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Phonics, Decoding and Word Identification Defined

Reading, like listening, speaking, and writing, is a facet of communication. Reading and writing build on the wealth of oral language skills that children begin developing long before they enter school (Loban, 1963; Sticht & James, 1984; Strickland & Feeley, 1991). Oral and written language share many common features: the same vocabulary, the same grammar and syntax, and similar purposes. However, to construct meaning from the printed language (reading) and to use printed language to convey a message (writing), students must be able to recognize in print the language that they use orally (Mason, Herman, & Au, 1991). This ability is referred to as word identification, though some writers use the term decoding (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985; Williams, 1985).

In effect, written language is a code that stands for oral language. Beginning readers must become familiar with the printed code in order to equate it with oral language. Young children can understand and enjoy a book if someone reads the text to them; however, in order to understand and enjoy the book on their own, they must learn to recognize printed words as the equivalent of what was read to them (Sticht & James, 1984). To gain this ability to appreciate written text independently, a child must develop word identification, or decoding, skills (Mason et al., 1991; Johnson & Baumann, 1984).

The Differences Between Word Identification and Phonics

The terms word identification and decoding are broader than phonics. Using phonics is only one of several important approaches to identifying words. Other clues include the grammar and syntax of a sentence, meaning (semantic) clues, word parts (prefixes, suffixes, base words), and familiarity with similar words (analogy) (Adams, 1990; Anderson et al., 1985; Mason et al., 1991).

As an example, consider this sentence: “The _______ ran to meet his dad, who picked him up and spun him around.” The first clue that the children might use to identify the missing word involves syntax; while they do not know formal rules of grammar, their implicit understanding of oral language helps them know the missing word is a noun. Another clue comes from the meaning of the other words in the sentence; the word his and the information that he’s picked up by a dad strongly suggest that the missing word might be something like boy or lad or son. If the letters b-o-y were in the sentence, and if the readers knew the sounds typically associated with the letter b and the combination oy, the word would become even clearer. Finally, children who had already seen the word boy in print many times would probably recognize it quickly, without much analysis, in this sentence.

Phonics works in harmony with other language-cuing systems to help children identify a printed word (Johnson & Baumann, 1984). Syntax and meaning clues often help predict what the word will be (Francis, 1977); phonics and word parts help to specify the word; word identification skills work together to confirm that the choice is the best one and that it makes sense.

When to Begin Phonics Instruction

The evidence is clear. Numerous research reports (Adams, 1990; Anderson et al., 1985; Chall, 1967; Johnson & Baumann, 1984; Williams, 1985) suggest that phonics instruction improves beginning reading achievement and also helps children learn to write and spell.

Certainly there are children who learn to read early and in such a natural manner that they require little or no direct phonics instruction (Clarke, 1976; Durkin, 1966; Pikulski & Tobin, 1988). For most children, however, the research clearly shows that early, direct instruction in phonics results in superior reading achievement (Anderson et al., 1985; Chall, 1967). This does not mean, though, that each phonic element is taught separately, or in isolation. In order for children to understand and enjoy what they read, they must combine phonics and other word identification skills into an effective word identification strategy. They must also have many opportunities to apply the knowledge they are developing about phonics to functional reading and writing (Adams, 1990).

If we define phonics as the ability to associate letters with sounds, then any instruction that focuses young children’s attention on letters or sounds begins to build phonic awareness. In this sense, phonics skills can be taught as part of children’s earliest school experience.

As children look at the print the teacher points to during the shared reading of a big book, they build a greater familiarity with the letters that form words. As children listen to rhymes, they become familiar with the sounds of words (Mason et al., 1991) and grow in their appreciation of the joys and purposes of reading. Soon they are ready to profit from direct instruction on the relationship between specific letters and sounds (Ehri, 1991). They are ready to learn, for example, that the letter “s” at the beginning of a word cues the sound heard at the beginning of the words Sam, sit, sing, silly, and soap.

Research also shows that children must be taught when and how those skills should be applied (Adams, 1990; Juel & Roper/Schneider, 1985). Phonics instruction can begin as early as kindergarten, as long as the children have an appreciation of the functions of print and books, are familiar with printed letters, and understand that spoken words are composed of sounds (Allen & Mason, 1989; Crowell, Kawakaki, & Wong, 1986).

Word Identification Strategies and Skills

As noted above, there is substantial evidence to suggest that word identification skills should be taught directly rather than waiting for children to discover them on their own and that such skills should be taught early. The research also indicates that effective readers are also strategic; that is, they learn how and when to use combinations of word identification skills (Adams, 1990; Anderson et al., 1985).

