The Art and Science of Teaching Word Recognition (Phonics)

By Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University

Scientific approaches to reading instruction tend to hold the spotlight in contemporary educational methodologies, but educators mustn’t lose sight of the importance of artful reading instruction. In one of my previous articles, I made the case that reading instruction is as much an art as it is a science, and that successful artful instruction should be: 1) authentic, by reflecting what happens in real life, 2) aesthetic, by involving emotions and touching the heart while educating the mind, and 3) creative, by allowing each teacher or student to use their own experience and knowledge to create something new.

Word recognition, or phonics, is an essential competency that must be taught directly and systematically to students. Without the ability to decode written words, learning to read is impossible; so orthographic mapping has become one approach supported by the Science of Reading (SoR). Orthographic mapping (letter-sound relationships) enables a reader’s brain to store new words in long term memory for automatic retrieval (Kilpatrick, 2015).

The process of orthographic mapping involves internalizing sound sequences and patterns through deep intentional analyses of orthographic structures, bonding the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory. To read fluently, students must develop orthographic recognition (the ability to recognize letter patterns, like familiar words, suffixes, or prefixes). Through orthographic mapping, children build the ability to read words by sight and to spell words from memory.

You experience orthographic mapping yourself each time you attempt to pronounce or spell a word when you aren’t quite sure of its pronunciation or spelling. You use the word’s letter arrangements to produce its pronunciation or attempt to recreate its spelling from its pronunciation. You might wonder if that’s too tedious a task to give young students. But place this in an artistic context and the possibilities for making orthographic mapping expand widely.

For example, let’s look at a word-building activity by Isabel Beck, also referred to as word chains. Students are guided by a teacher to build a series of words by making minimal changes (individual letters altered, added, or removed) from one word to another. The teacher announces a new word and explains its meaning; then students must analyze the previous word to determine which letters they need to change to transform it into the new word announced by the teacher.

Over the course of a dozen words, students become fully engaged in word analysis. This game-like practice leads them easily to learning new words and teaches them the deep orthographic mapping that expands sight vocabularies. Think of all the word games we play as adults: crossword puzzles, Scrabble, Boggle, Wheel of Fortune, Password, Buzzword, and many others. Word games are an authentic and engaging part of life. The art of reading instruction naturally turns word analysis and orthographic mapping into game-like activities.

My version of Beck’s word-building activity adapts it into a word game I call “word ladders.” Like Beck’s activity, the teacher guides students to make a series of words with minimal changes from one word to the next. But with word ladders, the first and last words in each series must be related. See how this works in the word ladder example shown below. Just start with the word at the top, follow the instructions, and see how the word ladder circles back to its theme.

Word to start with: SCIENCE

  1. Remove 2 letters to make a word that also means “because.” ________
  2. Replace the last 2 letters with 1 to make a word that means “what might happen to a boat with a hole in it.” ________
  3. Change 1 letter to make a word that means “a pale red color.” ________
  4. Remove 1 letter to make a word that means “a pointed metal fastener for holding clothes together.” ________
  5. Change 1 letter to make a word that means “a kitchen utensil for frying food.” ________
  6. Change 1 letter to make a word that means “to stroke or tap gently.” ________
  7. Add 1 letter to make a word that means “a portion or chunk of something.” ________
  8. ANSWER: Remove 1 letter to describe how reading should be taught: as a science and _______!

(The answer to this Word Ladder is at the end of this article.)

Teachers can guide students through word ladders to a deeper analysis of each new word, adding pronunciations, elaborating on the meaning(s) or histories of words, or pointing to word structures like the “rt” consonant cluster in “part” and “art.” Games like these give teachers and students opportunities to engage in the orthographic mapping of words that expands vocabularies and empowers the analysis and acquisition of new words.

I’ve written several books on this subject (see reference list), but word ladders can easily be created and developed by teachers to address whatever phonics elements they wish to focus on with students. The greatest evidence of the artistic nature of word ladders is when students create their own word ladders and guide their own classmates through them. When teachers and students are allowed to create, art happens.

The art of reading instruction works together with SoR to guide instruction. Creating science-based reading instruction that students find engaging and authentic can be a challenge, but luckily there are endless ways (word ladders are just one!) for dedicated teachers to artfully achieve this goal.

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Read more of Dr. Rasinski’s Art and Science of Reading series:

The Art and Science of Reading Instruction
The Art and Science of Teaching Vocabulary
The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Fluency
The Art and Science of Teaching Struggling Readers
The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Comprehension

1. Beck, I., & Beck, M. (2013). Making Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Why. (2nd ed. New York, NY: Guilford.
2. Kilpatrick, D.A. (2015). Assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
3. McCandliss, B., Beck, I., Sandak, R., & Perfetti, C. (2003). Focusing attention on decoding for children with poor reading skills: Design and preliminary tests of the word building intervention. Scientific Studies in Reading, 7, 75-104.
4. Rasinski, T. (2005). Daily Word Ladders-Grades 2-4. New York: Scholastic.
5. Rasinski, T. (2005). Daily Word Ladders- Grades 4-6 New York: Scholastic.
6. Rasinski, T. (2008). Daily Word Ladders: Grades 1-2. New York: Scholastic.
7. Rasinski, T. (2012). Daily Word Ladders: Grades K-1 New York: Scholastic.
8. Rasinski, T., & Cheesman-Smith, M. (2019). Daily Word Ladders: Content Areas Grades 2-4. New York: Scholastic.
9. Rasinski, T., & Cheesman-Smith, M. (2019). Daily Word Ladders: Content Areas Grades 4+. New York: Scholastic.
10. Rasinski, T., & Cheesman-Smith, M. (2020). Daily Word Ladders: Idioms. New York: Scholastic.

Answers to the Word Ladder: Since, Sink, Pink, Pin, Pan, Pat, Part, Art

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