Word Recognition

When I think of how children learn word recognition, I reflect back to learning how to drive a car. As a young adult, I had a clear vision of my purpose and goal. I had years of previous experience watching my parents model this complex task, along with joyful tag alongs with friends. I had the expertise of a patient instructor in driver school who ensured my goal was achieved. And I had recently acquired my first teaching job one hour away from my home. What perfect conditions to finally learn how to drive!

Many isolated skills and pieces of knowledge were needed along the way. For me, smooth gear shifting and accurate parallel parking seemed to require extra coaching. But most of all I just needed to drive – on new roads, busy highways and in unfamiliar neighbourhoods. Each driving session provided different opportunities to integrate all my knowledge and skill to make decisions, solve problems and have fun along the way.

Teaching word recognition with our emerging readers is much the same. Regardless of the instructional program, philosophy or learning activity used, children will learn isolated skills and pieces of knowledge about how words work. What is essential however, is helping our young learners understand how to apply and transfer their growing repertoire to make decisions, solve problems and have fun along the way. Real reading experiences that require flexible use of work work skills and knowledge is our ultimate goal.

Drivers must constantly monitor and self-correct as road conditions (and other drivers) vary. So must readers, who notice, adjust and alter techniques. Drivers and readers interpret many clues, and integrate skills and knowledge automatically or thoughtfully. And of course this depends on the circumstances (context) and previous experiences.

Keeping our instructional focus on the road ahead helps our students become independent, self-determined readers. In other words, an essential transfer goal of word recognition is suggested: To build, apply and integrate a repertoire of word recognition techniques.

We want students to understand that various techniques may be used to identify a word (meaning, visual and structural/sound information). We want students to understand that good readers simultaneously integrate techniques to recognize, learn new words, monitor and self correct when reading does not look right, sound right, or make sense. We want students to  understand that flexible word work (use of techniques) is beneficial as a reader tries to problem solve and make meaning at both the word and text level. And we want students to build confidence, competence and have fun along the way!

Spring weather in my area means unexpected snow storms, icy conditions and knowledge of numerous driving techniques. Here’s hoping I will confidently and competently apply and integrate this repertoire of techniques to effectively (and happily) reach my destination.


Thinking Actions

Have you ever caught yourself reading a paragraph or news article, and realize you haven’t a clue what it is about? You automatically say the words in your head, but your thinking is somewhere else. This still happens to me on occasion.

Meaning breaks down for our early readers for many other reasons. Often the text is just too hard in terms of word accuracy, lack of word recognition techniques and/or fluency. Sometimes the content or vocabulary is unknown to them, or connections to prior knowledge are just not there. And sometimes, like me, their thinking is somewhere else too.

We often use the term “ strategies” when we talk about reading comprehension. Lately I have switched to “Thinking Actions” to talk about what readers might (or might not) be doing. The use of the term “strategy” has become mis-leading and a catch-all phrase for any kind of learning activity. Thinking actions refers to how we might extract, construct and create meaning of the text we are reading. I want my students to notice and choose what they are thinking about while reading. And take action when they need help to find meaning.

There are many ways to describe, instruct and assess reading comprehension that have influenced my teaching over the years. I have rarely adopted any specific instructional method with fidelity, but instead have adapted several methods to evolve into something that makes sense for my learners.

Currently, I am using a Notice and Name type of response with my readers, while in tutoring conversations, conferences or writing/drawing activities. Dorothy Barnhouse and Vick Vinton explain in What Readers Really Do:  

“…you’ll frequently see us orchestrating scenarios for students that let them experience the work readers do, then naming that work explicitly after they’ve actually done it….This is important because research has shown that students retain knowledge they construct and uncover better than knowledge they hear or even see demonstrated…”

Students are asked, “What do you notice? What are you noticing?” before, during or after reading. Readers are asked to talk about what they are reading and thinking. Over time, the type of responses suggested below are co-constructed; allowing future reference ideas, choice and directed promoting as needed (e.g. describe one of the characters). Students “own” the list and are proud when a different type of response is added. Recently, one of my students shared, “Dr. Seuss writes cuckoo!” This was added to our Writing Idea list,  but we also added the word “humour” with the idea that writers sometimes want to make us laugh.

screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-11-35-49-amThrough explicit modelling, scaffolded prompting and direct teaching, students become aware of all the possibilities that readers might use to talk, think, wonder, write, draw and represent their understanding. I want students to understand that sharing our ideas about reading enhances their own meaning and the comprehension of others.

