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3. Word Recognition Skills: One of Two Essential Components of Reading Comprehension

Maria S. Murray


After acknowledging the contributions of recent scientific discoveries in reading that have led to new understandings of reading processes and reading instruction, this chapter focuses on word recognition, one of the two essential components in the Simple View of Reading. The next chapter focuses on the other essential component, language comprehension. The Simple View of Reading is a model, or a representation, of how skillful reading comprehension develops. Although the Report of the National Reading Panel (NRP; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000) concluded that the best reading instruction incorporates explicit instruction in five areas (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), its purpose was to review hundreds of research studies to let instructors know the most effective evidence-based methods for teaching each. These five areas are featured in the Simple View of Reading in such a way that we can see how the subskills ultimately contribute to two essential components for skillful reading comprehension. Children require many skills and elements to gain word recognition (e.g., phoneme awareness, phonics), and many skills and elements to gain language comprehension (e.g., vocabulary). Ultimately, the ability to read words (word recognition) and understand those words (language comprehension) lead to skillful reading comprehension. Both this chapter and the next chapter present the skills, elements, and components of reading using the framework of the Simple View of Reading, and in this particular chapter, the focus is on elements that contribute to automatic word recognition. An explanation of each element’s importance is provided, along with recommendations of research-based instructional activities for each.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, readers will be able to

  1. identify the underlying elements of word recognition;
  2. identify research-based instructional activities to teach phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of irregular sight words;
  3. discuss how the underlying elements of word recognition lead to successful reading comprehension.


Throughout history, many seemingly logical beliefs have been debunked through research and science. Alchemists once believed lead could be turned into gold. Physicians once assumed the flushed red skin that occurred during a fever was due to an abundance of blood, and so the “cure” was to remove the excess using leeches (Worsley, 2011). People believed that the earth was flat, that the sun orbited the earth, and until the discovery of microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses, they believed that epidemics and plagues were caused by bad air (Byrne, 2012). One by one, these misconceptions were dispelled as a result of scientific discovery. The same can be said for misconceptions in education, particularly in how children learn to read and how they should be taught to read.1

In just the last few decades there has been a massive shift in what is known about the processes of learning to read. Hundreds of scientific studies have provided us with valuable knowledge regarding what occurs in our brains as we read. For example, we now know there are specific areas in the brain that process the sounds in our spoken words, dispelling prior beliefs that reading is a visual activity requiring memorization (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001). Also, we now know how the reading processes of students who learn to read with ease differ from those who find learning to read difficult. For example, we have learned that irregular eye movements do not cause reading difficulty. Many clever experiments (see Rayner et al., 2001) have shown that skilled readers’ eye movements during reading are smoother than struggling readers’ because they are able to read with such ease that they do not have to continually stop to figure out letters and words. Perhaps most valuable to future teachers is the fact that a multitude of studies have converged, showing us which instruction is most effective in helping people learn to read. For instance, we now know that phonics instruction that is systematic (i.e., phonics elements are taught in an organized sequence that progresses from the simplest patterns to those that are more complex) and explicit (i.e., the teacher explicitly points out what is being taught as opposed to allowing students to figure it out on their own) is most effective for teaching students to read words (NRP, 2000).

As you will learn, word recognition, or the ability to read words accurately and automatically, is a complex, multifaceted process that teachers must understand in order to provide effective instruction. Fortunately, we now know a great deal about how to teach word recognition due to important discoveries from current research. In this chapter, you will learn what research has shown to be the necessary elements for teaching the underlying skills and elements that lead to accurate and automatic word recognition, which is one of the two essential components that leads to skillful reading comprehension. In this textbook, reading comprehension is defined as “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language” (Snow, 2002, p. xiii), as well as the “capacities, abilities, knowledge, and experiences” one brings to the reading situation (p. 11).

Learning to Read Words Is a Complex Process

It used to be a widely held belief by prominent literacy theorists, such as Goodman (1967), that learning to read, like learning to talk, is a natural process. It was thought that since children learn language and how to speak just by virtue of being spoken to, reading to and with children should naturally lead to learning to read, or recognize, words. Now we know it is not natural, even though it seems that some children “pick up reading” like a bird learns to fly. The human brain is wired from birth for speech, but this is not the case for reading the printed word. This is because what we read—our alphabetic script—is an invention, only available to humankind for the last 3,800 years (Dehaene, 2009). As a result, our brains have had to accommodate a new pathway to translate the squiggles that are our letters into the sounds of our spoken words that they symbolize. This seemingly simple task is, in actuality, a complex feat.

