Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

An Investigation of Teacher Preferences for Word Identification Strategies

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

An Investigation of Teacher Preferences for Word Identification Strategies

Article excerpt


`The Literacy Experts Group's advice on appropriate instructional approaches was based on a concern they expressed that teachers may not always select appropriate strategies, particularly when working with struggling readers' (Literacy Taskforce Report, 1999, p. 7).

Whenever the issue of whether or not `phonics' should be taught in reading programs is raised, most teachers (quite rightly) claim that they encourage children to use a variety of strategies when they read. There would not be a teacher anywhere who teaches children to rely solely on context or solely on phonics cues. Most teachers claim that the best approach to teaching reading is to incorporate an integrative approach that includes encouraging the use of all cues. So the debate is not really about whether phonics or whole language is the `best' approach to teaching reading. Rather, it is about the extent to which one cue source should be given a greater or lesser emphasis than others in the decoding process.

The `integrated' approach to the teaching of word identification processes in New Zealand schools refers to the use of all cues that are available to the reader. These cues (or sources of information) include the meaning in the sentence, the meaning from prior knowledge, the grammatical structure (syntax) and the graphophonic information in the word. However, there is evidence to suggest that teachers are generally encouraged to teach the meaning and syntactic cues ahead of the word-level (i.e. graphophonic) cues for word identification processes. The New Zealand Department of Education Handbook Reading in Junior Classes (1985) states for example that, `if neither rereading nor reading on yields meaning immediately, these techniques are what children should be encouraged to try first' (p. 39).

Furthermore, Clay (1998) argues that

   all readers, from five-year-old beginners on their first books to the
   effective adult reader, need to use: the meaning, the sentence structure,
   order cues, size cues, special features, special knowledge, and first and
   last letter cues, before they resort to left-to-right sounding out of
   chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters. (p. 9)

It is clear from these two statements that teachers are not encouraged to focus on word-level cues as the initial source of information for word identification purposes. Despite these statements, it is generally acknowledged that when an unfamiliar word is encountered, teachers claim that they encourage the reader to `use a variety of cues' to help with identification. However, this paper contends that even though there is evidence that teachers do in fact encourage children to make use of a variety of sources of information when reading unfamiliar words, the use of graphophonic cues are under-emphasised in favour of context-based cues.


Sixteen primary school teachers (the entire staff) from two schools were selected for this small-scale survey. The teachers taught across all levels of the school from Year 1 to Year 8 (5- to 12-year-olds). The teachers were presented with examples of six different reading error scenarios and they were required to write the preferred initial prompt that they would use to assist the reader to identify the particular target error. Although each teacher was asked to list up to three likely prompts for each error, the analysis of the data in the current investigation was concerned only with the initial prompt chosen.

The text page (from the original source) was presented to the teachers on an overhead projector transparency. This allowed them access to the text preceding the error and the illustration. Each teacher also had a copy of the target sentence with the reading error scenario and they were required to write their three prompts next to the relevant error. The initial prompts were later categorised according to whether they focussed on context or word-level cue sources. …

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