The quality of these reader responses is also developed over time, using simple open-ended prompts such as “What makes you say/think that?” Students are expected to add detail, reasons and examples to their “noticings”. Co-constructing this criteria is accomplished through modelling, think alouds and student exemplars.

All readers have moments when comprehension breaks down. Our ultimate goal is to ensure our readers know when meaning breaks down, and what they can possibly do to establish comprehension.

For my reading moments of “not having a clue”, I often just need to take a break or ask, “Do I really want to continue reading this material right now?” I then think to myself that this is what some of our young readers feel like at times. Just saying words… that have no meaning. Not really reading.


Foundational Language Literacy

The term literacy is becoming an all-encompassing word for almost any kind of learning. Any kind of knowledge – digital, nutritional, physical, financial, and so on. Just this morning I noticed on Twitter, articles about social media literacy, news literacy, cultural literacy. All of them important. And rightly so, as new kinds of learning are essential in our ever-evolving world.

As stated in the NCTE Definitions of 21 Century Literacies: “Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy.”

This blog continues to emphasize that earlyreadingsuccessmatters. It is reassuring to see the words read and write included in Mozilla’s Web Literacy . Yet where and when does learning to read and write fit in today’s ever-evolving world?

Some use “Traditional Literacy” as a term for learning to read and write.  This makes me think of “traditional” styles of teaching, many of which we do not wish to hang onto. Every child in a classroom reading and writing the very same thing, not having any choice or individuality, being criticized for making errors (the red pen), “grill and kill” skill work, packets of  busy work… the list goes on. Many of us may have learned to read and write in this traditional sense, but others certainly didn’t want to read and write much beyond the school walls. Teaching and learning have changed (along with society and technology), so must our terminology about literacy.

To ensure earlyreadingsuccessmatters, and will still matter in today’s modern world, I suggest the term Foundational Language Literacy.  It includes a collection of early learning language experiences and opportunities, that start at birth, and are essential for our children’s success and happiness in life.


As we continue to expand upon multiple literacies needed in today’s changing world, let’s ensure the starting years of literacy learning remain significant.

I am a Foundational Language Literacy teacher. What kind of literacy do you teach?

Phonological Awareness

After several years as a grade one teacher, I was very fortunate to meet and work with an inspiring Speech and Language Pathologist. I was frustrated with some of the progress my children were making in learning to read and didn’t know what I was missing. A few conversations and some great resources led me to understand that children who enter the school system with strong oral language background and experiences with music, rhyme, rhythm, song and books, have a “natural-like” understanding of the sound structure of language (Phonological Awareness). They are able to play with words and sounds, and learn quickly the pre-phonics skills necessary for later word decoding and spelling. I assumed that all children had this ability in varying degrees, and were therefore ready to begin reading and writing as expected in grade one.

I soon learned that some children were missing these foundational oral language experiences. As time goes on, for many different reasons, there are more and more young learners lacking these opportunities (which is another blog topic). Students who struggle with word recognition instruction (especially phonics) and spelling, require further investigation of their phonological awareness (pre-phonics). Oral assessment activities  which “play with words” can identify areas of strength and areas of need within the component of Phonological Awareness. Follow-up instruction may include whole class activities, games and simple tasks for small groups, or one to one explicit instruction. We can (and must) fill in these language voids, if that is indeed what intentional assessment and observation determines.

