Concept of Word: The Work of the Emergent Reader

Susan E. Gately,

The full text can be found at:

The Work of Emergent

Concept of Word

Concept of word has received little study from the field in recent years and while it is mentioned as an early literacy skill in many literacy methods texts, it is generally given scant coverage. It may be that, by its very nature as an early skill easily attained by most students, it has not received much attention. However as national and state mandates call for increased accountability and access to the general education curriculum for all students, attention must be paid to the rudiments of early literacy skills so teachers can notice them and foster their development in students with intensive special needs. While research abounds on best practices for literacy instruction for students with learning disabilities and students at-risk, there is a paucity of evidence documenting best practices in literacy instruction for students with more intensive special needs. Although the
practice of inclusion has opened classroom doors to these students, there is
evidence that many of them are not being “invited to join the literacy curriculum” in their classrooms (Kliewer, 1998). Discouraged with the
seeming lack of progress to develop early literacy skills, practitioners who
work with students with more intensive special needs often move away from the
more traditional “general” education curriculum after the primary
grades (Katims, 1991). They spend more time on vocational and life centered
learning curriculums.  When they do continue to work on literacy skills, the time allocated to instruction generally does not match that given to students with less significant disabilities (Erikson, 2002). As a result, many students with intensive special needs often do not experience the intensive literacy instruction necessary for them to become literate (Katims, 1991).

Attention to the rudiments of literacy development is essential if teachers are to help students with intensive special needs progress in this area. Concept of word is a key early literacy skill/concept that most students reach without specialized attention or programming. It is defined as the match between the spoken word and the written word. Concept of word has been demonstrated as a pivotal event in learning to read. Morris (1993) demonstrated that the development of concept of word precedes and may facilitate the development of phonemic awareness, a skill that has been credited in the literature (National Reading Panel, 2000) as
instrumental in the development of literacy skill. Given the enormous attention
that phonological awareness has received in the literature, this important finding by Morris may give direction to instructional planning for students with more intensive special needs whose literacy skills are often fixed at the beginning emergent level.

Many pre-reading/emergent literacy activities involve the use of identifying or “reading” environmental print.  Students practice “reading” various logos or signs with which they are familiar. The famous MacDonald’s golden arches are a familiar logo that many young children quickly identify and relate to meaningfully.  Braden (1989) developed an early literacy program based on the use of environmental print and product logos to teach students with Fragile X to read. In her program students first learned logos of familiar places (Safeway, K-Mart, Subway), and then using fading prompts, students gradually transferred this knowledge of these logos to parts of words (safe, way, sub, way.) While there may be some face validity to this type of approach, studies have indicated that the usefulness of exposure to environmental print for early reading development may be limited (Kuby, Aldridge& Snyder, 1994).  Teachers should be cautious in using environmental print to promote reading skills per se. A more productive first step may in the use of symbols or rebuses.

The Peabody Rebus Reading Program (Woodcock, 1967), taught students symbols or rebuses related to words through a programmed workbook format. Symbols were gradually faded to phonic elements (letters and letter combinations) to teach students words. This program used the one to one
correspondence of symbol to word to improve students’ focus on symbols and
increase the ability to match speech with symbol. While this program is out of
print, similar formats can be easily developed by teachers using picture
symbols employed in many software programs. Boardmaker TM is a graphics database that can be used to create symbol reading. Writing with Symbols     2000 TM  is another tool that allows teachers to make symbol-reading books for their students. Developing simple sentences using symbols and words and then having students point and read, matching their pointing to their speech illustrates a typical concept of word activity.

A thorough treatment of print-word matching is contained in Oelwein’s text, Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome (1995). In this approach, students begin by learning meaningful words, such as names of important people or objects in their environment. This is accomplished first through matching pictures to picture and words, and later matching pictures to words only. As students learn to match words and pictures, the words may be gradually introduced into a simple text format. For example, after the student learn the words of four favorite foods (cookies, pizza, cake, popcorn) through this matching and fading approach, the words are then used in a repetitive, predictable text format, such as “I like cookies, I like pizza, I like cake, I like popcorn.” Reading of predictable text, such as those created by teachers based on students’ interest has been cited (Katims, 1991) as a promising approach for
students with mental retardation.

Repeated reading of predictable and leveled texts has also been suggested as an approach for the development of early literacy skill (Clay, 1991, Katims, 2000). Predictable text contains language that is supported by pictures so that it is relatively easy to predict what the text says.  As a result predictable text allows the student to use multiple cues (memory, picture, context/ language cues, repetition of language) to “read” the text.  Students are directed to point to each word as they read and in this way concept of word is developed and reinforced. (See the Tar Heel Readers website for lots and lots of books written by children for children at these early reading levels).

