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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.