Quality Literacy Instruction encourages and embeds phonological awareness through playful oral language experiences in all the early years. Phonological Awareness may also continue be taught and practiced in conjunction with sound/symbol instruction (phonics), once students are beginning to learn to read and write.

At times, the expertise of a Speech and Language Pathologist is necessary in assessing children’s oral language understandings, especially when everything we try appears to not result in progress. Common use of terminology is important amongst professionals, therefore these are suggested definitions (Simons, Harn, & Kame’enui, 2003):

Phonological Awareness: The ability to hear and manipulate the sound structure of language. This is an encompassing term that involves working with the sounds of language at the word, syllable, and phoneme level.

Phoneme: A phoneme is a speech sound. It is the smallest unit of language and has no inherent meaning.

Phonemic awareness: The ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words and the understanding that spoken words and syllables are made up of sequences of speech sounds (Yopp, 1992, cited in Yopp, 1995)

Phonics: The process of using the code (sounds-symbol relationships) to recognize words. Phonics is included within Word Recognition in this blog’s Transfer Goals, as the written symbol is introduced with the sound(s).

Breaking down the actual parts of phonological awareness enables easier assessment and follow-up learning activities. To help young readers Understand and Manipulate the Speech Sound System, below are some suggested ideas for developing and practicing different areas of phonological awareness.

1. Concepts of word, syllable (word parts) and phoneme (sound)

Knowing the difference between these important terms and understandings can be confusing for some learners, so we use different practice techniques for each concept.


How many words am I saying? Students touch or make a bingo marker dot to represent each word in a given sentence.

How many syllables, we simply clap the sound parts.

How many sounds?  The students use blocks or coloured chips to represent different sounds (Elkonin boxes).

2. Blending, Segmenting sound units

Stretchy bands or elastics are a great way to demonstrate the stretching out of sounds, and bringing them back (blending). Blocks or coloured chips can be manipulated to represent different sounds, stretched out and blended back together.

3. Rhyme: identification and generation

Favourite mentor texts, songs/chants/raps are great for practicing rhyme: Say What? by Angela DiTerlizzi and Joey Chou; Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas; Here Comes the Big, Mean Dust Bunny! by Jan Thomas

4. Isolating, Deleting and Substituting sound units

Favourite songs such as Raffi’s, Willaby, Wallaby, Woo, is a terrific way to substitute and change sound units (along with rhyme). Take Away the A by Michaël Escoffier is a fun book, even for older students.

Numerous playful activities are readily available (eg. readingrockets.org, phonological awareness.org) and are quick and easy to use for practicing sounds, syllables and words. Phonological awareness is a critical foundation for learning the read and write.



Cognitive Confusion

Several years ago a mentor colleague used the term Cognitive Confusion when describing some of our intervention readers. Too many adults working with a child, too much confusing academic language and too many varying (and sometime conflicting) instructional approaches. Her words have stayed with me for many years, and certainly became obvious when I first started working alongside students in my literacy support program (reading intervention).

As I was one of those extra adults working with the students, I realized quickly that my program must somehow align with the classroom teacher’s. Hard to do when my small group was composed from five different classrooms. Too much instructional time was spent clarifying terminology and purpose with the children: “What does your teacher call this?” “Does your teacher use the word fluency?” “How do you share what you understand about your reading?” and so on. I was also confused.

At the same time I was an Instructional Coach and part of the school’s professional learning team. Together as a staff we worked on development of common reading goals, built knowledge of the parts of reading, examined the curriculum and applied common assessment practices. Student’s began talking the same language and understood expectations- much less cognitive confusion by all.

As a grade team, RTI/classroom teacher team, school team and even district level team, teachers can collectively determine what matters for our developing readers (see previous blogs for suggested ideas).  And even more importantly, ensuring that our students understand the learning intentions can then lead to self-determination of their own reading paths. Which leads to engagement and ownership  (motivation and agency), essential for today’s readers. Volunteers, paraprofessionals and parents working with our children also need this direction. All adults being on the “same page” while guiding our young readers is a positive move towards reducing “cognitive confusion”.

