What’s Meaning Got To Do With It?

Do you have students who persistently misread small, high-frequency words such as: “he,” “I,” “of,” “gave,” “a,” “the,” “she,” “her,” “on” or “was”? This is quite common even if older students have had remediation for decoding difficulties and have improved their phonics knowledge and word reading skills. We could speculate about why. Maybe teachers do not always put a high enough premium on accuracy in the beginning stages. If children happen to misread or skip a few small words but are still able to get the gist of the story, they ignore the errors because ‘making meaning” is, after all, the goal. Of course, misreading just one function word can have a big impact on meaning. Consider the difference between “The boys were in the house” and “The boys were on the house.” Or even: “He ate them one at a time” vs. “He ate them one time.” Nevertheless, teachers sometimes focus more on the bigger, more ‘important’ words and let the misreading or skipping of the ‘small’ words go, unless they do in fact happen to impact meaning in a big way. Perhaps this instils a habit in some students of not giving these words as much attention.

In addition, many of these common words figure prominently on high-frequency word lists like the Dolch and Fry lists. Words from these lists are often taught with little reference to their grapheme-phoneme correspondences, as so-called ‘sight words’ that just need to be memorized as whole words. Could this teaching method prevent the orthographic mapping process that we know is key to automatic word recognition? Perhaps even after the children have acquired the knowledge and skills and can decode and orthographically map these words, in a sense it’s ‘too late’ because of the way these words were initially presented.

I recently came across the work of Katharine Pace Miles, a professor and researcher at Brooklyn College, City University of New York., who, along with Linnea Ehri and other colleagues, conducted some interesting studies that offer more food for thought on this topic.

One finding was that these “function” words are quite simply harder to learn to read than “content” words, both initially and with subsequent practice. These little words serve a grammatical function. They are somewhat abstract and rely on sentence context more for their meaning. Their meaning is not as salient as “cat” or “chair” or other “content words,” and we know that pre-readers are just not very aware of these words as separate units in their language. They often regard them as just “stuck” onto a content word, not as a separate entity.

What has meaning got to do with it?

You may ask yourself: “What has meaning got to do with it?” The researchers wondered if embedding words in a meaningful sentence context would help children learn to read and spell them more easily. Also, would learning words in a sentence help even more for these function words than for content words, which already carry a lot of meaning for children? They did not find that to be the case. Learning the words in sentences did help children understand and use the words meaningfully, but it did not improve their ability to read and spell them. So, what did help them read and spell the words? Learning the words in isolation. It seems that seeing a word in isolation directs more attention to its spelling and sounds. As the authors write, “What children learn about words depends on how they practice reading them”. Pre-primer word lists are full of function words therefore, an important take-away for teachers is that many of these words will be especially hard for children to learn to read. While reading and hearing them in context will help children process the meaning of these words as separate units, these words are particularly challenging and will require extra attention in isolation to help children learn to read and spell them.

In another of their studies, the researchers showed children both content and function words in isolation on flashcards and were interested in which student characteristics were associated with more or less ease in learning to read them. Though oral language skills didn’t seem to matter for the content words, it did matter for the function words. The students with higher language skills had an easier time learning to read the function words. Interestingly, however, these higher oral language skills were only helpful for the students who were also already in a “full alphabetic” phase”. That is, students who had the skills to fully decode all through the function words could more easily learn the words on flashcards. Students who were only in the partial-alphabetic phase and were not able to fully decode all the way through words, did not learn easily from the words on flashcards.

Based on their findings, the authors caution teachers that if children are not yet in the full alphabetic stage, “reading function words on flashcards may be a futile task…However, these may be the very students for whom this practice of sight word reading of function words is used most frequently in a well-intentioned effort to catch these students up to their peers.” They conclude that, “instructional time may be better spent supporting these students’ phonemic awareness, grapheme-phoneme knowledge, and blending skills”.

It seems that when meaning is less salient and harder to hold on to, as it is for these function words, children’s memory is even more dependent on forming a complete map of the grapheme and phoneme correspondences. This work highlights the importance of practicing words both in isolation, and in meaningful contexts, because each type of practice influences different key aspects of word learning. This work also highlights the importance of instruction that launches children into the full alphabetic stage as early as possible. Once children have entered this crucial phase, they can benefit from all the exposure to the words around them, both in isolation and in meaningful sentences and stories.


Download our chart with 300 High Frequency Words sorted phonically as simple/complex spellings.


You can learn more about the work of Katharine Pace Miles on this episode of the Glean Education Podcast: https://www.gleaneducation.com/podcast/katharine-pace-miles

Miles, K. P., & Ehri, L. C. (2017). Learning to read words on flashcards: Effects of sentence contexts and word class in native and nonnative English-speaking kindergartners. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 41, 103–113. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2017.06.001

Miles, K. P., McFadden, K. E., & Ehri, L. C. (2018). Associations between language and literacy skills and sight word learning for native and nonnative English-speaking kindergarteners. Reading and Writing, 32(7), 1681–1704. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-018-9919-5


Miriam Fein is a speech-language pathologist and licensed reading specialist. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, and supports students from early elementary through high school with reading, spelling, writing, and language skills. She believes in the power of evidence-informed, systematic, and compassionate teaching for all learners. 


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