The alphabet is an amazing invention that allows us to represent both old and new words and ideas with just a few symbols. Despite its efficiency and simplicity, the alphabet is actually the root cause of reading difficulties for many people. The letters that make up our alphabet represent phonemes—individual speech sounds—or according to Dehaene, “atoms” of spoken words (as opposed to other scripts like Chinese whereby the characters represent larger units of speech such as syllables or whole words). Individual speech sounds in spoken words (phonemes) are difficult to notice for approximately 25% to 40% of children (Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, & Beeler, 1998). In fact, for some children, the ability to notice, or become aware of the individual sounds in spoken words (phoneme awareness) proves to be one of the most difficult academic tasks they will ever encounter. If we were to ask, “How many sounds do you hear when I say ‘gum’?” some children may answer that they hear only one, because when we say the word “gum,” the sounds of /g/ /u/ and /m/ are seamless. (Note the / / marks denote the sound made by a letter.) This means that the sounds are coarticulated; they overlap and melt into each other, forming an enveloped, single unit—the spoken word “gum.” There are no crisp boundaries between the sounds when we say the word “gum.” The /g/ sound folds into the /u/ sound, which then folds into the /m/ sound, with no breaks in between.

So why the difficulty and where does much of it begin? Our speech consists of whole words, but we write those words by breaking them down into their phonemes and representing each phoneme with letters. To read and write using our alphabetic script, children must first be able to notice and disconnect each of the sounds in spoken words. They must blend the individual sounds together to make a whole word (read). And they must segment the individual sounds to represent each with alphabetic letters (spell and write). This is the first stumbling block for so many in their literacy journeys—a difficulty in phoneme awareness simply because their brains happen to be wired in such a way as to make the sounds hard to notice. Research, through the use of brain imaging and various clever experiments, has shown how the brain must “teach itself” to accommodate this alphabet by creating a pathway between multiple areas (Dehaene, 2009).

Instruction incorporating phoneme awareness is likely to facilitate successful reading (Adams et al., 1998; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), and it is for this reason that it is a focus in early school experiences. For some children, phoneme awareness, along with exposure to additional fundamentals, such as how to hold a book, the concept of a word or sentence, or knowledge of the alphabet, may be learned before formal schooling begins. In addition to having such print experiences, oral experiences such as being talked to and read to within a literacy rich environment help to set the stage for reading. Children lacking these literacy experiences prior to starting school must rely heavily on their teachers to provide them.

The Simple View of Reading and the Strands of Early Literacy Development

Teachers of reading share the goal of helping students develop skillful reading comprehension. As mentioned previously, the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) is a research-supported representation of how reading comprehension develops. It characterizes skillful reading comprehension as a combination of two separate but equally important components—word recognition skills and language comprehension ability. In other words, to unlock comprehension of text, two keys are required—being able to read the words on the page and understanding what the words and language mean within the texts children are reading (Davis, 2006). If a student cannot recognize words on the page accurately and automatically, fluency will be affected, and in turn, reading comprehension will suffer. Likewise, if a student has poor understanding of the meaning of the words, reading comprehension will suffer. Students who have success with reading comprehension are those who are skilled in both word recognition and language comprehension.

Ch 3 Figure 1
Figure 1. Strands of early literacy development. Reprinted from Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice, by H. S. Scarborough, in S. B. Newman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), 2002, Handbook of early literacy research, p. 98, Copyright 2002, New York, NY: Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission.

