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Even casual observation reveals that primary-grade classrooms in the United States are populated by students with diverse levels of reading ability. This diversity raises serious challenges for teachers as they plan instruction. To effectively meet these challenges, teachers must develop a clear sense of "where their students are" as readers. They need to identify each child's zone of proximal development: the place where that child can operate almost, but not quite, as an independent reader (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). In reading parlance, this is the instructional level: reading with 90% or better accuracy, at least 70% comprehension, and with a satisfactory rate of speed (Leslie & Caldwell, 2001; Morris, 1999b; National Reading Panel, 2000). Implicit in both constructs is the assumption that reading instruction happens at the "cutting edge" of development. In this way, teachers can ensure that young readers experience ongoing success with just enough ongoing challenge. This delicate instructional balance helps beginning readers meet challenges and move forward.
To work at the cutting edge of children's reading development, primary-grade teachers need to ask some important questions about materials and curriculum. At the most basic level, these questions can include, "What kind of text is best for this child at this particular point in reading development?" and "What kind of word study is most appropriate for this child right now?" Another less obvious but still important question is, "What kind of word-recognition prompts should I be using with this child at this developmental level? That is, when the child comes to an unfamiliar word and starts to struggle, what should I do?"
Why are word-recognition prompts important?
Word-recognition prompts are a ubiquitous yet somewhat unrecognized part of reading instruction. Even the most advanced beginners make oral reading errors when reading at instructional level. When readers make errors, primary-grade teachers often respond with assistance in the form of prompts. Usually, these are prompts like "Sound it out"; "What makes sense there?"; and "Do you see any chunks or word parts that can help you?" Teachers often use prompts "on the fly" as they listen to students read aloud and, as such, might not consider them part of formal reading instruction. Nevertheless, as innocuous as word-recognition prompts seem, they are a form of instruction. Their consistent use may well influence students' reading behavior.
Consider the following examples. When one teacher consistently prompts beginning readers to use picture cues to guess at unfamiliar words, students may conclude, "When I come to a word I don't know, I should look at the picture and make a guess." When another teacher consistently prompts beginning readers to use letter-sound correspondences to blend unfamiliar words, students in that classroom may conclude, "When I come to word I don't know, I should sound it out." As these students encounter unfamiliar words in the absence of their teachers, they may recall and employ those prompts. Over time, use may become routine. Thus, word-recognition prompts have the potential to shape young readers' reactions to unfamiliar words.
Research on word-recognition prompts
Despite their potential instructional importance, word-recognition prompts have received scant attention in research, practitioner, and teacher-education literature. A search of related journals through ERIC and PsycInfo for the years 1980 to 2000 yielded only 12 articles related to this topic. Data from several empirical studies suggested that poor readers encountering unfamiliar words were much more likely to be interrupted quickly by teachers than their higher achieving peers. Most often, the interruption consisted of the teacher simply providing the correct word (Allington, 1980; Hoffman & Clements, 1984; Hoffman et al., 1984; Pflaum, Pascarella, Boskwick, & Auer, 1980). In response, researchers recommended that teachers ensure that all students--especially low-achieving students--read at their instructional levels and delay interruptions until a phrase or sentence break, allowing students the opportunity for self-correction (Hoffman & Clements, 1984; Hoffman et al., 1984; McNaughton, 1981; Taylor & Nosbush, 1983).
Teachers' materials and word-recognition prompts
Word-recognition prompts receive greater, but still limited, attention in teachers' materials such as methods textbooks, basal-program guides, and manuals. An examination of approximately two dozen commercial materials (see Sidebar for a complete list) indicated that the topic often was not addressed at all. Some materials did include "sample prompts" for teachers to use with students, and some of them were designed to reinforce a particular approach to word recognition, such as code oriented or holistic. Other materials simply provided a list of prompts and described their potential use without direction as to when they were most appropriate.
Code-oriented materials are grounded in the assumption that successful word recognition for beginning readers comes through close attention to letter-sound correspondences, which, over time, builds automaticity (Adams, 1990; Chall, 1979, 1983, 1996; McCandless, Beck, Sandak, & Perfetti, in press; Perfetti, 1991). It is not surprising that word-recognition prompts in code-oriented materials are designed to encourage beginning readers to blend sounds into words (see Figure 1). Prompts across code-oriented programs vary somewhat, but the message is clear: When encountering an unfamiliar word, beginning readers should blend the sounds together to generate a pronunciation. With repetition, that word's visual and phonological representations will bond and become more established in a young reader's memory. The word and its pronunciation are eventually recognized on sight--quickly, accurately, and effortlessly (Adams, 1990; Ehri, 1998; Perfetti, 1991, 1992; Sinatra & Royer, 1993; Stanovich, 1991; Stanovich & West, 1989)
In contrast, holistic materials are grounded in the assumption that successful word recognition for a reader comes through reliance on various "cues" in the text and on the reader's own prior knowledge. The cuing system includes semantic, syntactic, pragmatic, and graphophonemic (i.e., letter-sound) information that beginning readers draw on in a strategic manner as they negotiate unfamiliar words (Cambourne, 1995; Goodman, 1993; Smith, 1979; Weaver, 1994). It is important to note that among holistic approaches, letter-sound information is not prioritized--despite a robust body of research indicating that expert readers excel at using this resource (for reviews, see Adams, 1990; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Stanovich, 2000). In fact, using letters and their sounds--especially vowels--usually is prompted after other more contextually based types of information (i.e., semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic) have been exhausted. Consistent with these assumptions, prompts in holistic materials encourage beginning readers to identify unfamiliar words by using different cues until they find success (see Figures 2 and 3). Holistic prompts vary somewhat but the message is again clear: When encountering unfamiliar words, beginning readers should use the multiple cues and strategies at their disposal--not just letter-sound knowledge.
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
Not all teacher materials present a unified message in their suggestions for word-recognition prompts. Some provide a veritable "laundry list" of prompts that include such suggestions as "Ask someone to help you," "Put in another word that makes sense," "Sound it out," and "See if you can find a chunk to help you." When examining these highly eclectic materials (see Figure 4), teachers may be inclined to ask, "Which prompt is best? Should I suggest several different prompts? If so, which ones? Are they all equally effective?"
How young readers change their approach to the reading process
The word-recognition prompts in teacher materials--whether they be code oriented, holistic, or eclectic--are designed to be helpful; nevertheless, many fail to address a student's level of reading development. To offer students the most effective assistance with troublesome words, teachers should ask themselves which type of prompt is most appropriate for a reader at this point in his or her development. Because beginners make some fairly dramatic changes in how they approach the reading process over time, teachers need to commensurately change their word-recognition prompts.
This developmental perspective on word-recognition prompts is grounded in a robust body of research on beginning reading (Biemiller, 1970, 1977/1978; Ehri, 1998; Frith, 1985; Gough, Juel, & …