Glossary of Reading Terms
The study of reading is a science with roots in many domains; linguists
study reading, psychologists study reading, educators study reading,
even computer scientists are studying reading. The process of reading
has been dissected and examined from a variety of perspectives,
and experts in the field have had to adopt and modify terminology
or generate new terminology to describe what their examinations
Unfortunately, all of this new and precise technical terminology
can be confusing - it is necessary when you are trying to describe
a precise concept, but there are so many concepts in reading and
reading instruction that the terminology can interfere with clear
communication at times.
The Reading Coherence Initiative (RCI) at the Southwest Educational
Development Laboratory has put together this glossary of terms related
to reading and reading instruction so that people can quickly and
easily check terms as they encounter them. Also, as people are trying
to describe precise and technical concepts, they may find this glossary
a useful resource of precise and technical terms.
Being a web-based document, this is a flexible and living document
- if there are terms which are either omitted or which you feel
are misrepresented in this glossary, let us know by typing the term
and definition in the form below. After a peer
review, the term will be added to the glossary.
Affix An attachment to the end or beginning of base or root word. A generic term that describes prefixes and suffixes.
Age equivalent scores In a norm-referenced assessment, individual student's scores are reported relative to those of the norming population. This can be done in a variety of ways, but one way is to report the average age of people who received the same score as the individual child. Thus, an individual child's score is described as being the same as students that are younger, the same age, or older than that student (e.g. a 9 year old student my receive the same score that an average 13 year old student does, suggesting that this student is quite advanced). See also grade equivalent scores.
Alliteration The repetition of initial phoneme either across syllables or across words. For example, "Happy hippos hop on Harry." See onset
Allomorph An alternative manifestation of a morpheme (a set of meaningful linguistic units). Allomorphs vary in shape or pronunciation according to their conditions of use, but not as to meaning. In English, the negative prefix in has several allomorphs, such as INcapable, ILlogical, IMprobable, IRreverent.
Allophone A phonetic variant of a phoneme in a particular language. For example, [p] and [pH] are allophones of the phoneme /p/; [t] and tH] are allophones of the phoneme /t/.
Alphabetic principle Understanding that spoken words are decomposed into phonemes, and that the letters in written words represent the phonemes in spoken words when spoken words are represented in text.
Assessment Using data to determine abilities and knowledge about a particular topic. A distinction should be drawn between a test, which is just a tool used in assessment, and assessment.
Balanced literacy An approach to reading instruction that strikes a compromise between Phonics approaches and Whole Language approaches -- ideally, the most effective strategies are drawn from the two approaches and synthesized together.
Basal reader A kind of book that is used to teach reading. It is based on an approach in which words are used as a whole. The words are used over and over in each succeeding lesson. New words are added regularly.
Blending Combining parts of a spoken word into a whole representation of the word. For example, /p/ /oo/ /l/ can be blended together to form the word POOL.
Ciphering See deciphering
Clitic A language element with wordlike status or form that resembles a word. A clitic usually cannot be used on its own as a word in a construction. Clitics are usually phonologically bound to a preceding word or a following word.
Cloze This is a method of assessment wherein a word is eliminated from a passage, and the child's task is to use the context of the passage to fill in the blank with an appropriate word. Different cloze tasks focus on different skills; a cloze assessment can be used to test reading comprehension, language comprehension, vocabulary, syntax, and semantics. When the child is given options (multiple choice) from which to select the appropriate word for each blank, the assessment is typically described as a "modified cloze task."
Content word A word which has lexical meaning such as a noun or a verb (as opposed to a function word).
Contentive See content word
Criterion-referenced assessment This is a type of assessment in which a child's score is compared against a predetermined criterion score to determine if the child is performing acceptably or unacceptably. Rather than comparing the child's performance against the performance of her peers (as would be the case with a norm-referenced assessment), the criterion or "acceptable score" is set by the author of the assessment. Each child's score, then, is either above or below the criterion score.
Deciphering Using knowledge about graphophonemic relationships to sound-out regular words. Some argue this is accomplished through a process known as "reading by analogy."
