The Word Discovery Process

What Strong Readers Do with New Words

When people with good reading skills encounter new words in text, they generally follow the same process for figuring out what those words mean. (This assumes, of course, that they do not skip over the words.) They follow a process of decoding and discovery. The process looks like this.

1. Attempt to decode the word.

Readers try to sound out the word first to see whether or not they actually do know the word. After all, it is possible that they know the word but simply do not recognize it when written.

If they know the word once they decode it, great! They keep reading. Otherwise, they go to the next step.

2. Analyze the word parts.

Readers look for suffixes, prefixes, root words, parts of root words, etc., to try to find clues about the word meaning. For example, if they come across the word “aggrandize,” they might recognize the root “grand,” which means “big” and “important.” They might also recognize the “ize” which means “to make something.” Once they recognize those parts, they put them together to create “make something seem bigger or more important.”

Overall, if readers know what the parts mean, they can come up with a working definition of what the word as a whole means. Once they have done that, they sound out the entire word again (decoding) and keep reading. Otherwise, they go to the next step.

3. Examine the context.

Readers consider the entire passage in which the word occurs. They ask whether they understand the theme or topic of the passage. They look for key words or phrases that might explain the unfamiliar word. They mentally blank out the unfamiliar word and try to figure out what word or meaning would fill in the blank according to the passage.

If they think they know approximately what word or words might fit the context of the passage and what might fill in the blank, they read the entire passage with that filled-in information to see whether the passage still makes sense.

If the passage still makes sense, they do not keep reading. Instead, they re-examine the original word and see if they can now interpret the word parts. They ask themselves whether or not the possible definition fits any of the parts of the word (word analysis), they sound out the entire word (decoding), and then they keep reading. Otherwise, they go to the next step.

4. Look up a definition.

If, and only if, all the previous steps failed to give them a sense of the word meaning, readers look up the definition. This is the last step in the process, not the first step! It might take a strong reader only seconds to get to this step, but that is not the point. The point is that strong readers try to figure out the meaning before they look up the word.

Once strong readers have looked up a word, they do not keep reading. First, they have to make sure the definition fits the passage (examine the content), they see if the dictionary definition gives any clues about word parts (word analysis), they sound out the entire word (decoding), and then they keep reading.

This is the entire decoding and discovery process. As you can see, strong readers do not jump to any particular step. They go through the process. Neither do they keep reading once they have an idea about the meaning. They go back to prior steps and confirm their ideas.

What Weak Readers Do with New Words

Weak readers typically either skip the word, which means they may not understand the passage, or they jump to looking up the definition, which means they do not consider how the definition is supported by, or contributes to, the meaning of the entire passage. In both cases, they do not expand their vocabulary.

By following this process, good readers will learn new words and comprehend the text. How can weak readers get the same benefit? They learn to follow the decoding and discovery process.