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One Down and 80,000 to Go: Word Recognition Instruction in the Primary Grades

Connie Juel & Cecilia Minden-Cupp


In the focus groups conducted in preparation for the CIERA grant, teachers and administrators raised more questions about how to teach children to read words than any other issue in early reading. They expressed concern over which, and how many, strategies for word recognition teachers should model for first-grade children. Should teachers, for example, ask children to "sound-out" words, focus on the visual array of letters by spelling the word, try to make an analogy to a key word on the word wall, emphasize what makes sense, or some combination of such strategies? What word unit should receive the most emphasis—the word (e.g., "hat"); the onset and rime (e.g., /h/ and "at"); or individual letter-sounds in words (e.g., /h/, /a/, /t/)? How much emphasis should word recognition activities receive in the their total language arts programs? They wanted answers to both the nitty-gritty issues involved in word recognition instruction and to questions of how to balance such instruction in the broader picture of literacy.

We expect much of children and their teachers in the early grades. Learning to read is difficult. It depends upon both learning to read words and having the background knowledge of concepts and the world to understand text. The sheer volume of words that children are expected to read quickly and accurately is daunting. According to Carroll, Davies, and Richman (1971) and Adams (1990), children will be expected to recognize and know well over 80,000 different words by the end of third grade. This means that they must be able to recognize these words and know their meanings. While the emphasis is squarely on developing word recognition skill in the very early grades, we must also prepare children for the avalanche of concepts and information they will be expected to understand. Research indicates that early school development of vocabulary and world knowledge is especially critical for children who come from impoverished homes (Snow, 1999).

We know that one route to learning vocabulary and world knowledge is through reading: Children who learn to read early on read considerably more than their peers who are still struggling to decode, and through reading they learn things that increase their text comprehension (Juel, 1994; Stanovich, 1986). Reading itself helps students gain both world knowledge and word recognition skill. Once a child can read enough words to independently enter the world of books, additional words are learned as a consequence of seeing them several times in print (Reitsma, 1990; Share, 1995). Thus, the critical question is how teachers can help children gain enough skill to successfully enter this world so that, in a sense, children can read enough to become their own teachers.

Word recognition must become something children can do on their own, because they will quickly be expected to read words they have never before seen in print. Only a few thousand words usually receive direct instruction in the primary grades. It would be impossible to directly teach children all the words they will encounter in print. It is also impossible to directly teach children all the letter-sound correspondences that they will need to be able to "sound out" novel words. Even the most comprehensive phonics programs rarely provide direct instruction for more than about 90 phonics "rules." Yet, over 500 different spelling-sound "rules" are needed to read (Gough & Juel, 1990; Juel, 1994).

The focus of this first year of a five-year CIERA study was to closely examine language arts instruction as it naturally occurred in four classrooms. We were especially interested in the form of word recognition instruction and how different types of instruction appeared to affect students with different early literacy foundations. Our goal in this first-year study was to identify specific instructional practices that appear to best foster learning to read words for particular profiles of children. We also wanted to see how this instruction was embedded in the language arts curriculum.


We began by identifying four first-grade teachers who had considerable classroom experience, were considered good teachers by their principals, and taught at schools with similar demographics. The two schools were located in nearby neighborhoods in a city in the southeastern United States. In each school, approximately 70% of the children qualify for subsidized lunch, 60% of the children are African-American, 36% are Caucasian, and 4% are from other ethnic groups. We observed the language arts instruction in each of these four classrooms each week, for at least one hour. We used laptop computers to write running narratives of what was going on in the classroom during language arts. Observers focused on the activities, reading materials, strategies teachers taught students for identifying words, and units of word instruction (e.g., whole words, phonograms). These observations were later analyzed in various ways. We coded and tallied, for example, the frequency of occurrence of specific activities, and looked qualitatively at the form of teacher-child interactions.