Decodable texts Texts which do not contain irregular words. Also, these texts are usually designed to reinforce certain "rules" that have previously been taught in phonics lessons.
Decoding Using knowledge of the conventions of spelling-sound relationships and knowledge about pronunciation of irregular words to derive a pronunciation of written words.
Deep orthography A writing system that does not have consistent or one-to-one correspondence between the phonemes in speech and the written code. English is an example of a deep orthography -- no phoneme is consistently represented by the same letter in all words, and only one letter (the letter v) consistently corresponds to a specific phoneme. Examples of shallow orthographies would include Spanish and Finnish.
Derivational affixation The process of adding affixes to roots or bases in order to vary function or modify meaning. Derivational affixation transforms a stem or word from one part of speech to another (from one word class to another). For example, the verb HIT can be modified with the affix -ER to become the noun HITTER. BRIGHT, plus -LY changes from an adjective into an adverb.
Digraph A group of two successive letters whose phonetic value is a single sound. For example, EA in BREAD, CH in CHAT, or NG in SING
Diphthong A gliding monosyllabic speech sound that starts at or near the articulatory position for one vowel and moves to or toward the position of another. For example, oy in TOY or ou in OUT.
Duet reading An activity where a skilled reader sits next to a learner and the two read a text simultaneously.
Elision The omission of a part of a spoken word -- to be more efficient, people sometimes say "IDANO" instead of "I do not know," or a person may say "N" instead of "AND" (as in "bread 'n' butter").
Expository text Text written to explain and convey information about a specific topic. Contrast with narrative text.
Extrinsic phonics Phonics taught as a supplemental learning aid rather than as an integral part of the program of reading instruction, often in separate workbooks during special time periods.
Fluent reading Fast, smooth, effortless and automatic reading of text (can be silent reading or not) with attention focused on the meaning of the text.
Function word A word which does not have lexical meaning, which primarily serves to express a grammatical relationship (e.g. AND, OF, OR, THE).
Functor See function word
Grade equivalent scores In a norm-referenced assessment, individual student's scores are reported relative to those of the norming population. This can be done in a variety of ways, but one way is to report the average grade of students who received the same score as the individual child. Thus, an individual child's score is described as being the same as students that are in higher, the same, or lower grades than that student (e.g. a student in 2nd grade my earn the same score that an average forth grade student does, suggesting that this student is quite advanced). See also age equivalent scores.
Grapheme A unit (a letter or letters) of a writing system that represents one phoneme; a single symbol that has one phonemic correspondent within any particular word.
Graphophonemic Refers to the sound relationship between the orthography (symbols) and phonology (sounds) of a language.
Graphophonic See graphophonemic
Homograph See homonym
Homonym A word which is spelled and pronounced identically to another word, but which has a different meaning. For example, a swimming POOL versus a POOL table.
Homophone A word which is spelled differently from another word, but which is pronounced identically. For example, HOARSE versus HORSE; or TWO versus, TO, versus, TOO.
Ideograph A graphic symbol that represents an idea instead of a spoken word, a single morpheme, or a lexical item. In a phonetic system, the symbol represents the sounds that form its name. Sometimes children's writing contains idiographs, but there is no known writing system that is composed entirely of idiographs. See logograph.
Idiom A phrase, construction, or expression that is understood in a given language. This expression has a meaning that differs from typical syntactic patterns or that differs from the literal meaning of its parts taken together. Some examples of idiomatic expressions would include, "to kick the bucket" means "to die," or "to throw in the towel" means "to give up" or "to stop"
Inductive phonics See synthetic phonics
Intrinsic phonics Phonics taught implicitly in the context of authentic reading activities.
Language comprehension This term should refer to understanding language in any of its forms, but in the vernacular, it has come to be synonymous with listening comprehension. When people use the term "language comprehension," they are typically not referring to sign language, written language, semaphore or smoke signals. Typically, the term is reserved for describing spoken language.
Latent Something which is present but invisible, or inactive but capable of becoming active or visible, so a child may have latent knowledge of a concept, meaning the child understands the concept, but has not had an opportunity to demonstrate that understanding.
