Word recognition is the act of seeing a word and recognizing its pronunciation immediately and without any conscious effort. If reading words requires conscious, effortful decoding, little attention is left for comprehension of a text to occur. Since reading comprehension is the ultimate goal in teaching children to read, a critical early objective is to ensure that they are able to read words with instant, automatic recognition (Garnett, 2011). What does automatic word recognition look like? Consider your own reading as an example. Assuming you are a skilled reader, it is likely that as you are looking at the words on this page, you cannot avoid reading them. It is impossible to suppress reading the words that you look at on a page. Because you have learned to instantly recognize so many words to the point of automaticity, a mere glance with no conscious effort is all it takes for word recognition to take place. Despite this word recognition that results from a mere glance at print, it is critical to understand that you have not simply recognized what the words look like as wholes, or familiar shapes. Even though we read so many words automatically and instantaneously, our brains still process every letter in the words subconsciously. This is evident when we spot misspellings. For example, when quickly glancing at the words in the familiar sentences, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack jamped over the canbleslick,” you likely spotted a problem with a few of the individual letters. Yes, you instantly recognized the words, yet at the same time you noticed the individual letters within the words that are not correct.
To teach students word recognition so that they can achieve this automaticity, students require instruction in: phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of high frequency words (e.g., “said,” “put”). Each of these elements is defined and their importance is described below, along with effective methods of instruction for each.