Knowledge and use of common language is critical for our students. As teachers we have our favourite ways of describing reading skills and behaviours. But kids can get confused – are we “Reading to Self” or “Silent Reading” or having “DEAR time” or “By Yourself Reading” or “SSR”?  Are we “Working with Words” or doing “Word Work”,  perhaps practicing “Sounding Out” or “Letters and Sounds” or “Playing with Words”.  Am I looking for “Juicy Words” or “Interesting Vocabulary” or “Descriptive Words”?  Do these mean the same thing to a child, or are they different activities with different expectations? I have often referenced Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan from Choice Literacy.com  as they describe the need for “Relentless Consistency”.  It is sometimes hard to give up our favourite teaching ways, but ultimately we must do what is best for our learners.

Developing effective instructional approaches and techniques, based on research and teacher expertise, experience and evidence is an ongoing professional conversation and learning quest. Having attended  John Hattie’s Visible Learning seminar, and recently reading Visible Learning for Literacy  by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie, has helped clarify when the best instructional approaches are used in the literacy learning process. There is much to be gained by collectively reading and discussing this work- again for the sake of our learners.

Recognizing and reducing “cognitive confusion” for our young readers is essential. Ongoing clarifying conversations with students about the goals, the terminology, the expectations and the confusions are part of learning to read. Co-creating anchor cards or charts to explicitly describe the reading skill or behaviour keeps readers on the same page. The example below shows a grade one intervention group’s ongoing understanding of Read to Self stamina building:


We created this chart over time (different colours). We also created a video of what read-to-self does not look/sound like, along with images of what our success criteria does look/sound like. Many giggles occurred watching the intentional  “not” section, and students became very clear of the terminology and the expectations.

Ensuring our young learners are not “cognitively confused” as they learn to read is our professional responsibility. It is easy to make many assumptions about the thinking and understandings of our readers, however taking time to observe, talk and reflect about our practice is what is best for our learners.

Engagement and Ownership

The traditional components of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) continue to be important learning aspects for our beginning readers. Yet in today’s modern world of evolving and changing literacies, “Engagement and Ownership” have become essential means and end goals for achieving success for all readers. In my work with young learners, this has become a critical component of learning to read.

“Engagement” refers to a reader’s independent enjoyment, ability and self-determination to read, write and communicate with others.

“Ownership” means readers have voice, choice and meta-cognitive awareness to apply strategies and understandings to make meaning and monitor progress, needs, and success. Burkins and Yaris in Who’s Doing the Work (2016), along with other current literacy writers, refer to ownership as agency.

As a literacy support teacher (after years of classroom teaching), I discovered this “new” reading component out of urgent need. Teaching small group, pull-out intervention with grade 2 and 3 students, considered the “lowest” readers from several classrooms, brought new challenges and opportunities. We had no purchased program to follow, but had a few levelled texts and mountains of books from my classroom teaching days. There were no worksheets or booklets about reading, as I had given that practice up many years prior.  I thought I knew how to teach reading using actual children’s books (along with a Smart Board, magnetic alphabet, blank paper and a few word games). But now I was faced with a new challenge- students who could not read well, and more importantly did not want to read. Period.

With deep reflection, colleague conversation and advise from Significant Perspectives, children soon had their own pocket folders to house a favourite book along with a few self chosen levelled picks for independent reading. I used read aloud and book previews to discover interests and preferences. We read excerpt passages from favourite books for shared reading. We read “adapted” reader’s theatre scripts from the Mo Willems Pigeon series. Guided reading material was carefully chosen to respond to interest and needs of the learners. We talked about purpose for re-reading- even if it was to increase stamina or develop smooth phrasing. We talked about what they noticed and wondered after reading- ideas from the book or from their thinking. Children chose which word work activity to use for practice. We co-created success criteria to ensure everyone understood expectations- what it looked like, sounded like and even felt like. We talked about what they “used to do” as readers, and celebrated “but now I…” and so on. Voice and choice to increase enjoyment and ability.