Lexical Refers to the words or the vocabulary of a language as distinguished from its grammar and construction.
Lexicon Often called the "mental dictionary," the lexicon is a representation of all knowledge a person has about individual words.
Listening comprehension Understanding speech. Listening comprehension, as with reading comprehension, can be described in "levels" -- lower levels of listening comprehension would include understanding only the facts explicitly stated in a spoken passage that has very simple syntax and uncomplicated vocabulary. Advanced levels of listening comprehension would include implicit understanding and drawing inferences from spoken passages that feature more complicated syntax and more advanced vocabulary. See also Language Comprehension.
Logograph A writing system wherein each spoken word in the language is represented by a unique symbol. Chinese is an example of a logographic writing system.
Look-say An approach to reading instruction that emphasized memorization of whole words. Graded word lists were used to teach children to memorize words as wholes, and every year, children added to their repertoire of "familiar" words.
Matthew Effect Borrowed from a line in the Bible's Book of Matthew -- the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In reading, this describes the difference between good readers and poor readers -- while good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading when possible. The gap is relatively narrow when the children are young, but rapidly widens as children grow older.
Metalinguistic Language and terminology used to describe language and the component parts of language.
Metaphor A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used in place of a more literal description. For example, rather than saying somebody is happy, one might say that person is "on cloud nine" or "walking on air."
Morpheme The smallest meaningful unit of speech. A morpheme can be a free form (as in PIN) or a bound form ( -S in PINS), that contains no smaller meaningful parts. The morpheme is a sub-component of vocabulary; many words only have one morpheme, but some, such as compound words or words with affixes, have more than one.
Morphology An examination of the morphemic structure of words; an appreciation of the fact that words with common roots share common meanings, and that affixes change words in predictable and consistent ways.
Narrative text Text which conveys a story or which relates events or dialog. Contrast with expository text.
Nonword A string of letters which cannot be pronounced and which has no meaning. For example, MCVRI or HEGZT. Contrast with pseudoword.
Norm-referenced assessment This is a type of assessment that allows an individual child's score to be compared against the scores of other children who have previously taken the same assessment. With a norm-referenced assessment, the child's raw score can be converted into a comparative score such as a percentile rank or a stanine. Contrast with criterion-referenced assessment.
Nuclear syllable A syllable that carries maximum prominence, usually due to being stressed. For example, in the word ADDICT either AD is the nuclear syllable (if it is a noun) or DICT is the nuclear syllable (if it is a verb).
Onomatopoeia The formation of a word by imitating the natural sound associated with the object or action. For example, the "crack" of the bat, or the "twang" of the guitar strings.
Onset The part of the syllable that precedes the vowel of a syllable. In the case of multi-syllabic words, each syllable has an onset. For example; the onset of the word PILL is /p/. Contrast with rime.
Orthography A complete writing system for a language or languages. Orthographies include the representation of word boundaries, stops and pauses in speech, and tonal inflections. See deep orthography.
Overdifferentiation The practice of representing a single phoneme, syllable, or morpheme with two or more symbols in a writing system. For example, the sound /k/ can be represented by C, CH or K. Also called underrepresentation; contrast with underdifferentiation.
Particle A short part of speech used to express a syntactic or semantic relationship. A particle can also be a prefix or derivational suffix.
Phone Any single speech sound considered as a physical event without regard to its place in the language structure. A smaller unit of speech than the phoneme.
Phoneme The vocal gestures from which words are constructed in a language; the smallest unit of speech that serves to distinguish one utterance from another (e.g. PAT and FAT are distinguished by the initial phoneme).
Phoneme awareness A subset of phonological awareness; the knowledge that spoken words consist of a sequence of individual sounds, and the understanding that phonemes are rearranged and substituted to create new words. There are a finite set of phonemes which are arranged and rearranged to create an infinite set of spoken words.
Phonemic ideal An orthography which represents each phoneme with a unique grapheme or letter. See shallow orthography.
Phonetic writing A system that uses a unique symbol to represent each phone (sound) of the language or dialect, such as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
Phonics An approach to reading instruction that emphasizes letter-sound relationships and generalized principles that describe spelling-sound relationships in a language (e.g. vowels in CVCs are short). See also extrinsic phonics, intrinsic phonics, and synthetic phonics.
