Word Recognition and Decoding
Word Recognition & Decoding Subtest assesses a learner’s ability to “get words off the page” accurately and efficiently. Sight word recognition is essential to fluent reading, while decoding allows readers to learn new words they encounter in text.
Decoding is the process of converting words printed on a page into speech. To be able to pronounce new (or novel) words correctly, readers need to know how letters (also called graphemes) relate to their sounds (also called phonemes), and sounds to letters. As adults, we encounter novel and/or infrequent words in our daily lives often. Think about words like “indict”, “vaccine”, and “listeria” or proper nouns like “Jenuvia”, “Kleenex”, and “Vizio”. Our decoding skills help us to read these and many more.
As readers develop, decoding should become quick, accurate, and easy (where “easy” means that decoding only requires a little attention). Unfortunately, the sound-to-letter correspondences of English don’t always match up as expected. For example, the letter “c” sometimes makes the sound /k/, as in “call”, while sometime it sounds like /s/, as in “cement”. Because of this, it can take quite a while to learn all the irregular pairs and patterns of English to master decoding, and it may well be the case that decoding skill continues to develop across the lifespan as we encounter additional novel words.
Word recognition develops when we have built up a representation in our memories for words that we have seen over and over. When we encounter these “sight words” we recognize them automatically, without having to pause to sound them out.
Much like decoding, sight word recognition should become quick, accurate, and easy as readers develop. When it does, it allows readers to use their cognitive resources for comprehension.
Vocabulary, or knowing the meaning of words you see in print (as opposed to the words you hear in conversation), is essential to strong reading comprehension. Recent research points to differences in vocabulary skill as a significant part of the differences between good and poor readers. One thing to keep in mind is that vocabulary skill does not develop as a completely separate entity from word recognition and decoding. It’s likely that the two areas are intertwined and that the more solidly we know the spelling and pronunciation of a word, the better we know its meaning—and vice versa.
It’s also important to keep in mind that many words have more than one meaning. Think of the word “bank”. We can think of a bank as a place where money is kept…or as the edge of a river or stream…or as a way to shoot a basketball. Multiple meanings can make vocabulary improvement more complicated; fortunately, vocabulary development is ongoing as we continue to learn new words—and new meanings of “old” words—throughout our lifespan.
Morphology refers to the parts of a word that give it meaning. It includes various parts of words such as stems, roots, prefixes and suffixes that can change word meaning and pronunciation. These word parts often change words in predictable ways. For example, when we add “-s” to the end of certain words the words become plural, such as one “blanket” to many “blankets”. In this example, the “s” is called an inflectional morpheme. Other examples of inflectional morphemes include the endings “-ed” and “-ing”, as in “added” and “adding”, which mark the tense of the verb. Derivational morphology refers to prefixes and/or suffixes that are added to a root word and typically change the root word’s meaning. Think of the root words “paint” and “complex”. If we add “-er” to “paint” to form “painter”, we have changed the meaning of the root. Similarly, if we add “-ity” to complex, we form “complexity”.
An understanding of morphology (also called morphological awareness) can help a reader when trying to determine the meaning of a word. For example, if a reader comes across the new word “undecided” and understands that the prefix “un” means “not” and the root word “decide” means “to make a decision”, the reader could conclude that “undecided” means “to have not made a decision”. In this way, morphology can save a reader time and effort when trying to determine the meaning of the word and can help build vocabulary.
Sentence processing is the ability to understand the relationships between words within a single sentence and understand sentences of varying lengths and complexity. The relationships in a sentence can be complex and small changes in these relationships can have a big impact on the meaning of a sentence. For instance, there is a big difference in the meaning of the sentence
“The man caused the accident, said the witness.” vs “The witness caused the accident, said the man,” even though the words used in each sentence are the same. While these words and their ultimate meaning may be easier to understand for short sentences, as the sentence length increases, it becomes more difficult to interpret all the relationships properly. In such cases, learners need to hold a lot of information in memory and the key relational words and phrases can sometimes get lost. Understanding relational words, such as “before”, “therefore”, “not”, “less-than”, and “that” are critical for sentence comprehension.
Efficiency of Basic Reading Comprehension
Efficiency of basic reading comprehension is more commonly known as reading fluency and is the ability to read accurately and quickly (silently or aloud), while also comprehending the reading material. Throughout life, we read a variety of texts, from newspapers to webpages, and being able to read fluently is important to understanding and learning from our reading. If we read too slowly or misread several words it becomes an even greater challenge to understand what we are reading. The more demanding and challenging a text, the more cognitive resources (like working memory or attention) we need for comprehension. When we read fluently, we free up the resources we used previously to decode and process words, which can then be used for comprehension instead.
Reading comprehension can be subdivided into three distinct levels of understanding: surface level (a verbatim understanding of the words and phrases), the textbase (the “gist” understanding of what is being read), and the situation model (the deepest level possible). In the reading comprehension subtest, the task focuses on first two of the three. Reading can also be subdivided into the following 5 dimensions: print, verbal, discourse, conceptual, and social. The reading comprehension subtest targets the discourse level.