The Science Behind Reading- Part 1 {Word Recognition}

WOW! I feel like I haven't blogged in a really long time! I have been VERY busy trying to produce pals! I am glad that I decided to take a day to get back to the core of teaching!

Several weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a training offered by the state of Tennessee. The leaders of the early literacy group were phenomenal, and I learned so much about the the skills needed in order to become a strong and skilled reader. This information was great for me (since I am teaching a majority of my kiddos these skills), but it is also great for those looking for what skills to focus on during reading intervention.

I want to begin by showing an illustration of what skills are needed in order to become a skilled reader.

In order to become a skilled reader, a student needs all of these parts of the rope. If any one part of the rope is missing, the rope becomes weaker. Our leader explained the seriousness of having each skill like a multiplication problem. Let's take a look at the word recognition part of the rope:

Let's pretend we are using a rubric of 3 for each one of the skills in word recognition. A 3 means you have mastered the skill, a 0 means you have no mastery of the skill. Let's look at what you would score if you had reached mastery in all 3 skill areas:


(You received a 3 in phonological awareness, a 3 in decoding, and a 3 in sight recognition)
A 27 is a perfect score. Now let's see what would happen if you had a problem recognizing sight words. So, instead of a 3, you scored a 1.


Whoa! So, the fact that you could not recall sight words diminished your over all word recognition score from a 27 to a 9! I can NOT stress the importance of having each of these skills when learning to read.

In this post, we are going to be solely focusing on WORD RECOGNITION.

First. lets take a look at each of the parts of the word recognition portion of the reading rope.

  1. Phonological awareness- Can the students HEAR the sounds in a word? Can your students hear rhyme, syllables, and phonemes? This is the important step that needs to be taken before decoding can be effectively taught.
  2. Decoding- Do the students understand that there is a relationship between the written word and the spoken word? Do they understand that each letter corresponds to a specific sound? We spend A LOT of time on this in kindergarten!
  3. Sight recognition- Can the students recall sight words quickly or do they try to sound out all their words? If you want a game that helps students work on sight word recognition, take a look at this fun way to work on quick recall here.
As you can see in the picture above, these pieces of the rope are braided. They are braided because you need EACH part in order to build firm word recognition skills. If you only have 2 pieces of the rope, can the rope be braided?

Knowing all of these parts of the word recognition rope, I now have a plan of how I am going to teach reading come the fall. Last year, many of my kiddos struggled with hearing all the sounds in a word. I would often see students' written work where they skipped over entire syllables. I have decided that this year, I am going to spend the first SEVERAL weeks just working on phonological awareness. That means I am going to teach letter sounds without teaching them the letter that goes with that letter sound. I really want to focus on having them HEAR the sounds and breaking words down into parts. I think spending more time on breaking words down in the front end will help them to be able to put words together with greater success and ease! How am I going to do this? That is the exciting part!

At the training, our presenters talked about a phonics program called Zoo Phonics. Our county already has a phonics program, but I thought that I might supplement it with Zoo Phonics. In this program, students first learn that there are sounds in words. Each sound, or phoneme, is represented by an animal (remember, no relationship between letters and sounds has been made at this point). I will teach them all the animals and sounds in the first 2 full weeks of school. Once the students have learned each sound, they can start building words with the phonemes that they know. I am planning on using beanie babies to have students build words.

Let's start with CVC words.

I will always use these 3 colors to signify beginning, middle, and end. We will begin by "stretching the word," and then I will let them use the beanie babies to create words. This example shows how the students spelled the word "cap."

This next picture shows onset and rime. It shows students how there is a beginning sound and an ending sound. This is how we begin to show our students the importance of word families.

I think it is great that students can begin to see the relationships between words! When the students start learning about word families, they will begin to see the relationships between those words! They will probably shout out that the ending 2 phonemes are the same!

I love how to teach the silent "e" at the end.

Excuse the lack of an elephant! :) I have not found an elephant beanie baby yet. Also, when a vowel uses the long sound (as in cape) I will put a little hard hat on the animal (probably from a construction stuffed animal) because it has to work twice as hard to say 2 sounds.

As the students show mastery of word building, we can begin to trade out the beanie babies for letters with the animal transposed on top of it.

I believe that this method can help students to learn to listen for each sound in a word. I am excited about using this method to teach reading, and this method helps there to be a seamless transition between phonemic awareness and decoding. When looking at the reading rope graphic, I see how the rope begins at the top with phonemic awareness, then decoding, then sight word recognition. Each skill requires the other skills in order to be skilled in word recognition. It is of vital importance to build each part of the rope. I realized that I spent a lot of time on decoding and sight word recognition, and I spent very little time on phonological awareness. I can't wait to use some of these strategies to help integrate more phonological based lessons in my classroom.

We will continue next week with the Language Comprehension part of the reading rope!

Do you have any word recognition strategies/lessons that you use in your classroom? Let me know!


  1. I've used Zoo Phonics for twelve or thirteen years now- EVERY student can jump right in and work with sounds, including ESOL students. Thanks for sharing the info from your PD!

  2. I have been introducing sounds without letter names for over 10 years. My school adopted a curriculum that included Fast Track Phonics, which was a similar concept to Zoo Phonics. It works! I never formally teach letter names. As we learn to spell sight words, those letter name conversations just come naturally.

    1. I LOVE that! I don't know why it never occurred to me before this training, but it just makes so much sense when you really learn what the brain has to go through developmentally to allow the students to become skilled readers. I have heard quite a bit about fast track phonics, and I feel like these programs are developmentally appropriate for our guys! I am SO glad to hear that this has worked for you! I am excited about implementing it this next year!

  3. Can We get a list of all the Beanie Babies you will be using?

    1. Yes!

      A- Alligator
      B- Bear
      C- Cat
      D- Deer
      E- Elephant
      F- Fish
      G- Gorilla
      H- Horse
      I- Inchworm
      J- Jellyfish
      K- Kangaroo
      L- Lizard
      M- Mouse
      N- Nightowl (I am just using a regular owl)
      O- Octopus
      P- Penguin
      Q- Quail
      R- Rabbit
      S- Snake
      T- Tiger
      U- Umbrella Bird (I used a cardinal)
      V- Vampire Bat
      W- Weasel (I used an otter)
      X- Fox
      Y- Yak
      Z- Zebra

      I hope this helps!

  4. Where did you get the zoo phonics animals?! Did they come in a set or did you buy them individually? Love!!!!!!

  5. They were actually beanie babies that I had as a child, and my mom kept! I am also looking at Goodwill and other thrift stores in our area! My last resort will be Amazon or Ebay!