These two essential components of the Simple View of Reading are represented by an illustration by Scarborough (2002). In her illustration, seen in Figure 1, twisting ropes represent the underlying skills and elements that come together to form two necessary braids that represent the two essential components of reading comprehension. Although the model itself is called “simple” because it points out that reading comprehension is comprised of reading words and understanding the language of the words, in truth the two components are quite complex. Examination of Scarborough’s rope model reveals how multifaceted each is. For either of the two essential components to develop successfully, students need to be taught the elements necessary for automatic word recognition (i.e., phonological awareness, decoding, sight recognition of frequent/familiar words), and strategic language comprehension (i.e., background knowledge, vocabulary, verbal reasoning, literacy knowledge). The sections below will describe the importance of the three elements that lead to accurate word recognition and provide evidence-based instructional methods for each element. Chapter 4 in this textbook will cover the elements leading to strategic language comprehension.

Word Recognition

Word recognition is the act of seeing a word and recognizing its pronunciation immediately and without any conscious effort. If reading words requires conscious, effortful decoding, little attention is left for comprehension of a text to occur. Since reading comprehension is the ultimate goal in teaching children to read, a critical early objective is to ensure that they are able to read words with instant, automatic recognition (Garnett, 2011). What does automatic word recognition look like? Consider your own reading as an example. Assuming you are a skilled reader, it is likely that as you are looking at the words on this page, you cannot avoid reading them. It is impossible to suppress reading the words that you look at on a page. Because you have learned to instantly recognize so many words to the point of automaticity, a mere glance with no conscious effort is all it takes for word recognition to take place. Despite this word recognition that results from a mere glance at print, it is critical to understand that you have not simply recognized what the words look like as wholes, or familiar shapes. Even though we read so many words automatically and instantaneously, our brains still process every letter in the words subconsciously. This is evident when we spot misspellings. For example, when quickly glancing at the words in the familiar sentences, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack jamped over the canbleslick,” you likely spotted a problem with a few of the individual letters. Yes, you instantly recognized the words, yet at the same time you noticed the individual letters within the words that are not correct.

To teach students word recognition so that they can achieve this automaticity, students require instruction in: phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of high frequency words (e.g., “said,” “put”). Each of these elements is defined and their importance is described below, along with effective methods of instruction for each.

Phonological Awareness

One of the critical requirements for decoding, and ultimately word recognition, is phonological awareness (Snow et al., 1998). Phonological awareness is a broad term encompassing an awareness of various-sized units of sounds in spoken words such as rhymes (whole words), syllables (large parts of words), and phonemes (individual sounds). Hearing “cat” and “mat,” and being aware that they rhyme, is a form of phonological awareness, and rhyming is usually the easiest and earliest form that children acquire. Likewise, being able to break the spoken word “teacher” into two syllables is a form of phonological awareness that is more sophisticated. Phoneme awareness, as mentioned previously, is an awareness of the smallest individual units of sound in a spoken word—its phonemes; phoneme awareness is the most advanced level of phonological awareness. Upon hearing the word “sleigh,” children will be aware that there are three separate speech sounds—/s/ /l/ /ā/—despite the fact that they may have no idea what the word looks like in its printed form and despite the fact that they would likely have difficulty reading it.

Because the terms sound similar, phonological awareness is often confused with phoneme awareness. Teachers should know the difference because awareness of larger units of sound—such as rhymes and syllables—develops before awareness of individual phonemes, and instructional activities meant to develop one awareness may not be suitable for another. Teachers should also understand and remember that neither phonological awareness nor its most advanced form—phoneme awareness—has anything whatsoever to do with print or letters. The activities that are used to teach them are entirely auditory. To help remember this, simply picture that they can be performed by students if their eyes are closed. Adults can teach phonological awareness activities to a child in a car seat during a drive. The child can be told, “Say ‘cowboy.’ Now say ‘cowboy’ without saying ‘cow.'” Adults can teach phoneme awareness activities as well by asking, “What sound do you hear at the beginning of ‘sssun,’ ‘sssail,’ and ‘ssssoup’?” or, “In the word ‘snack,’ how many sounds do you hear?” or by saying, “Tell me the sounds you hear in ‘lap.'” Notice that the words would not be printed anywhere; only spoken words are required. Engaging in these game-like tasks with spoken words helps children develop the awareness of phonemes, which, along with additional instruction, will facilitate future word recognition.