Breaking down this transfer goal (essential component) includes the following parts:

  • Enjoying and interacting with text: Emergent Literacy
  • Finding personal favourites and preferences
  • Choosing from a wide variety of text appropriate for purpose
  • Developing routines and stamina
  • Collaborating with text and ideas
  • Setting goals, success criteria, celebrating accomplishments
  • Meta-cognition- knowing what works

Engagement and Ownership is a daily component of my intervention and tutoring lessons in some form or another. As teachers, we make instructional decisions (based on observations and conversations) and ensure children get what they need.  Without embedding some form of engagement and ownership, children would probably still improve isolated reading skills (I can statements). However ensuring that it is an essential part of learning to read, statements such as  I want, I hope, I like, I have learned,  I need to try,  I will work on…etc. will develop learners who can and want to learn to read.


Knowing the Parts

Understanding the complex process of learning to read (and teaching young readers) requires breakdown into component parts. Traditionally, reading has been sub-divided into 5 areas (phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension). The graphic below suggests a different way to examine areas for instructional focus and assessment. Isolating the “parts” is necessary for reflective, responsive teaching, especially for struggling readers. Knowing the “parts” enables recognition of individual strength areas, and specific areas for improvement. Teaching the “parts” helps readers themselves set goals and reach accomplishments.

Proficient and joyful readers merge these component parts to find meaning and purpose in their reading. In order to understand the individuality of our early readers (interests, strengths, areas of need), along with appropriate instructional next steps, these “parts” help us to understand the complex process of learning to read.

Reading Parts

The hexagon graphic was chosen for a reason. Reading effectively is highly inter-connected and dependent on multiple components. Each part can be shifted, ordered, prioritized and/or combined, depending on purpose and areas of focus.

Upcoming posts will examine these component parts to deepen our understanding of early reading success.

High Expectations

Several years ago as a young university student, we were encouraged to volunteer in nearby schools as part of the education degree program. I chose a junior high, that requested help with academic support. Upon the initial meeting with the principal, he indicated there were several students who needed help learning to read. My immediate and naive response was “Why have they not learned to read?”

The principal sat straight up in his chair, and answered firmly, “Young lady, you have a lot to learn”.  Yes indeed, I knew I had lots to learn, yet was disturbed by his statement. My question, along with his response, have been deep inspiration for my entire teaching career.

The volunteer hours were spent helping a teenaged boy learn to read the driver’s manual. He so desperately wanted to pass the test, and in those times there were no accommodations provided. This student had huge motivation, authentic purpose and a volunteer helper who believed in his ability to understand the content and learn to read what he had chosen.

For all of my years in education, I have been part of helping students learn to read. There were a few hectic years when I became part of a norm that accepted the fact that some kids would just not learn this complex task. I used the “blame game” and hoped that time, the “resource room” and the next year’s teacher would fix the problem.  However my professional learning drive and passion kept going back to that volunteer experience.

Instead of asking, “Why have they not learned to read?” I revised my inquiry to become, “What can we do to help all students learn to read?”  Even though we examine possible barriers (the why nots), we must focus on what we can do as educators, parents and community members to ensure early reading success matters.

High expectations for our learners is essential. Regie Routman in Read, Write, Lead (2014) talks of the critical importance of an “expectations mindset”. High expectations for ourselves as educators is equally as important.

Our work as reading teachers must continue to evolve and not be taken for granted. We need to find ways that kids can and want to learn to read, not just hope kids learn the way we teach. Instead we rely on the experts (Significant Perspectives) for their wisdom and research. We rely on each other for our positive experiences and frustrations through connected, collaborative learning. We rely on getting to know our readers- their interests, wonders, strengths and areas for improvement. We rely on purposeful planning and assessment, to guide our students towards reading success within a changing literacy world.

