chapter 11 focuses on issues surrounding instruction on
individual letter-sound correspondences and phonic generalizations.
Research indicates that, particularly for children who enter school
with weak literacy preparation, direct instruction in word analysis
skills is critically important. While reading progress depends on
working familiarity with spelling patterns and spelling-sound
correspondences, low-readiness readers do not induce these
relationships through exposure to meaningful text. What they learn in
this domain depends strongly on what they are directly taught. But
research also indicates that the degree to which children internalize
and use their phonic instruction depends on the degree to which they
have found it useful for recognizing the words in their earliest texts. It
indicates, moreover, that immersion right from the start in meaningful,
connected text is of vital importance.

One implication of these findings is that in the selection of beginning

reading programs, priority consideration should be given to whether the
passages in the preprimers have been designed to reinforce the word
recognition lessons that precede them. Surprisingly, such coordination
has been all but absent in a number of commercial packages for
beginning reading instruction.
Yet there is a deeper problem here. For children with relatively little
literacy preparation, basic phonic instruction can only proceed quite
slowly. Instilling the most basic of individual letter-sound
correspondences may require months of classroom attention. In the
meantime, how can one possibly construct texts that are meaningful
and engaging without extending beyond the children's established
phonic knowledge?
Seemingly, the only escape from this dilemma is to find a way to
increase the efficiency of spelling-sound instruction; happily, this can
be done. The key to this escape lies in the recognition that spellingsound relationships are not the basics of reading skills and knowledge.
Their acquisition can be greatly eased given proper foundation and
support, and it is to this objective that chapters 12, 13, and 14 are
The goal of chapter 12 is to clarify, through review of experimental
research, what prereaders do not automatically know and must
therefore learn about spoken language in order to understand print. As
in part II, phonological awareness emerges as a critical factor. Yet the
emphasis of the chapter is on how such awareness might best be
developed. Of special importance, when children with reading
difficulties are given training in phonological awareness, they evince
significant acceleration in reading achievement. Similarly,
preschoolers who are given training in phonological awareness evince
significant acceleration in their later acquisition of reading.
In chapter 13 the question is shifted to what prereaders must learn
about print before formal reading instruction is begun. Again as in part
II, broad text awareness and ready knowledge of letters are strongly

implicated. With focus on how such knowledge might best be

developed, the acquisition of visual letter recognition and printing
skills is considered in detail. So too is the potential value of exploring
the structure and functions of text through, for example, language
experience and book-sharing activities.
Finally, chapter 14 examines the ways in which reading skills can
grow through writing. The practice of encouraging independent
writing and spelling from the beginning of first grade is firmly
endorsed. The process of inventing spellings seems to sharpen both
children's appreciation of the phonemic structure of words and their
interest in learning about how words are conventionally spelled. For
older children a strong argument is made for encouraging attention to
correct spellings. And beyond spelling, the processes of composing,
refining, and sharing one's own written text are of invaluable
importance in helping young readers to realize that what one gets from
reading depends on what one gives to it, that reading in its only
productive sense is always a challenge in active thinking and
My conclusions are summarized in part VI. In brief, reading depends
integrally on deep and thorough knowledge of spellings and spellingsound relations. At the same time, both the use and acquisition of such
knowledge depend on the child's fuller understanding of and interest
in the reading process.