Why phonological awareness is important

An abundance of research emerged in the 1970s documenting the importance of phoneme awareness (the most sophisticated form of phonological awareness) for learning to read and write (International Reading Association, 1998). Failing to develop this awareness of the sounds in spoken words leads to difficulties learning the relationship between speech and print that is necessary for learning to read (Snow et al., 1998). This difficulty can sometimes be linked to specific underlying causes, such as a lack of instructional experiences to help children develop phoneme awareness, or neurobiological differences that make developing an awareness of phonemes more difficult for some children (Rayner et al., 2001). Phoneme awareness facilitates the essential connection that is “reading”: the sequences of individual sounds in spoken words match up to sequences of printed letters on a page. To illustrate the connection between phoneme awareness and reading, picture the steps that children must perform as they are beginning to read and spell words. First, they must accurately sound out the letters, one at a time, holding them in memory, and then blend them together correctly to form a word. Conversely, when beginning to spell words, they must segment a spoken word (even if it is not audible they are still “hearing the word” in their minds) into its phonemes and then represent each phoneme with its corresponding letter(s). Therefore, both reading and spelling are dependent on the ability to segment and blend phonemes, as well as match the sounds to letters, and as stated previously, some students have great difficulty developing these skills. The good news is that these important skills can be effectively taught, which leads to a discussion about the most effective ways to teach phonological (and phoneme) awareness.

Phonological awareness instruction

The National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) report synthesized 52 experimental studies that featured instructional activities involving both phonological awareness (e.g., categorizing words similar in either initial sound or rhyme) and phoneme awareness (e.g., segmenting or blending phonemes). In this section, both will be discussed.

Figure 2. Oddity task featuring rhymes (top row) and initial sounds (bottom row). Used with permission from Microsoft.
Figure 3. Sample of an Elkonin Box featuring the word “fan.” The picture of the word eases the memory load for students as they concentrate on segmenting the individual sounds. Used with permission from Microsoft.
Figure 3. Sample of an Elkonin Box featuring the word “fan.” The picture of the word eases the memory load for students as they concentrate on segmenting the individual sounds. Used with permission from Microsoft.

A scientifically based study by Bradley and Bryant (1983) featured an activity that teaches phonological awareness and remains popular today. The activity is sorting or categorizing pictures by either rhyme or initial sound (Bradley & Bryant, 1983). As shown in Figure 2, sets of cards are shown to children that feature pictures of words that rhyme or have the same initial sound. Typically one picture does not match the others in the group, and the students must decide which the “odd” one is. For instance, pictures of a fan, can, man, and pig are identified to be sure the students know what they are. The teacher slowly pronounces each word to make sure the students clearly hear the sounds and has them point to the word that does not rhyme (match the others). This is often referred to as an “oddity task,” and it can also be done with pictures featuring the same initial sound as in key, clock, cat, and scissors (see Blachman, Ball, Black, & Tangel, 2000 for reproducible examples).

Evidence-based activities to promote phoneme awareness typically have students segment spoken words into phonemes or have them blend phonemes together to create words. In fact, the NRP (2000) identified segmenting and blending activities as the most effective when teaching phoneme awareness. This makes sense, considering that segmenting and blending are the very acts performed when spelling (segmenting a word into its individual sounds) and reading (blending letter sounds together to create a word). The NRP noted that if segmenting and blending activities eventually incorporate the use of letters, thereby allowing students to make the connection between sounds in spoken words and their corresponding letters, there is even greater benefit to reading and spelling. Making connections between sounds and their corresponding letters is the beginning of phonics instruction, which will be described in more detail below.

An activity that incorporates both segmenting and blending was first developed by a Russian psychologist named Elkonin (1963), and thus, it is often referred to as “Elkonin Boxes.” Children are shown a picture representing a three- or four-phoneme picture (such as “fan” or “lamp”) and told to move a chip for each phoneme into a series of boxes below the picture. For example, if the word is “fan,” they would say /fffff/ while moving a chip into the first box, then say /aaaaa/ while moving a chip into the second box, and so on. Both Elkonin boxes (see Figure 3) and a similar activity called “Say It and Move It” are used in the published phonological awareness training manual, Road to the Code by Blachman et al. (2000). In each activity children must listen to a word and move a corresponding chip to indicate the segmented sounds they hear, and they must also blend the sounds together to say the entire word.


