Helping Students to Identify Unfamiliar Words

Thanks to brain research, we now understand more about the underlying processes used when students attempt to identify unknown words.  Brain imaging provides insights into these processes through identification of the particular regions involved, their functions, and interactions within the left hemisphere where language processing at the word level occurs.

The instructional practices used to teach the complex task of identifying unknown words vary.  Some encourage identifying the unfamiliar or unknown word through exploration of the word’s meaning by asking questions such as, “Can the picture help you think about this part of the story or what this word might mean?” or through prompting such as, “Think about what would make sense.”  When using this approach, a sequence referred to as “MSV” is considered appropriate (Adams, 1998; Bellwood, Denyes, Friar, Windsor, & Mahoney, 2007; Fountas & Pinnell, 2007).  M refers to meaning (semantic), S refers to structure (syntax), and V refers to visual (grapho-phonic). The MSV method relies on the students’ use of prior knowledge and the ability to think about the text in relationship to the unknown word. Literature supporting this approach encourages the use of the M and S, but discourages V in most instances to move more quickly to meaning and comprehension.

Some students can easily use the MSV method while others have to rely on their knowledge of phonics gained through typical phonics instruction provided in kindergarten through second grade as identified in the Virginia English Standards of Learning.  Still other students require more intense phonics instruction or specially designed instruction through explicit, structured, multisensory instruction.  The latter explicitly integrates prior instruction into the reading process, thus meeting the application and generalization needs of students struggling with word-level reading difficulties.

The Four Part Processing System in Figure 1 provides guidance regarding the underlying processes involved in decoding unfamiliar words, namely, the Phonological Processor, the Orthographic Processor, the Meaning Processor, and the Context Processor.  The processors refer to language work carried out by different areas within the left hemisphere of the brain to decode and appropriately understand words in text.  Use of this knowledge will assist teachers in providing explicit, sequential, systematic decoding instruction.

Figure 1. Four Part Processing Model of Word Recognition

fourpart(Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989)

The phonological and orthographic processors must work together to decode a word.   Once the word is decoded, the process moves to the meaning processor where  a deep knowledge of vocabulary is helpful.  (Often, students with dyslexia have a strong  oral vocabulary while their ability to decode is weak.)  Finally, the context  processor must work with the meaning processor to determine the appropriate meaning for the situation at hand.

The phonological processor or system refers to perceiving, remembering, and producing the speech sounds of our language.  The graphemes and phonemes of a word must be taken apart so that sounds may be mapped onto letters or combinations of letters through structural analysis of the word.  The phonological and orthographic processors work together to decode unfamiliar words.  Next, the context processor provides support to the meaning processor in determining the meaning of the unfamiliar word.  In this process, students rely on relationships and connections already established.  Context refers to the structure within which the word appears and events being discussed in the text (Moats & Tolman, 2009).

In summary, an unfamiliar word is first decoded through an interaction between the phonological (sound) and orthographic (symbol) processors.  Once the word is decoded, meaning may be determined through pre-established links or connections.  Finally, the appropriate meaning of the word may be determined through context, using the structure within which the word appears and the happenings within the text being read.  For some words, the established connections and structures may be the explicitly taught structures of the word or the explicitly taught word position within a sentence.

Understanding the underlying processes involved in decoding allows teachers to break instruction down into smaller steps (Stowe & Rozelle, 2015; Vaughn, Wanzek, Murray, & Roberts, 2012) for students struggling with decoding.  For example, when a student has challenges within the phonological area, the weakness blocks decoding, which in turn interferes with word identification (Shaywitz, 2003).  A student experiencing this challenge will need explicit support to understand the phonology and orthography of the word before moving on to determine its meaning and appropriate context.

In action, this process might look like this.  A student reads the sentence, The boy had a patch on his shirt., but encounters an unfamiliar word, patch, within the sentence.  The student must be able to recognize the graphemes or letters (orthographic processor) and then map phonemes or sounds (phonological processor) onto the appropriate graphemes.  Through structural analysis, the student determines that with a short or lax vowel sound, the /ch/ sound is spelled with its long spelling – tch.  Now the student is able to pronounce the word, but to determine the meaning of the word, the meaning and context processors must do their work to identify the appropriate usage given the words surrounding patch. Using the app, 13 meanings for this word as a noun can be found.  Application of context must take place to determine its position in the sentence as well as the appropriate meaning to the happenings in the text.  Through further application of the context processor, the meaning processor would select “a small piece of material used to mend a tear.”

For the best possible outcome for students who are struggling to identify unfamiliar words, teachers of reading need to encourage the integration of previously provided phonics instruction or specially designed instruction with grade-level content. Phonics instruction teaches the phonology (sounds) and orthography (letter symbols) of words, and when successfully mastered, provides access to more and more complex text.  These phonics skills are outlined within the Virginia English Standards of Learning. When working with students to comprehend text, all teachers of reading (K – 12) should be aware of the phonics instruction provided at the lower grades or through specially designed instruction. Such knowledge will provide a method to cue the student when needing to dig deeper or break the process into smaller steps, as outlined in Figure 1, in order to determine the meaning of words within text.


Adams, M. J. (1998).  The three-cueing system. In F. Lehr & J. Osborn (Eds.), Literacy for all issues in teaching and learning (pp. 73-99). New York, NY:  Guilford Press.

Bellwood, C., Denyes, K., Friar, L., Windsor, C., & Mahoney, K. (2007).  The three cueing systems; Sample questions, instructional strategies and examples of msv cues.  Belleville, ON, Canada: Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board, C.O.D.E. Project.

Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (2007).  Prompting guide 1: A tool for literacy teachers.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Moats, L. C., & Tolman, C. (2009).  Module one: The challenge of learning to read (2nd ed.) Longmont, CO:  Sopris West.

Seidenberg, M. S., & McClelland, J. L. (1989). A distributed, developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological Review, 96(4), 523-568.  The four part processing model of word recognition –

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading programs at any level.  New York, NY:  Vintage Books.

Stowe, M.M., & Rozelle, J. (2015, May).  Intensifying instructional delivery during guided reading.  Training and Technical Assistance Center at the College of William and Mary:  Link Lines Newsletter.

Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Murray, C. S., & Roberts, G. (2012). Intensive interventions for students struggling in reading and mathematics: A practice guide. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

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