Tim Rasinski is a renowned professor of literacy education whose research on reading fluency and word study has made him a literacy hero to many. Below, he shares his thoughts on how to approach word instruction.
It should be self-evident that words are important when it comes to reading. It is impossible for you to read if you cannot decode a written word into its oral pronunciation. Similarly, it is impossible to understand what you read if you are unable to determine the meaning of the words you encounter when reading. Simply try reading a text written in a language you are not familiar with and you will know why the ability to decode and understand words is critical to reading. Yet, for over a half-century we have argued over words in the reading curriculum.
The Ongoing Debate
I still recall attending one of my first International Reading Association conventions in the 1970s. I heard several major speakers talk about words. Some experts said that readers would develop proficiency with words simply by being immersed in authentic written language much in the same way that children learn to speak words in the first years of life. All we had to do was simply read to children regularly and allow them opportunities to engage in reading on their own. Readers’ desire to make meaning would lead to word knowledge and word proficiency. I know I am over simplifying things here, but it seemed that the message was that formal word study was not all that important in the larger scheme of things.
At the same conference, I heard other experts say that words were so important in reading that they had to be directly taught to students in a lock-step and highly sequenced manner that could not vary. Children had to be put through a series of instructional activities, often devoid of real texts, in which their focus was on the structural aspects of words. The activities involved plenty of practice of words in isolation, and became increasingly more complex as the words students were expected to learn became longer and more complex. I was concerned, however, that the instructional routines involved in such approaches were often boring, repetitious to an extreme, and without authentic connections to the ultimate purpose for acquiring word knowledge – actual reading.
To be honest, I felt myself drawn to both positions and repelled by both positions at the same time. On the one hand, it seemed rather natural just to allow children to develop into word reading on their own through their own experiences with words and texts. On the other hand, why take a chance of having some children’s proficiency with words not develop at an appropriate pace or even at all? Would it not be easier and more efficient to simply teach children directly how to figure out the meaning of words? Isn’t that what schools are for? Yet, what happens when that instruction diminishes children’s desires to learn words and takes away from the joy of learning to read?
As I have pondered these questions over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the issue is not one of whether words should be taught to children, but how! Do we teach words in a hands-off manner and allow children to move toward words on their own? Or do we teach it directly, intentionally, intensively, and sequentially and risk alienating children from words and reading? I think there is a middle ground where word instruction can be direct and intentional, but at the same time joyful, playful, authentic, and connected to real reading.
… word instruction can be direct and intentional, but at the same time joyful, playful, authentic, and connected to real reading.
A few principles for this type of instruction that guided my own thinking on word study are these:
- Word study should be playful and game-like, much like the many games we play as adults.
- Just as patterns in texts help us in reading, patterns in words can help us figure out words. We need to help children see and use word patterns for decoding words and learning word meanings.
- Just as we often learn from building things (e.g. think Legos, Lincoln Logs, doll houses, imaginary cities, fantasy lands, etc.), children can learn how words work by being guided to build or make words.
- Children should have some degree of choice in the words they are to learn. Some words are more important to some children than to others (e.g. think names of family members).
- Some words appear so frequently in reading that they simply need to be learned as quickly as possible through practice in school and at home.
We also know that there is not one approach to word instruction that works best for all children. The effectiveness of the instruction depends on individual differences in students as well as in teachers. In a sense, reading and word instruction is part science and part art. We can teach vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and other ELA topics through a combination of systematic instruction and opportunities for exploration. Teachers need to choose the instructional approaches that have some degree of validity to them to create instruction that is most effective for their students.
In the upcoming blogs, I would like to explore each of these principles with you and how I have approached them in my own professional work with children and teachers. In the end, though, it is up to you, the individual teacher, to become the instructional artist, to choose the approach or combination of approaches that will best move your students toward proficiency and joy in word study.
Tim Rasinski is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University. His research on reading has been cited by the National Reading Panel and has been published in journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, The Reading Teacher, Reading Psychology, and the Journal of Educational Research. Read more about Rasinski here, or connect with him on Twitter @timrasinski1.
For more from Tim Rasinski, continue to follow us for his exclusive VocabularySpellingCity blog series and be sure to watch a video recording of his webinar “Automaticity (Fluency) in Word Learning Improves Comprehension”
Rasinski’s research on word fluency is cited in the report, “Applying Best Practices For Effective Vocabulary Instruction,” written by VocabularySpellingCity in partnership with McREL International.