High expectations for all.


Transfer Goals

Learning to read is complex. Learning to teach reading is equally complex. To compound this reality, we use multiple literacies alongside reading in today’s connected literacy world. We must also ensure ongoing understanding of our learners with responsive, effective teaching strategies based on purposeful assessments. Teaching children how to read is indeed multi-layered, complex and evolving.

So where do we start? Taking the time to collectively and individually examine “end goals” for our young readers is a critical first step. Focusing on what really matters when learning to read in today’s literacy world requires evolving reflection and refinement. The traditional components of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension), when effectively taught and learned, generally result in competent reading skill and ability.

Educators today expect more for our young readers and for ourselves as teachers. We want our children to read with competence and with joy and purpose. We want our children to develop independence and self-determination. Readers who want to read, and who can read.

As a literacy support teacher and tutor, focusing on “end goals” with all readers has enabled my teaching to prioritize and “simplify” the complex world of learning to read. The chart below includes seven essential goals for early reading success, which have been refined numerous times and are deeply influenced by many  Significant Perspectives.   Included are the traditional components of reading (somewhat revised), along with a focus on engagement and ownership. As well, the connection between early reading and writing is included as a transfer goal for early reading success.

The goals listed are not sequential, but occur simultaneously each time effective reading occurs. For the purpose of instructional decision making (planning), purposeful assessment and responsive teaching, the process of learning to read has been broken down into the following seven goals:

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Although reading component outcomes appear straight forward, a complex understanding lies beneath each goal statement. Further blogs will explore these areas over time. Our teaching and learning moments are precious, therefore our intentions must be clearly articulated and understood. Transfer goals are a good place to start.

These goals will and should be revised again. Early reading success still matters for our young learners even though reading occurs within a multiple literacy world. Our work as reading teachers will continue to evolve…

Significant Perspectives

As mentioned in the previous post, teachers have numerous sources for professional literacy learning. It must be on-going and evolving, pondered and questioned. We hope to enable the deep learning required to meet the needs, strengths and interests of all our early readers and writers. It must also be self-initiated and self-determined, as our own learning needs to reflect what we hope to accomplish with our children.

Much like the process of learning to read itself, learning to teach reading is an emergence of numerous pieces, skills and understandings. Like a well played orchestra, the parts blended carefully together can create something wonderful. When our readers are progressing well, we probably keep doing what works. When something breaks down, we focus on finding out what is happening and alter our techniques or strategies. Using multiple sources for our continued professional learning provides us the expertise, wisdom and motivation to improve and grow in our practice.

I rely on several “significant perspectives” in the world of literacy. Some are simply the well-known experts that all teachers are exposed to in university, conversation, workshops and conferences. Others have been discovered on Twitter, which is a continual source for new publications and insights. The attached feed @19anne follows many of the current “experts”.

As well, this summer I have joined two groups on Facebook (which I normally reserve for family and friends). A wide range of perspectives can now be found on Modern Learners – A Global Community of Changeleaders, and Fountas Pinnell Literacy Community. Our learning opportunities continue to grow…

The photographs below show some of my collection. Many books are kept “just in case”, while others are referenced often.

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Recent reads include the following titles:

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And I await with anticipation for the delivery of “Who’s doing the Work?” by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, a new read that I hope fits into my current learning interests and needs.

So much of my knowledge and practice is based on these readings, re-readings and professional conversations.  These “significant perspectives” have been critical to my professional growth as an educator, and are deeply embedded in my thinking. I give credit and sincere appreciation for them all.

However the real learning, the transfer learning, emerges while actually working alongside children who are learning to read, write and communicate. Especially the children who need more time, help and new ways to learn. Sharing our thinking, our wonders and our teaching experiences, alongside our background of expert knowledge is a key to ensuring earlyreadingsuccessmatters.