Word Families: For Many, the Key to Early Reading Acquisition

Before reading remediation can be undertaken, reading specialist are first faced with the task of determining which skill set in particular students is weak. Generally, remedial work can be divided into two areas: reading comprehension and decoding.  It is this second  area -decoding- that is the focus of this writing. A specific remedial technique    seeks to offer an alternative to traditional beginnings for decoding intervention.


Generally accepted as a weakness in the ability to internalize the grapheme (letter) and corresponding phoneme (sound) within a language, (often labeled as auditory/visual processing deficit), weak decoders and more severe dyslexics struggle with automaticity in reading. Specialists, whose work focuses on this area of weakness, are basically dealing with those individuals for whom the sounds and symbols of a language have not “gelled” in a strong, permanent way within the brain.  For this group, that needs intensive practice with the sounds and letters within a language, the first step in traditional remediation is the introduction of individual letters and sounds and the manipulation of the smallest, individual sounds in words.  Following this rudimentary springboard, practitioners generally go on to gradually introduce larger “chunks” of sounds, constructs common to a language that include groups of letters that often appear together (like “ing”,  “onk”, “atch”, “ic”, “orm”)- chunks of frequently appearing letters that are often referred to as word-families. However, it is most often the practice of reading teachers to wait in introducing these letter groups, and favoring mastery of individual letter/sound correspondences first.


Interestingly, it has been documented that some students actually  benefit from reading intervention that begins with the introduction of word families.  While initial sound/letter correspondence is vital, many students actually begin to recognize groups of letters that often appear together in English in almost the same way that they would recognize a face.  Instant recognition, and not sounding out individual phonemes, seems to be the key for these children. Allowing students to see word-families right at the start might be fruitful, as the visual impact of the groups of common groups of letters is, for many, very powerful. From this point the speed with which progress will advance can be, many specialists have found, nothing short of remarkable.  Examples of common word families would include: “__am,” “__et,” “__ust,” “__ip,” “__od,” etc…


This fascinating finding provides the knowledge that many struggling decoders actually do better, sooner, by focusing on groups of commonly connected phonemes, or word-families. The focus also inherently includes rhyming, as all those words within a family rhyme. The ability to hear a rhyme is key to good phonological awareness, and when missing, is often the juncture at which a red flag is raised for a particular student. Encouraging rhyme recognition addresses the sense of hearing and rhythm, and conceivably supports literacy along with its intrinsic visual impact. While  literacy specialists may initially focus on the alphabet and respective sounds,  the simultaneous introduction of word-families to these youngest, struggling students, is often an excellent form of remediation. The process seems to facilitate the recognition of groups of common letters within English, which for many students seems to be a key to cracking the code of early fluent reading.

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