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Print and word concepts

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Last updated 26 October 2012 15:28 by NZTecAdmin
Print and word concepts (PDF, 42 KB)

This starting point refers to the rules, conventions and practices that govern the use of print and the written English language. They include the following:

  • Print (the written word) carries meaning.
  • Written text in English is read from left to right.
  • The lines of text in English are read from left to right, and from top to bottom of the page (a return sweep of the eyes is needed to move from the end of one line to the start of the next).
  • Spaces between words signify the end of one word and the beginning of another.
  • There are spaces to separate lines and paragraphs.
  • The parts of a published book usually follow a pattern, although not all are always present (cover with title, title page, contents page, sections or chapters, index, back cover).

There are also rules or guidelines about words themselves that most literate English speakers take for granted. These conventions establish ‘norms’ for recognising words as words.

For example, in English:

  • words are made up of individual letters
  • the letters are formed from left to right
  • words may be written in lower and/or upper case letters
  • some words begin with an upper case letter (as determined by certain conventions)
  • words with a hyphen in the middle are treated as a single word.
  • There are spaces between words that signify each word’s boundary, and much smaller spaces between the letters in a word (cursive handwriting may not leave any white space between joined-up letters).

Background information

From their work with young beginning readers, various researchers have drawn conclusions that we might reasonably assume will apply to adult learners who have had few experiences with print and the conventions of printed texts. These conclusions include the following:1

  • Books are put together according to a set of conventions that can be understood without being able to read.2
  • Knowing the conventions of print aids the learner in the process of learning to read.3
  • Learners need to know the mechanics of print in order to be readers.4
  • Concepts about print knowledge may facilitate subsequent reading-related skills.5

Learners who come from an oral tradition and who have not grown up with print around them may need to be taught some or all of these concepts explicitly (see ‘Knowing what to do’).

Knowing the demands

In a literate society, most people begin interacting with print at an early age and on a constant basis.

Understanding the concepts about print makes the mechanics of reading predictable rather than random. Learners need to know these mechanics (such as which way to follow the print, where a word starts and ends) in order to read.

Once learners have grasped the concepts about print, they can focus on the aspects of texts that carry the meaning, using their knowledge of decoding, vocabulary and comprehension to understand the text.

Knowledge of these conventions or norms is also important in the production of words (writing) as the identifiable building blocks of text (see also ‘Letter formation’).

Knowing the learner

A learner’s concepts about print can be assessed by observing the learner and how they handle books and other texts, as well as by checking for knowledge on a one-to-one basis.

If learners are not yet able to read texts in English and have limited experience with print, it may be useful for tutors to combine assessment with teaching activities, using an activity to see what the learner knows. For example, when dealing with handling a book, select examples that have many clear illustrations, such as readers that learners’ children may have brought home from school.6 In addition, tutors may find it useful to model how to handle the book.

Adult learners will have knowledge of many words in spoken form, either in English or another language or both. They will also have exposure to written words in English. It is often possible (and desirable) to assess by observing and recording behaviours in the course of other activities.

Keep a record of what each learner knows and is able to do, using a checklist based on the list of print and word concepts above. This provides both you and the learner with a way to make decisions about the next learning steps.

Knowing what to do

Much of our knowledge of what print does comes from familiarity with and exposure to it.

Give learners practice in:

  • handling books (opening them, turning pages)
  • becoming familiar with parts of a book (cover, title, author, main text, illustrations)
  • looking for specific items (a word, letter, picture) in different kinds of text, such as a newspaper, magazine, course book, brochure, forms and cards
  • seeing and listening to many different text forms (such as letters, forms, newspapers, magazines, advertising flyers, signs and posters) and types (such as instructions, explanations, reports, narratives and persuasive texts)
  • discussing/predicting a story from the picture or title on the front of the book, and
  • matching words (for example, if the title is Coffee time, ask the learners to find the word coffee in the text).

Some useful strategies in undertaking these activities are to:

  • read a text aloud from a projected overhead transparency (OHT) so that the whole class can focus on the same text, and the tutor can observe the learners’ eye movements
  • use a pointer with the OHT to guide learners’ eye movements, and
  • point out parts of the text, for example, “Show me a word”, “Show me where I should start reading”, “Show me where a sentence starts and finishes”.

Also visit the local library and ensure that learners all have their own library card.

Provide opportunities for learners to check and consolidate knowledge of word concepts during other activities. Use directions such as, “Show me the next word”, “Where does the next word start?”, “Can you find that word again?”, “How many times is this word printed on the page?”, “Which word starts with b?”, “How many other words start with b?”

Case study

Sharifa lived at home with her family in Afghanistan until they had to flee to a refugee camp in Pakistan. The family stayed in the camp for several years before coming to New Zealand two years ago.

Sharifa never went to school. Now she and her husband are learning to speak, read and write in English and their young children are progressing rapidly at school.

When Sharifa first joined a literacy class, she was given a diagnostic assessment. As part of the assessment, her tutor gave her a small book and asked Sharifa to indicate the front of the book, to open the book and to show the title of the book.

Sharifa was able to open the book and point to the line of text on each page. She guessed (by looking at the pictures and reading the one or two words she knew) that the story was about a woman and her family. The name of the woman in the book was Sadiya, and Sharifa recognised the “S” as the same as her own name.

Teaching suggestions for Sharifa

  • Look at the title of the book used in the assessment together and read it aloud to her.
  • Encourage Sharifa to identify other occurrences of the name “Sadiya” in the book.
  • Count the words on a page (there will probably be four to six words).
  • Read the whole book with Sharifa.
  • Encourage her to retell (reading when she can) parts of the book with a reading partner.
  • Encourage Sharifa to identify other words in her environment that begin with “s”. Encourage Sharifa to practise her new skills with her children and in class.

Return to top

1 List adapted from www.sedl.org/reading/framework/research.html.

2 Clay, 1979.

3 Clay, 1979; Tunmer, Herriman and Nesdale, 1988.

4 See, for example, Ehri and Sweet, 1991.

5 Weir, 1989.

6 Do not use children’s books unless learners have a need to understand what their own children are learning.


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