Learning to Read Words: Linguistic Units and Strategies

CIERA Report #1-008

Connie Juel, Harvard University
Cecilia Minden-Cupp, University of Virginia

CIERA Inquiry 1: Readers and Texts
How does reading instruction work in the complexity of real classrooms? What instructional practices help children who come to reading with low levels of phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge learn to read words?

The question of which, and how many, word-recognition strategies should be taught to first-grade children has long perplexed practitioners. In this study, Juel and Minden-Cupp analyze word recognition instruction in four first-grade classrooms to begin to identify the instructional practices that best foster learning to read words for particular profiles of children.

Juel and Minden-Cupp observed four demographically similar classrooms over a period of a year. In each classroom, students were organized into reading groups of varying abilities. Instructional practice varied widely across these classrooms; phonics and phonemic awareness activities, for example, were more common in Classrooms 2 and 4 than in the other two. And while children in Classrooms 2, 3, and 4 were on average reading at or above their grade level by the end of the year, the only low group children who were reading at grade level were those in Classrooms 2 and 4.

Their findings suggest that differential instruction may be helpful in first grade; that children who enter first grade with low literacy benefit from early exposure to phonics, moving later toward the increased vocabulary and text discussion that serves their higher range peers well; and that a structured phonics curriculum that includes both onsets and rimes and sounding and blending phonemes within rimes appears to be very effective.

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