Another critical component for word recognition is the ability to decode words. When teaching children to accurately decode words, they must understand the alphabetic principle and know letter-sound correspondences. When students make the connection that letters signify the sounds that we say, they are said to understand the purpose of the alphabetic code, or the “alphabetic principle.” Letter-sound correspondences are known when students can provide the correct sound for letters and letter combinations. Students can then be taught to decode, which means to blend the letter sounds together to read words. Decoding is a deliberate act in which readers must “consciously and deliberately apply their knowledge of the mapping system to produce a plausible pronunciation of a word they do not instantly recognize” (Beck & Juel, 1995, p. 9). Once a word is accurately decoded a few times, it is likely to become recognized without conscious deliberation, leading to efficient word recognition.

The instructional practices teachers use to teach students how letters (e.g., i, r, x) and letter clusters (e.g., sh, oa, igh) correspond to the sounds of speech in English is called phonics (not to be confused with phoneme awareness). For example, a teacher may provide a phonics lesson on how “p” and “h” combine to make /f/ in “phone,” and “graph.” After all, the alphabet is a code that symbolizes speech sounds, and once students are taught which sound(s) each of the symbols (letters) represents, they can successfully decode written words, or “crack the code.”

Why decoding is important

Similar to phonological awareness, neither understanding the alphabetic principle nor knowledge of letter-sound correspondences come naturally. Some children are able to gain insights about the connections between speech and print on their own just from exposure and rich literacy experiences, while many others require instruction. Such instruction results in dramatic improvement in word recognition (Boyer & Ehri, 2011). Students who understand the alphabetic principle and have been taught letter-sound correspondences, through the use of phonological awareness and letter-sound instruction, are well-prepared to begin decoding simple words such as “cat” and “big” accurately and independently. These students will have high initial accuracy in decoding, which in itself is important since it increases the likelihood that children will willingly engage in reading, and as a result, word recognition will progress. Also, providing students effective instruction in letter-sound correspondences and how to use those correspondences to decode is important because the resulting benefits to word recognition lead to benefits in reading comprehension (Brady, 2011).

Decoding instruction

Teaching children letter-sound correspondences and how to decode may seem remarkably simple and straightforward. Yet teaching them well enough and early enough so that children can begin to read and comprehend books independently is influenced by the kind of instruction that is provided. There are many programs and methods available for teaching students to decode, but extensive evidence exists that instruction that is both systematic and explicit is more effective than instruction that is not (Brady, 2011; NRP, 2000).

As mentioned previously, systematic instruction features a logical sequence of letters and letter combinations beginning with those that are the most common and useful, and ending with those that are less so. For example, knowing the letter “s” is more useful in reading and spelling than knowing “j” because it appears in more words. Explicit instruction is direct; the teacher is straightforward in pointing out the connections between letters and sounds and how to use them to decode words and does not leave it to the students to figure out the connections on their own from texts. The notable findings of the NRP (2000) regarding systematic and explicit phonics instruction include that its influence on reading is most substantial when it is introduced in kindergarten and first grade, it is effective in both preventing and remediating reading difficulties, it is effective in improving both the ability to decode words as well as reading comprehension in younger children, and it is helpful to children from all socioeconomic levels. It is worth noting here that effective phonics instruction in the early grades is important so that difficulties with decoding do not persist for students in later grades. When this happens, it is often noticeable when students in middle school or high school struggle to decode unfamiliar, multisyllabic words.

When providing instruction in letter-sound correspondences, we should avoid presenting them in alphabetical order. Instead, it is more effective to begin with high utility letters such as “a, m, t, i, s, d, r, f, o, g, l” so that students can begin to decode dozens of words featuring these common letters (e.g., mat, fit, rag, lot). Another reason to avoid teaching letter-sound correspondences in alphabetical order is to prevent letter-sound confusion. Letter confusion occurs in similarly shaped letters (e.g., b/d, p/q, g/p) because in day-to-day life, changing the direction or orientation of an object such as a purse or a vacuum does not change its identity—it remains a purse or a vacuum. Some children do not understand that for certain letters, their position in space can change their identity. It may take a while for children to understand that changing the direction of letter b will make it into letter d, and that these symbols are not only called different things but also have different sounds. Until students gain experience with print—both reading and writing—confusions are typical and are not due to “seeing letters backward.” Nor are confusions a “sign” of dyslexia, which is a type of reading problem that causes difficulty with reading and spelling words (International Dyslexia Association, 2015). Students with dyslexia may reverse letters more often when they read or spell because they have fewer experiences with print—not because they see letters backward. To reduce the likelihood of confusion, teach the /d/ sound for “d” to the point that the students know it consistently, before introducing letter “b.”