Children who overuse context clues and fail to attend to letter-sound associations may misidentify words, and that could cause them difficulty in constructing meaning for a passage (Simon & Leu, 1987). Conversely, children who do not effectively use meaning clues often sound out nonsense words or are so slow and laborious in word identification that they cannot simultaneously draw meaning from the words that they are reading (Biemiller, 1970; Samuels, 1985). Only when children are taught a combination strategy for quickly and accurately identifying words do they move toward becoming efficient, effective readers.

Learning Word Identification Strategies and Skills

In a literature-based reading program, skills and strategies are learned in part from the reading of authentic literature. In addition, the literature is used for modeling strategies and skills, enabling developing readers to see the relationship between the skills and strategies and the literature (Bridge, Winograd, & Haley, 1983; Trachtenburg, 1990).

In the earliest stages of instruction, the shared reading model is the framework for teaching word identification skills. After a selection has been shared to promote interest and comprehension, it is read again with a focus on language patterns, including elements such as repetition, rhyme, and sentence patterns. These elements provide important clues to word identification. The selection may be shared another time to allow children to focus on interesting words; these words serve as the starting point for directly teaching decoding skills (Holdaway, 1980).

As children begin to read more independently, continued practice with authentic literature provides many opportunities to strengthen word identification skills (Bridge et al., 1983). With varying levels of support, such as teacher-guided reading, cooperative reading, or independent reading, children are encouraged to practice these skills in more challenging texts.

Fluency in Word Identification

Fluency refers to the rapid, efficient, accurate identification of written text. Oral reading that is reasonably accurate, is expressive, and is accomplished at an appropriate rate is a good indication of strong word identification skills (Anderson et al., 1985; Samuels, 1985). Fluent readers, however, frequently make some substitutions, omissions, or additions of words while reading orally. Minor changes do not affect the reader’s ability to construct reasonable meaning from the text and do not require correction (Anderson, Everson, & Brophy, 1979; Hoffman, O’Neal, Kastler, Clements, Segel, & Nash, 1984). If fluent readers misidentify a word so that it adversely affects the meaning of the text, they are likely to detect the disruption and correct the error themselves (Au, 1977; Clay, 1969; Weber, 1970).

While there are many activities that can be used to help children develop reading fluency, the following seem particularly noteworthy:

Repeated Readings

Schreiber (1980), Samuels (1979), and Pflaum and Pascarella (1980) all present evidence that repeated readings of a text build fluency for that text and other selections as well, by promoting familiarity with the visual forms of words that will appear in other contexts. The process is cumulative: The more familiar words children encounter, the more likely they are to draw meaning from the text, which, in turn, strengthens their ability to figure out still more words. This growing familiarity with words in print facilitates more rapid fluent reading. For young children, shared reading provides an effective vehicle for improving word identification through repetition.

Extensive Independent Reading

Independently reading a large number of texts promotes student progress in reading (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988; Ingham, 1981; Taylor, Frye, & Maruyama, 1990). Children who read widely build familiarity with the printed forms of many words, particularly those words that occur over and over again in printed language. These words, often referred to as high-frequency words, represent a large proportion of the words in beginning reading materials, and many of them are difficult to recognize in print through the use of phonics (e.g., the, was, to). Children who can recognize these words rapidly and effortlessly are more likely to read a passage fluently.

Familiarity with Written Language

While there are enormous similiarities between written and oral language, there are some subtle differences. For example, written language tends to be more formal, to be less redundant, and to use more sophisticated vocabulary. As noted earlier, language clues play an important part in an effective, fluent word identification strategy (Adams, 1990; Johnson & Baumann, 1984). The best way to help young children become familiar with the structure of written language is to read aloud to them; the resulting positive effects on children’s reading achievement have been well documented (Adams, 1990; Anderson et al., 1985).

The Role of Oral Reading

There is good evidence that in order to build fluency, children need to engage in reading large amounts of meaningful text (Anderson et al., 1988; Taylor et al.,1990). Many young children enjoy reading aloud and can practice with a partner or in small groups to achieve greater fluency (Anderson et al., 1985).

As children begin reading longer stories, it may be too time-consuming for them to read whole selections orally. With older students a primary function of oral reading should be to defend positions that they take in discussions about the selections they have read; they read aloud to prove points.

Children at all grade levels can be encouraged to read aloud sections from books they are reading independently. As they read to peers, groups of classmates, or the whole class, they advertise the book and encourage others to read it (Allington, 1984; Anderson et al., 1985).

Oral reading also serves as a very valuable source of assessment information for teachers and for students themselves. As they read aloud, students become aware of any word identification problems and look for ways to correct them. By listening to a student’s oral reading, a teacher can gain valuable insights into the student’s word identification strategies and the degree of that student’s fluency.