[Assessment 1432] The "Decoding" of words, sentences, and paragraphs

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tsticht at znet.com tsticht at znet.com
Thu Sep 25 15:45:15 EDT 2008

September 25, 2008

The “Decoding” of Words, Sentences, and Paragraphs

Tom Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education

Much discussion of teaching using alphabetics (phonemics; phonics) aims at
learning to decode written words. Of course, this is necessary for reading.
But beyond the word are the sentence and paragraph. Fluent reading may
depend to some extent on how well people can construct sentences and
compile them into paragraphs. The question arises, do more skilled readers
develop a greater ability to construct sentences and compile them into

Ordinarily word, sentence, and paragraph construction are aided by the use
of spaces between words. Sentences are marked by punctuation (capitals;
periods, etc.), and paragraphs are separated by spaces and sometimes
indentation of the first sentence in the paragraph. But how well can low
and high ability readers identify words, sentences, and paragraphs when
there is no spacing or punctuation to mark beginnings and ends of these
aspects of written language?

To find out, in an exploratory study colleagues and I worked with 16 low
reading young adults with reading skills from 3.5 to 7.7 grade levels, and
an average score of 5.5 grade level reading. We also worked with 18 college
students as high ability readers.

We prepared four paragraphs of writing by typing all the words running
together, the sentences running together, and paragraphs running together
with no spaces or punctuation. We then asked the adults to go through the
materials and place a line between each word, a dot over each line that
separated sentences, and an x through the dots that separated each

We found that on average the high ability readers accurately identified 99
percent of words accurately, sentences with 77 percent accuracy, and
paragraphs with 88 percent accuracy. For the low ability readers words were
identified with 77 percent accuracy, sentences with 12 percent accuracy,
and paragraphs with 19 percent accuracy.

This raises the possibility that in reading normal texts, low ability
readers may not achieve higher fluency skills in part because of a weakness
in sentence meaning construction and paragraph meaning compiling skills.
Possibly alphabetics may provide effective word recognition while whole
language teaching may foster the development of sentence and paragraph
construction and compilation abilities. These are aspects of “decoding”
written language that I have not seen given attention in reading research,
with either children or adults.

Thomas G. Sticht, Email tsticht at aznet.net