The Science of Reading, Part 4: Instruction That Does NOT Support Independent Word Recognition

    by Elfrieda H. Hiebert | December 3, 2020

    Research demonstrates what works in supporting children’s independent word recognition. Research also provides evidence that some common instructional practices do not support reading acquisition—and indeed can create obstacles for beginning readers. Of all of the essays in this series, this topic is likely to generate the most questions. After all, some of these practices are deeply ingrained in beginning reading instruction. But when viewed closely, the reasons these practices fail to bolster beginning readers’ development are understandable.

    1) Encouraging young readers to use supports that draw their attention away from print does not promote independent word recognition. In learning the new skill of riding a bicycle, children often use training wheels. Training wheels serve a function: to ensure children maintain balance while learning to pedal. As a long-term strategy, however, training wheels will not aid children in coordinating their pedaling and maintaining balance as cyclists. Similarly, there are two props in beginning reading that can be useful in supporting preschoolers, but when used beyond their intended use, can hinder movement into independent reading: (a) using pictures to identify words and (b) relying on repetitive sentence and text structures to identify words.

    The phrase beyond their intended use is highlighted in the previous sentence to underscore that these two supports are appropriate at the earliest stages of print awareness. Preschoolers acquire associations between written words and constructs in their worlds through pictures in texts. Further, predictable text structures can aid preschoolers in attending to words in texts.

    When children are acquiring alphabetic knowledge, however, telling children to use pictures to help them figure out a word takes their attention away from the letters and their associated sounds. Pictures in texts for beginning readers are there to create a context for understanding and interest, not to serve as the source for identifying specific words. If children are taught to attend to pictures, they are not making the associations between letters and sounds that will lead to independent reading. Children who have been taught to look at pictures for clues may think that the word street in a text is the word sidewalk, because a sidewalk is featured prominently on a page. Success in reading depends on children attending to the fine print.

    Similarly, the use of texts with predictable sentence and text structures, such as the classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, is a way of initiating preschoolers into following along with print and learning the register of texts. For children who are on the path to independent word recognition, however, such texts can be quickly memorized and therefore do not require attention to the letter-sound correspondences in words in the text. The structures of the sentences and texts in which children are applying their word recognition knowledge should resemble those of engaging language, rather than have the stilted manner of the Dick-and-Jane texts of bygone eras. At the same time, sentences and texts should not be so predictable that they can be memorized simply by guessing the structure.

    2) Guided walk-throughs, where teachers identify new and potentially challenging words prior to their students’ reading of texts, do not support emerging readers in applying their word recognition knowledge.

    In guided walk-throughs of texts prior to reading of the texts, teachers use pictures to talk about students’ perceptions of the story content. They also point out potentially hard words and often tell students what the words are. Often the walk-through is followed by a guided read-aloud, where the teacher reads the text aloud and students are asked to follow along or, in some cases, to listen to the read-aloud.

    What these kinds of learning supports do is to take away opportunities for beginning readers to try out their emerging knowledge of letter-sound correspondences in the context of texts. Becoming competent at a new skill depends on learners’ willingness to try things out, including making mistakes. Without the willingness to make mistakes or—to use an alternative term—to test hypotheses, becoming proficient at a new skill is almost impossible. A hypothesis-testing stance typifies children who become proficient readers. Note the use of the term hypothesis-testing. We’re not asking beginning readers to guess. We’re asking them to use what they know about letter-sound correspondences in words and about the meaning of words in text. The goal is to use the words to make meaning.

    This summary of the research that teachers telling children words and doing the first-read of a text for them does not preclude a study of a group of critical but potentially unknown words on new topics prior to reading a story—words that may not be in children’s vocabularies. For example, the words octopus and camouflage appear in the story Octopus Escapes Again! for mid-first-graders in a core reading program. Both words are likely to be unfamiliar to many children. A word map (such as the one below) with these new concepts can be an appropriate way to build background knowledge before students are asked to read this book. However, such background knowledge is different from a guided walk-through, where words intended for the student to decode—such as crab, clam, gull, shrimp, and school of fish—are instead identified by the teacher prior to students’ reading of the text.

    3) Giving beginning readers texts for application with many new and unfamiliar patterns to decode is another common but less than productive practice. Often there is a substantial disconnect between what students have learned about words and the words in the texts that they are given. In a first-grade program where students have been learning highly frequent words (e.g., I, the, and, a, to) and three-letter words with short a and i, the following text is offered for practice:

    “We will go to the farmers’ market.

     We will sell the bugs and bats.

     The money is for new library books.”[i]

    Of the 21 words in this excerpt, four are two-syllable words (farmers’, market, money, library), two have complex vowels (new, books), and two have short vowels that have not yet been covered in the curriculum (sell, bugs). That is, at least every third word in these three sentences requires decoding skills that many children will not yet have.

    This text is typical of those given to beginning readers in leveled text and core reading programs. When the mismatch between students’ reading proficiency and texts is so great, students are not getting the opportunities to apply their knowledge with success. Further, as described in the previous point, teachers often respond by reading the challenging words for students (if not the whole text). As a result, students are not developing a mindset for reading where they self-correct their efforts.

    To return to the metaphor with which I began, taking off the training wheels may mean a tumble or two and even scraped knees. As adults, we are there to support and intervene to ensure that children do not hurt themselves or get discouraged and quit. Support, instruction, and intervention from caring adults does not mean, however, that we take over the activity that results in children’s independence and proficiency—whether that proficiency is bicycle riding or reading.

    [i] Yee, W.H. (2020) Dan had a plan. In A.F. Ada et al., Into Reading (Book 1). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.