Word recognition is the ability of a reader to recognize and understand written words immediately and easily while reading. Word recognition may be isolated — recognizing words from lists; or it may be integrated — recognizing words in a text. Being able to recognize words is an essential prerequisite for successful reading.
There are two basic approaches to the teaching of reading: phonic (where children are taught to recognize the individual sounds of each letter or syllable and how they link together to produce whole words) and whole language (which teaches children to recognize words just by seeing them, hearing them and repeating them). Word recognition comes as an important component of the second method.
Children who have just learned to read tend to do it much slower than an experienced reader and this is precisely due to the more advanced word recognition skills of the latter. In the beginning, readers would usually break down words into individual sounds or chunks they can read and then reconstruct the whole word or they would try to identify the word from the surrounding words and the context. Through word recognition, more experienced readers need a fraction of a second to realize what word they are looking at. Mastering these skills takes a lot of practice and a variety of contexts.
One of the basic approaches to word recognition is analogy. When readers already recognize words like hen, pen or men, they can easily read another, similarly formed word which they may have otherwise been new to them, such as fen. When readers have difficulties with word recognition, they sometimes substitute a word they know, which looks similar to the word they are trying to read, for example reading carrying instead of carriage. It is sometimes possible for readers to correct their mistakes at the end of the sentence or the paragraph, if they are reading a text on a familiar topic and realize that it does not make sense, but this type of self-correction can hardly happen in cases of reading texts of unfamiliar nature or context.
Various methods and activities to practice word recognition have been designed. For beginner readers, the main practice comes from exposure. Children should first be exposed to the most frequently used words in texts — such as the, and, to, you, I or it. Statistics show that a group of just about 100 words actually constitute 50 percent of all words read. English may seem favorable to beginner readers because the majority of words are relatively short, consisting of one or two syllables. But words that may seem similar in spelling, can actually differ in pronunciation significantly, for example to and go, or said and paid, or the different pronunciation of gh in words such as enough and bough. That is why readers should be taught to recognize each word individually, as the method of analogy may not always work.
Another method for reading practice is semantic or meaning recognition. Students may be given a sentence of the type My dog likes to ____. And the teacher may give them three options to choose from: read, bark and fly. Children would perhaps have no hesitation in choosing bark due to their knowledge of dogs and the specific context. A variation of this method is syntactic recognition. In the same sentence, the following options may be given: run, nice and ice-cream. Students will be aware of the fact that to is followed by a verb and would correctly put run there. Although word recognition skills are essential for developing reading mastery, they are not always fully applicable.
People with dyslexia often face difficulties with word recognition because their ability to process information from written texts is different than many people's. They may not recognize words because they process them as units in which the sounds and phonics are either in the wrong order or do not make sense at all. Therefore, such cases should be instructed through different methods and practice. In the majority of cases, dyslexic students become competent readers, although they may read more slowly compared to other students.