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by Julie Myre-Bisaillon, Annick Tremblay-Bouchard, Véronique Parent, Carole Boudreau and Anne Rodrigue

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In order for a child to learn how to read, he or she must be able to recognize written words effectively, have a meaningful understanding of syntactic structures, and develop skills related to comprehension (Observatoire national de la lecture, 2000). For children with reading disabilities, the identification of written words, so crucial to learning how to read, becomes a very arduous task. Two procedures may be used to learn how to recognize written words; one is phonological and the other is orthographical (Myre-Bisaillon, 2009).

Context of the Research

The strategy presented in this article employs orthographic processing in order to improve a student’s identification of written words through the explicit instruction of three or four strategies. It is drawn from the study Word Identification Strategies Training, better known as WIST.

Lovett, Steinbach and Frijters (2000) studied the impact of the English-language WIST program in 53 subjects, 7 to 13 years of age, in Toronto. Of this group, 32 subjects were identified has having a double deficit, 8 subjects had a phonological deficit, and 13 subjects had an orthographical deficit. Over the course of this 35-hour program (delivered in four one-hour sessions per week) the students work in groups of two or three using four strategies to improve their identification of written words and their knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

Description of the Strategy

At the beginning of each session, the prior knowledge and skills required to learn the program’s strategies are taught by means of a collection of 120 high-frequency words in English, which are introduced at a rate of approximately five words per session. These key words are used as reference points for identifying new words. They are displayed on a wall chart by vowel sound and rhyming patterns as they are taught. These lessons may involve instruction on vowel pronunciation, vowel combinations (ea-oo-ow-ie), and affixes (pre-re-un-ing-ly-ment). Most of the time in each session is spent on explicit instruction of one of the program’s four strategies and their application to activities in which the students identify isolated words and words in sentences. First, the educator models the strategy, explaining why it is used with the word that needs to be identified, how it is applied, and how to check whether it is working. Strategies are introduced individually, one after another, building on the previous strategies, requiring the students to engage in metacognitive reflection in order to choose which strategy to use.

First Strategy

The first strategy to be introduced in the program is word identification by analogy, which is based on the training program of Gasking et al. (1986). Over the course of the lessons associated with this strategy, students work on analogy using the rhyming patterns of words. Students learn to compare an unfamiliar word to a word that is familiar to them. The educator must be explicit in describing the process of decoding the word. For example, the words kick and her would be used to decode the word bicker.

Second Strategy

The second strategy to be introduced consists of attempting variable vowel pronunciations. Here, emphasis is placed on the importance of flexibility in word identification. In order to teach this strategy, educators show students how vowels can have different pronunciations and how pronunciation is determined by the letters surrounding a vowel. Students learn to experiment with different pronunciations of a new word and then must decide on the correct pronunciation.  For example, pronunciation of the letters ea will differ in the words breakbread and great.

Third Strategy

The third strategy, seeking the part of the word you know, is more commonly referred to as SPY. Over the course of the lessons for this strategy, students are taught to look for a word or parts of words within the longer word to be identified. For example, students will be able to distinguish between bun and dan (key words they have been taught) when he or she needs to decode the word abundance.

Fourth Strategy

The fourth word identification strategy is peeling off. It consists of removing or peeling off the affixes of multisyllabic words. The most frequently used prefixes and suffixes are taught as key words at the beginning of the program. Then the educator shows students how to identify prefixes at the beginning of a word and suffixes at the end of a word, thereby reducing an unfamiliar word to a shorter, more easily identifiable word. Fore example, when un and ing are taken away from the word unpacking, the student is left with pack, which simplifies word identification.

One very important aspect of this program is the emphasis on metacognitive decoding. During the sessions, the educator models the strategy explaining why it is used for a given word, how it is applied, and how to check whether it is working. For example, the educator could say, using the word unpacking as an example, “In the word unpacking, I recognize the un at the beginning of the word and the ing at the end of the word. Because these two parts of the word are at the beginning and end of the word and because they are affixes, I will use peeling off as my word identification strategy. So, I will peel off those two parts of the word and then try to identify the unfamiliar part of the word, which is the root word.” After this modeling, students are able to choose the most effective strategy, depending on the word they need to decode.

Supports Related to the Effectiveness of the Strategy

With the WIST programs, there were significant improvements between the pre-test and the post-test results of subjects with reading disabilities. There were significant improvements in grapheme-phoneme correspondences, word identification, and reading performance, particularly with respect to real words that contained the key words that had been taught and multisyllabic words. Significant improvements in reading aloud and text comprehension were also noted.

A series of knowledge transfer tests was conducted to determine whether the participants were able to apply new knowledge and skills they had acquired during the intervention to situations in which they encountered unfamiliar words of varying complexity. All of the subjects, irrespective of their reading disability, experienced significant improvements in their ability to transfer their new knowledge and skills during the identification of the key words they had been already been taught and multisyllabic and irregular words that they had not been taught.


Lovett, M. W., Steinbach, K. A., & Frijters, J. C. (2000). Remediating the core deficits of developmental reading disability: A double-deficit perspective. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(4), 334-358.

Myre-Bisaillon, J. (2009). Identification des mots écrits chez les dyslexiques phonologiques: Mise à l’essai d’un programme d’intervention compensatoire. Revue des sciences de l'éducation, 35(3), 65-84.

Observatoire national de la lecture (2000). Maîtriser la lecture. Poursuivre l’apprentissage de la lecture de 8 à 11 ans. Paris, France : Éditions Odile Jacob.

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Julie Myre-Bisaillon is a full professor at the Département des études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) in the Faculty of Education at the University of Sherbrooke. She is in charge of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write), a research team with roughly twenty members. Her research interests focus on teaching accommodation for special education students, using by-project approaches based on children’s literature from a multidisciplinary perspective, and on reading and writing awareness in disadvantaged areas. She has also taught at the high school level and performed remedial work.  

Carole Boudreau teaches at the Département d’études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) at the University of Sherbrooke. Before accepting this position, she worked as a remedial teacher in the school environment, as a guidance teacher specialized in hearing impairment and as a project officer for the Quebec Ministry of Education’s Direction de l’adaptation scolaire (Academic Accommodation Branch). Her research interests focus on reading and writing difficulties as well as remedial instruction. She is a member of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write).

Véronique Parent is a psychologist and professor at the Département de psychologie (Department of Psychology) at the University of Sherbrooke. Her research interests focus on cognitive disorders related to learning disabilities and accommodation. She is also interested in using novel intervention approaches in school environments, such as the use of cognitive training programs, to promote the development of special education students’ learning potential. She is a member of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write).

Anne Rodrigue is a Ph.D. student in the Département des études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) at the University of Sherbrooke. She was trained as a remedial teacher and for over 10 years has been dividing her time between research at the University and practice in schools.

Annick Tremblay-Bouchard is a Masters student in Education Science focusing on academic accommodation at the University of Sherbrooke. Trained as a primary school teacher, she specializes in students with hearing disabilities.