Blogs About Reading

Sound It Out

Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Space, AKA Concept of Word

April 3, 2007

6:17 A.M.

Anna: Mama, you know how it says "The Solar System" on the wall of my classroom? Well, it really says 'The space solar space system space.'

Me: (Yawn) Um, what sweetie?

Anna: On the wall. It really says, "The space solar space system space." You know, you have to put a space in-between words otherwise it just says gobbledy-gook.

Me: Oh, right! Of course.

Anna: O.K.

Anna is developing a concept of word (COW) — that critical skill or concept that matches the spoken and written word. Many young children reach it without much special attention or instructional focus. Other students will need more practice matching specific speech to words. Darrell Morris at Appalachian State University has thoroughly studied COW, and concludes that COW attainment is a critical step in the progression of early literacy skills — specifically, the ability to recognize initial consonants facilitates COW which facilitates phoneme segmentation, which promotes word recognition.

Several instructional techniques can be used to teach COW, and the Get Ready to Read site offers 36 activity cards for use with an individual child or a group of children, in English and in Spanish.

All I know is that at 6:17 AM, I feel happy that Anna has reached this milestone. But I wonder... could it have waited until 7 AM?


Thanks for your comment, Lynn. You've done a terrific job describing what many kids are working on: learning the language of learning! My guess is that your first grader is working to learn many important school words like "word, syllable, sentence," all which carry specific meaning. Some of the skills you describe (counting sounds in spoken words, for example) are great examples of phonological awareness (PA) tasks. We know PA skills are critical for readers, so keep up that great work! I suspect your son will smooth out his confusions over the labels (word, syllable) over time.

But knowing the concept of hearing words in speech is different from knowing the concept of seeing words in print. I wonder if the first is harder to learn than the second. My son in Grade One doesn't know the difference between hearing a word and hearing a syllable. If I ask him how many words are in, "I like to climb the monkey bars," he will count the syllables, or break some syllables into phonemes, so his answer might be 8 or even more, rather than the correct answer of 7 words. Have you had any luck teaching the concept of hearing words in speech?

Anna needn't develop a "concept" of the word cow. She likely is ready for learning mediated vowels. 'ow' is first taught as a pattern for long 'o'. Later, it is taught, along with 'aw' and 'wa' as a mediated vowel. Too many phonics programs quit after shor vowels. A REAL phonics program leads into suffixes and prefixes. For most kids, this should be late grade 3.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables