Word identification, word recognition, sight word recognition and word attack – all synonyms for decoding

Just over thirty years ago, Isabel K. Beck and Connie Juel wrote the excellent research article ‘The Role of Decoding in Learning to Read’*. Apart from their succinct and entirely accurate description of what a symbolic system or a code is, they provided us with a simple model or span of decoding and where, on the model, we, as readers, all fall.

As other specialists in the field point out, competent, adult readers possess such deep knowledge of the alphabetic code, the skills required to use it and the conceptual understanding of how that code works, they appear to apply their knowledge effortlessly and without conscious recognition of the processes underlying reading. That is, until they encounter words they’ve never seen before, and which contain very unusual spellings of sounds in words of multiple syllables.

For example, some days ago, Lisa Jeffrey (@lisa_jeffery1) tweeted a new sound-spelling correspondence for our Sounds-Write Lexicon. The word was ‘ctenophore’, which, by the way, I was immediately able to spell quite easily because my conceptual understanding of the code enabled me to identify < ct > as a highly unusual digraph spelling of the sound /t/. A ctenophore (‘te’ ‘no’ ‘phore’) is a ferociously predatory marine invertebrate, commonly referred to as a ‘comb jelly’ or ‘sea gooseberry’.

The word ‘ctenophore’ is derived from the Greek κτείς (kteis) ‘comb’, and φέρω (pherō) ‘to carry’ and these creatures go back around 525 million years, according to Wikipedia. In an article containing many other such complex words, a highly proficient reader would have consciously to bring to bear all their knowledge of the code, in what Beck and Juel describe as ‘a deliberate and purposeful way’, in order to decode them and arrive at ‘plausible pronunciations’.

Mostly, proficient readers don’t need to apply their knowledge of the code because the processes are so automatic, and they don’t require conscious attention. Mostly, until that is, they have to rise to the challenge of words like ctenophore.

To illustrate the demands on attention required, Beck and Juel proposed the following description:

‘At one extreme readers, apply their knowledge of the code immediately and without any apparent attention. The terms used to describe this are word recognition, word identification and sight word recognition. At the other extreme, readers consciously and deliberately apply their knowledge of the mapping system [sound-spelling correspondences] to produce a plausible pronunciation of a word they do not instantly recognise…’

From the description, it is clear that the term ‘sight word recognition’ has nothing to do with remembering whole words and everything to do with decoding. In fact, Beck and Juel go on to assert that:

‘Individuals involved in either extreme are decoding in that they are using symbols to interpret a unit that bears meaning. Hence, word recognition, word identification, word attack and sight word recognition are all terms applied to decoding, albeit with different levels of conscious attention.’

Whether the word is ‘mat’ or ‘ctenophore’, most readers would fall somewhere on this spread of knowledge and its application.

The authors are also at pains to draw a clear distinction between sight word recognition and the method still encouraged in many schools, namely, learning whole words by sight. What teachers of reading should be doing is equipping young children, from the start, with the knowledge and skills that enable children/students to read words automatically and without conscious attention.


*Quoted from the article published in the Summer 1995 issue of the American Educator, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers.

Originally published as a chapter in What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction edited by S. J. Samuels and A. E. Farstrup. Copyright © 1992 by the International Reading Association, Inc.


Thanks to Christaan Colen for the image