To introduce the alphabetic principle, the Elkonin Boxes or “Say It and Move It” activities described above can be adapted to include letters on some of the chips. For example, the letter “n” can be printed on a chip and when students are directed to segment the words “nut,” “man,” or “snap,” they can move the “n” chip to represent which sound (e.g., the first, second, or last) is /n/. As letter-sound correspondences are taught, children should begin to decode by blending them together to form real words (Blachman & Tangel, 2008).

For many students, blending letter sounds together is difficult. Some may experience letter-by-letter distortion when sounding out words one letter at a time. For example, they may read “mat” as muh-a-tuh, adding the “uh” sound to the end of consonant sounds. To prevent this, letter sounds should be taught in such a way to make sure the student does not add the “uh” sound (e.g., “m” should be learned as /mmmm/ not /muh/, “r” should be learned as /rrrr/ not /ruh/). To teach students how to blend letter sounds together to read words, it is helpful to model (see Blachman & Murray, 2012). Begin with two letter words such as “at.” Write the two letters of the word separated by a long line: a_______t. Point to the “a” and demonstrate stretching out the short /a/ sound—/aaaa/ as you move your finger to the “t” to smoothly connect the /a/ to the /t/. Repeat this a few times, decreasing the length of the line/time between the two sounds until you pronounce it together: /at/. Gradually move on to three letter words such as “sad” by teaching how to blend the initial consonant with the vowel sound (/sa/) then adding the final consonant. It is helpful at first to use continuous sounds in the initial position (e.g., /s/, /m/, /l/) because they can be stretched and held longer than a “stop consonant” (e.g., /b/, /t/, /g/).

An excellent activity featured in many scientifically-based research studies that teaches students to decode a word thoroughly and accurately by paying attention to all of the sounds in words rather than guessing based on the initial sounds is word building using a pocket chart with letter cards (see examples in Blachman & Tangel). Have students begin by building a word such as “pan” using letter cards p, a, and n. (These can be made using index cards cut into four 3″ x 1.25″ sections. It is helpful to draw attention to the vowels by making them red as they are often difficult to remember and easily confused). Next, have them change just one sound in “pan” to make a new word: “pat.” The sequence of words may continue with just one letter changing at a time: panpatratsatsitsiptiptaprap. The student will begin to understand that they must listen carefully to which sound has changed (which helps their phoneme awareness) and that all sounds in a word are important. As new phonics elements are taught, the letter sequences change accordingly. For example, a sequence featuring consonant blends and silent-e may look like this: slim—slime—slide—glide—glade—blade—blame—shame—sham. Many decoding programs that feature strategies based on scientifically-based research include word building and provide samples ranging from easy, beginning sequences to those that are more advanced (Beck & Beck, 2013; Blachman & Tangel, 2008).

A final important point to mention with regard to decoding is that teachers must consider what makes words (or texts) decodable in order to allow for adequate practice of new decoding skills. When letters in a word conform to common letter-sound correspondences, the word is decodable because it can be sounded out, as opposed to words containing “rule breaker” letters and sounds that are in words like “colonel” and “of.” The letter-sound correspondences and phonics elements that have been learned must be considered. For example, even though the letters in the word “shake” conform to common pronunciations, if a student has not yet learned the sound that “sh” makes, or the phonics rule for a long vowel when there is a silent “e,” this particular word is not decodable for that child. Teachers should refrain from giving children texts featuring “ship” or “shut” to practice decoding skills until they have been taught the sound of /sh/. Children who have only been taught the sounds of /s/ and /h/ may decode “shut” /s/ /h/ /u/ /t/, which would not lead to high initial accuracy and may lead to confusion.

