Learning Resources for Children


How we Read – part 2

Word Recognition

This is the second installment relating to reading – to read the first one, please click HERE

Reading is a complex task that takes years of dedication to master.  It is a vital skill, as all further education rests on one’s ability to read.  In the early stages of learning to read much time and effort is spent on word recognition.  Early readers need to be taught the skills involved in word recognition and these skills need to be practiced and mastered before the reader can progress with reading comprehension.  Just like a learner driver struggles with all the skills involved in driving, so too do the early readers struggle with word recognition.  But as these skills are practiced and mastered, they become increasingly automatic until they are performed unconsciously.

These are the three skills make up word recognition:

  1. Phonological and Phonemic awareness
  2. Sight Word Recognition
  3. Decoding

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

The first step in learning to read is making the association between symbols and sounds.  Early readers need to be aware of the sounds that form words, and the letters associated with these sounds.  This is known as phonological awareness.  Phonological awareness is the appreciation of how words can be divided into smaller units of sound.  For example, a word such as ‘holiday’ can be divided into syllables, hol-i-day, and the syllables can then be divided further into phonemes (the smallest unit of sound), h-o-l-i-d-a-y.  Phonological awareness includes wide-ranging tasks such as segmenting words into syllables, segmenting words into sounds, rhyming, manipulating sounds, and blending sounds and syllables.

Most children develop phonological awareness spontaneously through everyday life.  The two founding skills of rhyming and syllable segmentation are often already established in children entering pre-school.  Teachers spend time working on phonological awareness with early readers as mastering these skills affects the child’s literacy level.  Proficiency at phonological awareness is a strong predictor of future reading success.  Children at risk of weak phonological awareness need meaningful intervention and is strong evidence to suggest that phonological awareness skills can be enhanced through exercises and activities.

A primary goal of phonological awareness is to improve phonemic awareness.  A phoneme is the smallest sound part or a word, or the individual sound that can be heard to make up a word.  Phonemic awareness is the most difficult level of phonological awareness and is the last to develop.  Once early readers can identify phonemes in words, they can then build on the skills of isolating, blending and segmenting phonemes.

The diagram below illustrates the components of phonological and phonemic awareness.

Phonological Awareness

Sight Word Recognition

Just as the early reader feels they are getting the swing of sounding out unfamiliar words, then there are sight words to master!  Sight words are words that occur frequently in texts: believe it or not, about 50% of all reading texts are made up of the same 100 basic words.  Sight words are often words that can’t “sounded out”. These sight words don’t follow the basic phonics principles and need to be rote learned.  For example the number ‘one’ – if we sound it out ‘o’-‘n’-‘e’ does not make sense at all.  Readers need to learn the word, so they can make sense of the text when the word ‘one’ appears in it.

The teaching of sight words can be cumbersome, as children need to memorise the words.  Each year in the Primary School will have an accompanying set of sight words for the child to learn, so that cumulatively their base sight words grows.  Teachers and parents need to work together to help the early reader learn these words.

Knowing a wide range of sight words promotes fluent reading and give the reader confidence to continue.  When children have good sight word knowledge, they are better able to focus more on the more difficult and unfamiliar words in a text.  In addition, the sight word knowledge helps the children comprehend and make meaning of sentences.


Once early readers have a grasp of the sounds letters represent, they can then apply these skills in decoding the words.  Decoding is the ability to employ the knowledge of the sound of letters to correctly pronounce a written word.  Early readers “sound out” the unfamiliar words.

Decoding is an essential skill for reading.  (Encoding is the reverse of decoding and is the skill necessary for spelling.)  Teachers introduce phonics programmes to help the early reader to learn the principles of letter-sound relationships, how to sound out words, and the exceptions to the principles.  The ability to successfully decode words enables the early reader to become increasing independent of the teacher.

As readers’ skill levels improve, their decoding skills becoming increasingly automatic or unconscious.  Teachers assist here by helping the readers refine their decoding skills by adding word analysis to their skill set.  Word analysis involves looking at the root word in an unfamiliar word and using their knowledge of prefixes and suffixes to analyse and make sense of the unfamiliar words.

Most of the teaching time in the first few years of formal education is dedicated to word recognition.  These skills (Phonological Awareness, Sight Word Recognition and Decoding) are the foundation upon which the art of reading is based, they are the “skeleton” of reading.  Parents are often dismayed when told their child, who is struggling with reading, needs to “go back to the beginning” to reinforce these skills.  This reinforcement is essential for struggling readers and should be rigorously encouraged.  Every effort should be made to help the weak reader refine and consolidate these skills.

In my next blog, I will look at reading comprehension.  Reading comprehension is a skill that developed across our whole life – we never stop learning and improving our reading.  I will look at reading comprehension from the perspective of the early reader, and how it can be improved.


Alst, J. v. (2012, May 22). Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness and Phonics. Retrieved from Make Take Teach: http://blog.maketaketeach.com/phonological-awareness-phonemic-awareness-and-phonics/

Decoding for reading; Spelling (encoding) for writing. (2012, October ). Retrieved from National Centre of Literacy and Numeracy for adults: http://www.literacyandnumeracyforadults.com/resources/354995

Juel, I. L. (n.d.). The Role of Decoding in Learning to Read. Retrieved from Scholastic Red: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/aed9/5c4d2b4ddb11d4199e4ab91ac0ee41fb2219.pdf

M, C. (2014, October 6). What Are Sight Words and Why Are They Important? Retrieved from Speech Buddies: https://www.speechbuddy.com/blog/language-development/what-are-sight-words/

Word Decoding and Phonics. (n.d.). Retrieved from Reading Rockets: http://www.readingrockets.org/helping/target/phonics



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