To try to determine how instruction affected children’s growth in reading, we assessed the children in September, December, and May on several measures. We assessed the children on factors that influence word learning, including phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, concept of word, and letter-sound knowledge. We assessed the children on their ability to read both words on a standardized measure and words on which they had received direct instruction in the classroom. We assessed the children on their ability to read and understand passages. And, in December and May, we used a think-aloud procedure to help determine what strategies children actually applied as they identified words in isolation and in passages.


Each classroom had no more than 17 students and had three reading groups. However, considerable variation was found in instructional practices among the four classrooms.

Classroom 1 was the most traditional of the classrooms. Reading groups frequently were conducted in a round robin fashion and, especially during the second semester, the reading material was an old basal reading series. Compared to the other three classrooms, there was a lot of similarity in what children did in their reading groups. While they did not read the same materials, they often followed similar styles of reading (e.g., round robin reading) and were often assigned the same writing tasks.

Word recognition instruction in classroom 1 occurred primarily through a whole-class word wall activity. The letters in the new words were chanted and each word was written several times by each child. In all three reading groups, there was relatively little attention paid to word units other than initial consonants and whole words. The teacher was never observed modeling sounding and blending units within words. Primary word recognition strategies were to consider meaning, to predict, to reread, to spell the word, and to look on the word wall. If a child struggled to read a word, the teacher frequently told the child the word.

The teacher in classroom 2 made up for the relatively small number of books for very beginning readers—a problem all teachers in the study faced—by creating many charts and individual little books. Typically, a poem appeared on a chart, and after a reading group read the chart, each child was provided a copy of the poem in the form of a little book. Classroom teacher 2 made considerable use of manipulable materials in phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Children in the low and middle groups frequently sorted word cards into categories based on spelling patterns or sorted picture cards on the basis of sounds. Instruction in the three reading groups, however, was tailored to the specific needs of children in the group. Children in the low group in classroom 2 were provided considerable modeling by their teacher as to how to chunk words into their component units. In general, these units were onsets and rimes. Such units were natural ones, given the extensive use of poetry in the classroom. This teacher was also fairly insistent that children finger point to words as they read.

Classroom 3 was packed with trade books. We saw considerably more discussion of texts and the meaning of what was read in classroom 3 than we did in classrooms 1 or 2. Children in all reading groups spent considerable time writing both individual texts and journals. Children in the low group also engaged in several language experience writing activities. Classroom teacher 3 relied heavily on peer coaching to facilitate word recognition. When a child in a reading group could not identify a word, other children in the group were encouraged to provide a clue. There were suggested clues (e.g., reread, sound it out, see if it makes sense, look at the word wall). But the children were encouraged to provide any clues they thought would help. There was relatively little direct phonics instruction in classroom 3. What phonics there was came as it fell out of the trade books. In other words, there wasn’t a preset curriculum; rather, the teacher took advantage of a word in a book to highlight a spelling pattern.

Classroom teacher 4 was clearly the most phonics oriented of the four teachers. She was also the most adamant about the behavior of her students. Instruction differed considerably between her reading groups. During the fall semester, the low group engaged in many phonics activities, especially sorting word cards into categories based on spelling patterns. In contrast, the high group spent very little time on phonics activities and a lot of time reading text. Classroom teacher 4 showed the most change in her instructional practices between the fall and spring semester in all three of her reading groups. In the spring semester, the children in each group were considerably more involved in discussions of both vocabulary and the texts they read than they had been during the fall.

While classroom teacher 4 spent considerable time in phonics with her low reading group, this activity was nearly finished by the end of February. Her phonics curriculum was highly sequenced. She spent considerable time on consonants and phonograms in the fall. She spent considerable time in the winter contrasting short and long vowel phonogram patterns (e.g., "an" versus "ain" words). Classroom teacher 4 helped children segment words into chunks, modeled sounding and blending phonemes, and modeled combining what made sense with known letter-sounds. Like classroom teacher 2, she was especially insistent during the fall semester that children finger point to words as they read.