Sight Word Recognition

The third critical component for successful word recognition is sight word recognition. A small percentage of words cannot be identified by deliberately sounding them out, yet they appear frequently in print. They are “exceptions” because some of their letters do not follow common letter-sound correspondences. Examples of such words are “once,” “put,” and “does.” (Notice that in the word “put,” however, that only the vowel makes an exception sound, unlike the sound it would make in similar words such as “gut,” “rut,” or “but.”) As a result of the irregularities, exception words must be memorized; sounding them out will not work.

Since these exception words must often be memorized as a visual unit (i.e., by sight), they are frequently called “sight words,” and this leads to confusion among teachers. This is because words that occur frequently in print, even those that are decodable (e.g., “in,” “will,” and “can”), are also often called “sight words.” Of course it is important for these decodable, highly frequent words to be learned early (preferably by attending to their sounds rather than just by memorization), right along with the others that are not decodable because they appear so frequently in the texts that will be read. For the purposes of this chapter, sight words are familiar, high frequency words that must be memorized because they have irregular spellings and cannot be perfectly decoded.

Why sight word recognition is important

One third of beginning readers’ texts are mostly comprised of familiar, high frequency words such as “the” and “of,” and almost half of the words in print are comprised of the 100 most common words (Fry, Kress, & Fountoukidis, 2000). It is no wonder that these words need to be learned to the point of automaticity so that smooth, fluent word recognition and reading can take place.

Interestingly, skilled readers who decode well tend to become skilled sight word “recognizers,” meaning that they learn irregular sight words more readily than those who decode with difficulty (Gough & Walsh, 1991). This reason is because as they begin learning to read, they are taught to be aware of phonemes, they learn letter-sound correspondences, and they put it all together to begin decoding while practicing reading books. While reading a lot of books, they are repeatedly exposed to irregularly spelled, highly frequent sight words, and as a result of this repetition, they learn sight words to automaticity. Therefore, irregularly spelled sight words can be learned from wide, independent reading of books. However, children who struggle learning to decode do not spend a lot of time practicing reading books, and therefore, do not encounter irregularly spelled sight words as often. These students will need more deliberate instruction and additional practice opportunities.

Sight word recognition instruction

Teachers should notice that the majority of letters in many irregularly spelled words do in fact follow regular sound-symbol pronunciations (e.g., in the word “from” only the “o” is irregular), and as a result attending to the letters and sounds can often lead to correct pronunciation. That is why it is still helpful to teach students to notice all letters in words to anchor them in memory, rather than to encourage “guess reading” or “looking at the first letter,” which are both highly unreliable strategies as anyone who has worked with young readers will attest. Interestingly, Tunmer and Chapman (2002) discovered that beginning readers who read unknown words by “sounding them out” outperformed children who employed strategies such as guessing, looking at the pictures, rereading the sentence on measures of word reading and reading comprehension, at the end of their first year in school and at the middle of their third year in school.

Other than developing sight word recognition from wide, independent reading of books or from exposure on classroom word walls, instruction in learning sight words is similar to instruction used to learn letter-sound correspondences. Sources of irregularly spelled sight words can vary. For instance, they can be preselected from the text that will be used for that day’s reading instruction. Lists of irregularly spelled sight words can be found in reading programs or on the Internet (search for Fry lists or Dolch lists). When using such lists, determine which words are irregularly spelled because they will also feature highly frequent words that can be decoded, such as “up,” and “got.” These do not necessarily need deliberate instructional time because the students will be able to read them using their knowledge of letters and sounds.

Regardless of the source, sight words can be practiced using flash cards or word lists, making sure to review those that have been previously taught to solidify deep learning. Gradual introduction of new words into the card piles or lists should include introduction such as pointing out features that may help learning and memorization (e.g., “where” and “there” both have a tall letter “h” which can be thought of as an arrow or road sign pointing to where or there). Sets of words that share patterns can be taught together (e.g., “would,” “could,” and “should”). Games such as Go Fish, Bingo, or Concentration featuring cards with these words can build repetition and exposure, and using peer-based learning, students can do speed drills with one another and record scores.