When using leveled texts care needs to betaken that students successfully finger point when they read. Because of the repetitious and predictable nature of these texts, they are easy for many students to memorize, even after only a few readings. When this occurs, it is essential to make sure that students are matching their voice with their finger pointing. This will help them establish concept of word and sharpen their focus and attention on print. Students who are impulsive may find it quite difficult to monitor their finger pointing and various physical, verbal and visual prompts may be necessary to help them master this task. Other students may not have the motor skill to be able to demonstrate their understanding of concept of word. More physical prompting and viewing windows (slotted cards) may be used to help students focus on words when reading simple texts. For students who are unable to point, teachers may point for them, exaggerating the pause between words to reinforce the idea of “reading the spaces.”  Paraprofessionals and parents can be taught to use these simple approaches. Care should be taken that all adults working with the student be aware of the importance of matching their voice with their finger pointing in order to ensure that concept of word skills are being consistently reinforced.

Another approach to help students develop concept of word is language experience stories.  Fernald (1943) used a type of language experience approach to help students with a variety of disabilities to learn to read. She used a holistic, tracing method to teach students to read the sentences that they had constructed.  The language experience approach capitalizes on the students’ experiences, language, social and cultural, and cognitive knowledge and abilities (Stauffer, 1970).  In the language experience approach, the students share an activity with the teacher and classmates. This may be a field trip, an activity as part of a unit of study, a visitor to the classroom, or even a shared book. Students discuss the activity and easel paper is used to capture the students’ thinking, their vocabulary, and the concepts they present. The teacher then writes down the ideas presented in sentence format.  The teacher encourages the students to use their own language, keeping editing of the students’ language to a minimum. As the story is constructed parts are periodically reread to help students focus on what they have already written. When the story is completed, it is read aloud to the students  with the teacher pointing to each word as is read. The group reads the story many times chorally. Gradually the pointing and reading responsibility is scaffolded to the students.

To start using the language experience approach with students with intensive special needs chart paper is helpful. Use writing that is large and that accentuates the spaces between words. Begin with labeling favorite objects, writing captions for pictures, writing names of people in the environment, or writing repetitive sentences. Teachers may need to develop much of the “storyline” for students whose expressive language is limited. In this case, care should be taken to use simple, repetitive, and predictable language.  While
an added benefit to using language experience stories may be that students learn to read some words, the focus at this time is “reading the spaces,” finger pointing to text. Once the story is constructed, the students and teacher practice reading and rereading the story and using the story in extension activities.

Scaffolded writing has also been helpful in developing student awareness of word (Soderman, Gregory, & O’Neill, 1999; Douville, 2000). In scaffolded writing students dictate a sentence that they would like to write. The teacher draws a line to represent each of the words that are to be written. Then the student uses the drawn lines to write each word of the sentence. For example, the student may dictate the sentence, “We had pizza.”   The teacher
draws a line for each of these words, ” _____ _____ _____.”  After the lines are drawn, the teacher and student point to each line and say out loud each word while tapping the respective lines. This is done until the student remembers the words that each line represents. Then the student attempts to write each of the words on the lines drawn. The focus is not on correct spelling, but having the student represent each separate word in some way. Scaffolded writing has been shown to be an effective method to improve the writing of students in kindergarten (Bodrova & Leon, 1998).  While its utility in helping students with intensive special needs to develop concept of word has not yet been demonstrated, the focus on matching speech with visual lines may be a promising way to help students to develop concept of word. This is certainly an avenue of further investigation.

Beginning literacy instruction by teaching students sound/symbol relationships prior to the development of concept of wordmay be misguided and misplaced instruction. Beginning literacy instruction that teaches students to “read” sight words through errorless, programmed learning materials prior to the development of concept of word may also be misguided and misplaced instruction.  To move students with more intensive needs beyond emergent literacy, focus on the development of concept of word may be an essential first step. Many questions remain to be answered. How much time should students with intensive needs spend on literacy instruction in order to become literate? What methods are more effective in helping students develop concept of word?
Do students differentially respond to different methods?

As special educators accept the challenges of ensuring literacy access for all students, keen observations of students’ interaction with print will be necessary. Attention to concept of word may help teachers to develop methods appropriate for students with more intensive needs who seem trapped at the emergent literacy level. Focus on this important emergent concept may help students to move beyond emergent skills with the refinement of their attention toward the finer perceptual tasks of letter recognition and phonological/phonemic awareness. There is increasing evidence in the literature of descriptive studies that show that students with developmental disabilities do respond to stimulating, literacy-rich environments (Hedrick, Katims, & Carr, 1999). As teachers of students with intensive special needs we need to notice small steps in literacy development that indicate students’ growth. Focus on concept of word is a great first step for students and teachers alike.


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