Thursday, January 9, 2014

Concept of Word

Concept of word. It's HUGE in Kindergarten.  It is the biggest predictor of reading success in future grades, and children who don't have it by the end of the year can fall behind.   But what is it? How can we help our children learn it?

Why Do Kids Need Concept of Word?

Achieving a firm Concept of Word in text is a huge milestone in the learning to read process.  It applies a student’s automatic knowledge of letter sounds and their ability to isolate beginning consonants as they make the speech to print match.  The ultimate result is memory for words in isolation that were previously recognized only in context.

Concept of word in text is not an all or nothing literacy skill - there is a developmental continuum that children follow. 

Developing COW --------> Rudimentary COW ---------> Firm COW

How Can I Teach Concept of Word?

The lesson framework for concept of word goes like this: Students memorize a rhyme -> students model finger-point reading of the rhyme -> students identify words in the context of the poem -> students identify words from the poem shown in isolation.  

Concept of word instruction moves from whole-group to individual throughout the course of the language arts block.  In the whole-group setting, teachers should be teaching the rhyme and reviewing print concepts using a big book or chart.  When students come to their reading group, the teacher can review the rhyme and begin to work with the poem in chunks.  Students in small group can mix-up and re-order the sentences or words of the poem, match word cards to words in the poem and focus on isolating beginning sounds.  When students have worked with the poem for two weeks and are confident in their knowledge of it, the poem and activities done in small group can move to literacy stations or individual tasks for review.

COW Lesson, Step-By-Step

1. Teach the Rhyme! Use a picture representation of the rhyme.  Model how to recite the nursery rhymes.  Point to each picture as you say the rhyme.  Ask the students to point to each picture as they (a) choral read the rhyme with you, (b) echo read the ryhme picture by picture, (c) recite the rhyme independently

You cannot move on to step two if the children do not know the rhyme BY HEART. Repeat step one as many times as necessary.  Some children will need much longer than others to memorize the rhyme.  You may want to break it up for those students in the beginning and work with *one or two lines* of the poem instead of the entire poem.

2. Finger-Point Reading. Using the text of the rhyme, read the rhyme to students while pointing to each word.  After you have modeled reading the rhyme,  ask students to choral read the rhyme with you as you point.  Echo read the rhyme, line by line.  Read the rhyme again to students, pointing to each word.   Ask one student to point to the words like you just did as everyone reads the rhyme together.

3. Word Identification in Context.  After several readings of the text, point to various words in the poem and ask the student, "What word is this?" Model how to point to each word as you say the poem aloud to figure out the target word.  Model how to use knowledge of beginning sounds and letters to identify the target word.

4. Developing Word Recognition. Select several words from the text and write them on index cards.  Ask students to match each word to the same word in the text.  When a student makes a match, ask him how he knew it was the same word. Continue to ask until the child can tell you that he used the first letter and letter sound or multiple letters and letter sounds to identify the word.

In the picture below, students have yellow cards with target words on them.  They must match the word on the card to the word in the poem and either point and read the entire poem until they get to their word to discover which word it is or use their knowledge of sounds and letters to identify their word.

For example, a student with the word "monkeys" on a card could match the card to the word "monkeys" in the poem and then point .. "Five, little, monkeys." (STOP.) "Oh, it's monkeys!" Or, the student could say "My card has a word that starts with an m. I know that the letter m makes the /m/ sound, so it could be /m/-onkeys, /m/-omma or /m/-ore.  But it has a /k/ sound in the middle and ends with the /s/ sound like in monkey-/s/, so I think it's monkeys."   Either strategy is correct, but the second one shows a more firm concept of word.

When teaching concept of word, teachers should expect and teach to the following, depending on where the students are:

-Developing COW: Target beginning consonants
-Rudimentary COW: Target beginning consonants and digraphs
-Firm COW: Target beginning and final consonants, digraphs and blends

An example of this could be the word "sheep" in Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.  Recall that the poem goes like this: "Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full."  A student with developing COW might say the word "sheep" is "sir," because he is using only the beginning sound, /s/.  A child with rudimentary COW would get that the word is "sheep" because he is looking at the digraph /sh/.

Children who don’t get the word using a beginning sound at all will need to re-read the text aloud as they point up to the word to figure it out.  Hence why a firm knowledge of letters and the sounds they make are necessary prerequisites for mapping spoken words to the printed text.
If you need materials to help teach your students Concept of Word, I have created a Concept of Word instructional pack on TeachersPayTeachers.  You can find it HERE.  This resource includes 27 themed poems in the same unified format to teach your emergent readers concept of word. Each poem has a copy of the text, pictures with the text of the poem, a word list to assess concept of word, pictures without text and word cards. The graphics are all basic line drawings so that your students can color them in as you go.

Parents, how can you help at home? 
  • Recite nursery rhymes! Over and over! 
  • Ask your child to point to each word as he or she is reading aloud.
  • Point to words when you are reading simple text to your child.
  • After your child reads a word, ask “How did you know it was ____?” For example, if the target word is “ball” and the student says “it starts with a /b/ sound,” say “That’s right! Ball starts with a /b/ sound! What letter makes the /b/ sound?” Good! The letter “b” makes the /b/ sound.”  

Do you have any additional tips or questions on Concept of Word? If so, leave them in the comments! Happy teaching!


  1. What a great explanation, thanks!

    1. Glad it helped clarify. I really needed to write something to explain it easily to parents!