Phonograms A succession of letters that represent the same phonological unit in different words, such as IGHT in FLIGHT, MIGHT and TIGHT.
Phonological awareness The understanding that speech is composed of sub-parts -- sentences are comprised of words, words are comprised of syllables, syllables are comprised of onsets and rimes, and can be further broken down to phonemes (phonological awareness at this level is usually described as phoneme awareness).
Polyphone A word which is spelled the same as another word, but which sounds different when pronounced. For example, you can WIND a watch, and the WIND blows hard.
Pseudohomophone A pseudoword, which when pronounced, sounds like a real, familiar word. For example, the pseudohomophone BRANE sounds like the real word BRAIN.
Pseudoword A pronounceable string of letters which has no meaning; also called invented words, nonsense words, or made-up words. For example, MIVIT, HEASE, and MIVE are all pronounceable, but don't mean anything.
Rhyme Sharing identical or at least similar medial and final phonemes in the final syllable. Because English has a writing system with a deep orthography, words can rhyme without sharing similar orthography (e.g. SUITE and MEET).
Rime The part of a syllable (not a word) which consists of its vowel and any consonant sounds that come after it. Contrast with onset.
Segmentation Breaking down a spoken word into word parts by inserting a pause between each part. Words can be segmented at the word level (in the case of compound words), at the syllable level, at the onset-rime level, and at the phoneme level.
Semantics The study of the development and changes of the meanings of speech forms. Semantics is also a study of the process by which meaning is derived from symbols, signs, text, and other meaning-bearing forms.
Sight word A word in a reading lesson containing parts that have not yet been taught, but that is highly predictable from the context of the story or which the child has memorized.
Social promotion Promoting a child to the next grade in order to keep the child with his or her peers and social group.
Struggling reader any student of any age who has not mastered the skills required to fluently read and comprehend text which is written at a level that one could reasonably expect a student of that age to read.
Suprasegmental A vocal effect that extends over more than one sound segment in an utterance, such as pitch, stress, or juncture pattern.
Syllable family The group of syllables formed by a consonant plus all of the vowels in a language.
Syllable shape An abstract combination of consonants and vowels (V, CV, VC, CCV, or CVC).
Syntax The conventions and rules for assembling words into meaningful sentences; syntax varies across languages.
Synthetic phonics A part-to-whole phonics approach to reading instruction in which the student learns the sounds represented by letters and letter combinations, blends these sounds to pronounce words, and finally identifies which phonic generalizations apply (a.k.a. inductive phonics).
Trigraph A three-letter sequence representing a single consonant, vowel, or diphthong, such as EAU in BEAU.
Underdifferentiation The representation of two or more phonemes, syllables, or morphemes with a single symbol. For example, the symbol S is used to represent /s/ /z/ and /sh/.
Underrepresentation See overdifferentiation.
Untaught residue Material which has not previously been taught but is used in a primer lesson anyway to make the lesson more effective.
Verbal Efficiency Theory The Verbal Efficiency Theory is attributed to Perfetti & Lesgold (1979). It states that mere word recognition accuracy is not, in itself, sufficient to enable fluent reading comprehension. Instead, word-coding skills must be increased to a high level of efficiency and automaticity in order for the reader to be able to devote attention to meaning and comprehension.
Whole Language An approach to reading instruction that de-emphasizes letter-sound relationships and emphasizes recognition of words as wholes.
Word bank A storage place for learners to keep written words that they have learned so that they can refer to them as needed. They can go to the word bank as they are writing or editing to find out how to spell a word.
Word calling Decoding words without comprehending their meaning. Occurs for one of two reasons -- either the words are outside the listening (spoken) vocabulary of the child, or the decoding process is so slow, laborious, and capacity-demanding that the child is unable to pay attention to word meaning.
Word families A collection of words that share common orthographic rimes, such as HIKE, BIKE, LIKE, etc.
Word parts The letters, syllables, diacritics, and parts of syllables such as consonant clusters and vowel clusters.