Any activity requiring the students to spell the words aloud is also helpful. I invented an activity that I call “Can You Match It?” in which peers work together to practice a handful of sight words. An envelope or flap is taped across the top of a small dry erase board. One student chooses a card, tells the partner what the word is, and then places the card inside the envelope or flap so that it is not visible. The student with the dry erase board writes the word on the section of board that is not covered by the envelope, then opens the envelope to see if their spelling matches the word on the card. The ultimate goal in all of these activities is to provide a lot of repetition and practice so that highly frequent, irregularly spelled sight words become words students can recognize with just a glance.

Word Recognition Summary

As seen in the above section, in order for students to achieve automatic and effortless word recognition, three important underlying elements—phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondences for decoding, and sight recognition of irregularly spelled familiar words—must be taught to the point that they too are automatic. Word recognition, the act of seeing a word and recognizing its pronunciation without conscious effort, is one of the two critical components in the Simple View of Reading that must be achieved to enable successful reading comprehension. The other component is language comprehension, which will be discussed in Chapter 4. Both interact to form the skilled process that is reading comprehension. Because they are so crucial to reading, reading comprehension is likened to a two-lock box, with both “key” components needed to open it (Davis, 2006).

The two essential components in the Simple View of Reading, automatic word recognition and strategic language comprehension, contribute to the ultimate goal of teaching reading: skilled reading comprehension. According to Garnett (2011), fluent execution of the underlying elements as discussed in this chapter involves “teaching…accompanied by supported and properly framed interactive practice” (p. 311). When word recognition becomes effortless and automatic, conscious effort is no longer needed to read the words, and instead it can be devoted to comprehension of the text. Accuracy and effortlessness, or fluency, in reading words serves to clear the way for successful reading comprehension.

It is easy to see how success in the three elements that lead to automatic word recognition are prerequisite to reading comprehension. Learning to decode and to automatically read irregularly spelled sight words can prevent the development of reading problems. Students who are successful in developing effortless word recognition have an easier time reading, and this serves as a motivator to young readers, who then proceed to read a lot. Students who struggle with word recognition find reading laborious, and this serves as a barrier to young readers, who then may be offered fewer opportunities to read connected text or avoid reading as much as possible because it is difficult. Stanovich (1986) calls this disparity the “Matthew Effects” of reading, where the rich get richer—good readers read more and become even better readers and poor readers lose out. Stanovich (1986) also points out an astonishing quote from Nagy and Anderson (1984, p. 328): “the least motivated children in the middle grades might read 100,000 words a year while the average children at this level might read 1,000,000. The figure for the voracious middle grade reader might be 10,000,000 or even as high as 50,000,000.” Imagine the differences in word and world knowledge that result from reading 100,000 words a year versus millions! As teachers, it is worthwhile to keep these numbers in mind to remind us of the importance of employing evidence-based instructional practices to ensure that all students learn phoneme awareness, decoding, and sight word recognition—the elements necessary for learning how to succeed in word recognition.


In order for students to comprehend text while reading, it is vital that they be able to read the words on the page. Teachers who are aware of the importance of the essential, fundamental elements which lead to successful word recognition—phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of irregular words—are apt to make sure to teach their students each of these so that their word reading becomes automatic, accurate, and effortless. Today’s teachers are fortunate to have available to them a well-established bank of research and instructional activities that they can access in order to facilitate word recognition in their classrooms.

The Simple View of Reading’s two essential components, automatic word recognition and strategic language comprehension, combine to allow for skilled reading comprehension. Students who can both recognize the words on the page and understand the language of the words and sentences are much more likely to enjoy the resulting advantage of comprehending the meaning of the texts that they read.

Questions and Activities

  1. List the two main components of the simple view of reading, and explain their importance in developing reading comprehension.
  2. Explain the underlying elements of word recognition. How does each contribute to successful reading comprehension?
  3. Discuss instructional activities that are helpful for teaching phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of irregularly spelled, highly frequent words.
  4. View the following video showing a student named Nathan who has difficulty with word recognition: (Rsogren, 2008). Which of the underlying elements of word recognition (e.g., phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondences, decoding) do you believe may be at the root of this student’s difficulties? How might you develop a new instructional plan to address these difficulties?


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1: For detailed information on scientifically-based research in education, see Chapter 2 by Munger in this volume. Return