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The purpose of reading instruction is silent reading comprehension. The three components that contribute to silent reading comprehension are word identification, whole-text print processing, and language comprehension. This post will address word identification, namely, the methods and prerequisite skills for reading individual words.
(McCauley & Fey, 2006)
There are two direct approaches for teaching word identification skills. These approaches are:
A phonics-based reading program teaches children to decode words by applying phonetic rules for letter-sound combinations.
In whole word approaches, children are taught to recognize each word as a whole. Whole-word methods should not be confused with whole-language approaches (which do not provide direct instruction on word identification).
Prerequisite skills for reading individual words:
Phonics and whole-word methods have different prerequisite skills.
(National Reading Panel, 2000; Partington, 2010)
When to teach reading using using phonics methods
Phonics methods are desirable so children can read words that they do not automatically recognize. Typically developing children may be ready to learn to read using a phonics-based approach between 4-7 years of age. Yes, I realize this is a large range. If a child has the prerequisite skills for learning to read using phonetic methods, they will likely succeed with a phonics-based approach. As the child practices decoding words, he should get to the point where he recognizes the words by sight. If the child continues to decode the same word every single time he sees it, he will not be able to read fluently. Fluent reading can be improved by learning to recognize words by sight (as in a whole-word method). Similarly, children who are not making progress in a phonics-based program may find success in a whole-word program.
When to teach reading using whole-word methods
Whole-word methods require fewer prerequisite skills than phonics-based methods. CLICK HERE for instruction on how to assess prerequisite visual discrimination skills. If a child can match word to word, then they are ready to learn using a whole-word approach. I have found that typically developing children usually have the prerequisite skills for a whole-word approach sometime between 3-4 years of age. The main limitation of a whole-word approach is that the child will not be able to read words that they have not previously learned.
In general education programs, a whole-word approach is generally used for high-freuency words, called “sight words.”
Issues affecting reading progress
Although some children seem to learn how to read with minimal adult intervention, other children struggle. Evaluating the prerequisite skills for reading will likely provide insight into why a particular approach is not working. For example, I once worked with a child was not making progress in reading. I evaluated the prerequisite skills for reading and he was missing the ability to match letters and words. His parents wanted reading skills in his IEP (individualized education plan). After explaining prerequisite skills and why he was not making progress, the parents agreed that matching skills needed to be mastered first.
Parents may find it helpful to seek a professional evaluation for learning challenges. A neuropsychologist is qualified in evaluating and diagnosing learning disabilities and other neurological conditions that can affect learning.
I have always taught reading using both phonics-based and whole-word methods. Both methods are research based ways to improve reading accuracy and fluency (McArthur et al., 2015). If a child is not progressing in a phonics-based approach, whole-word methods* can be used exclusively with success. If the child is in the primary grade years, phonics skills can be introduced again after developing phonemic awareness. Keep in mind the goal of reading instruction is silent reading comprehension. This goal can be met through both phonics and/or whole-word methods.
*If the child has pre-requisite skills for whole-word methods but is not making progress, the issue may be in the teaching strategy. There are several research-based approaches for whole word instruction that will be covered in future posts.
McArthur, G., Konen, K., Jones, K., Eve, P., Banales, E., Larsen, L., & Castles, A. (2015). Replicability of sight word training and phonics training in poor readers: A randomised controlled trial. PeerJ, 3, e922.
Partington, J. W. (2010). The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills: An assessment, curriculum guide, and skill tracking system for children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Pleasant Hill, CA: Behavior Analysts, Inc.