Letter and Word Awareness is the ability to identify individual written letters and words. Once children are able to identify printed letters, they develop the ability to identify entire words. The entire developmental progression from letter awareness to word awareness to fluent reading typically begins around age three with letter awareness and continues through age five, six or seven with fluent reading.
Visual Discrimination involves the ability to distinguish between numerous similar but different images, Letter and Word Awareness involves only the ability to distinguish between different (but, often time, similarly shaped) letters and words.
For example, the letters E and F have very different sounds and very different roles in reading and writing. However, their appearance is very similar.
As children begin understanding how letters form words, they will naturally begin recognizing words on a page. Words that begin with the same letter as their name, words that appear frequently in a favorite book and words with a fun sound such as “Woof” are usually the first words children begin identifying. When this happens, children start creating their own personal “sight word” vocabularies.
Sight word vocabularies are the collection of words that your child is able to “read” simply by looking at the word and without having to “sound it out” letter-by-letter. For example, when a three-year-old child sees a common sign (for a store or restaurant, perhaps), a frequently written word in a favorite book or his own name written down, he is likely able to name that word. He is not reading the word in the conventional sense. Rather, he has memorized what that word looks like in print. In addition to sight words a child learns naturally by seeing the word on favorite signs or in favorite books, some parents and teachers may use “sight word flashcards.” These are created by printing or handwriting commonly used words on one side of small flashcard. By showing a child one card at a time and reading the word aloud to him, he will be able to more quickly expand his sight word vocabulary.
Once a child has learned to read by identifying each letter in word and then recalling the appropriate sound each letter makes, “sounding out” each and every word is still time-consuming. Also, many words (such as “where” or “might”) cannot be sounded out using basic phonetic rules. Because of this, your child will continue using sight words long after he learns to read.
At the start of preschool, children are expected to recognize their first name in print, as well as other common words in favorite books or on favorite store signs. Also, children are expected to understand that words are groups of letters separated by spaces on either side. By kindergarten, children will be expected to know all 26 letters, each letter’s sound(s) and how to properly write each letter. Kindergarten children are also expected to begin conveying ideas through writing, either through “inventive spelling” or by dictating words to an adult. Children in kindergarten are also expected to have a growing “sight word” vocabulary, which they can rely on when “reading” popular books, signs or labels.