The differences in instructional practices among the four classrooms appeared to be related to growth in reading on all our measures. An analysis of covariance (adjusting for pre-existing literacy differences in September), for example, indicated significant classroom differences on passage reading in May. Follow-up pairwise contrasts indicated that children’s reading achievement in every classroom was significantly different from that in every other classroom: On average, children in classroom 1 were reading at a primer level; children in classroom 2 were reading at an end-of-first grade level; children in classroom 3 were reading on a mid second-grade level; and children in classroom 4 were reading on a late second-grade level.

When looking at how reading groups fared within and across classrooms, however, there was an interesting interaction. Children in the low groups across the four classrooms showed no significant differences on measures in September, but their reading achievement in May was quite different. All the children in the low reading group in classroom 4 were reading at or near an end-of-first grade level in May. In second place were the children in classroom 2. In last place, and barely able to read, were the children in classroom 3. In contrast, a child in the middle or high group—a child who entered first grade with at least "middle" range literacy skills (e.g., alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness)—was likely to make exceptional growth in reading during the year if they were in classroom 3! Nine children who entered classroom 3 with literacy skills in the middle range exited with reading skill one standard deviation above the mean.


Children who entered first grade with the weakest knowledge of the alphabet, phonemic awareness, and other early literacy foundations were most likely to be on-grade-level readers at the end of first grade if they were in a reading group which had a structured phonics format until February and in which a "no nonsense" approach to discipline was taken. They benefited from teacher modeled strategies of segmenting words into chunks (e.g., onset and rime) and, going a step further, sounding and blending the individual phonemes in those chunks. After they knew many letter-sound relationships, they benefited from instruction that modeled how to combine known letter-sounds with what makes sense to identify an unknown word in text. Peer coaching in word recognition strategies proved a disaster for children with few incoming literacy skills. Once children reached a beginning primer reading level, however, they benefited from the same extensive reading, discussion of the vocabulary in the texts, and discussion about the meaning of the texts that was successful with children who entered first grade with higher literacy levels.

Children who entered first grade with minimal reading skill seemed to have greatest success with the following classroom practices:

1. Teachers modeled word recognition strategies by: a) chunking of words into component units such as syllables, onset/rimes, or finding little words in big ones; b) sound and blending individual phonemes; c) considering known letter-sounds and what makes contextual sense.

2. The children were encouraged to finger point to words as text was read.

3. Children used manipulable materials to actively compare and contrast words
(e.g., pocket charts for sorting of picture cards by sound and word cards by spelling pattern).

4. Instruction groups were small with lesson plans designed to meet the specific needs of each child within that group.

While our first year study is suggestive of what instructional practices facilitate children’s word recognition skill, we are currently following up with a larger scale longitudinal study. Concurrent with the study reported here, we collected a wide range of data on over 200 preschool children (e.g., oral vocabulary, visual memory). These children went on to attend kindergarten at three elementary schools which have quite different curricula. We have regularly observed the children in their classrooms and will continue to do so until they exit third grade. We are hopeful that this broad scale picture will enable us to see how early characteristics of children and their classrooms combine with their later reading skills and instructional experiences to create accomplished readers.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Carroll, J. B., Davies, P., & Richman, B. (1971). Word frequency book. New York: American Heritage.

Gough, P. B.,& Juel, C. (1990, April). Does phonics teach the cipher? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston.

Juel, C. (1994). Learning to read and write in one elementary school. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Reitsma, P.(1990). Development of orthographic knowledge. In P. Reitsma & L. Verhoeven (Eds.), Acquisition of reading in Dutch (pp. 43?64). Dordrecht: Foris.

Share, D. L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55, 151-218.

Snow, C. E. (1999, May). Why the home is so important in learning to read. Paper presented at the George Graham Lecture in Reading, Charlottesville, VA.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the development of reading fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-406.

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Last Updated 8-7-03