Research Grounds for Meeting Higher Demands in Reading Achievement

Charles Arthur, Teacher/Administrator
Everybody Reads Program

The critical question that has separated educators on teaching reading over the last 100 years is: How do good readers identify words as they read, i.e., how do they know what the words are? Part of this question concerns how important phonics is. Phonics is the relationship between the arrangement of letters and the pronunciation of words in an alphabetic writing system. There are several different ways that a reader knows what the words are. The reader may simply memorize the whole word as if it were a graphic. The reader may use some of the phonetic information from the letters to identify the words. The reader may use a combination of these strategies along with information from the context of a selection to figure out the words. And finally, the reader may use information mostly from the phonetic structure of a word. This question is: which of these ways is best? Which way is used by the most skillful readers?

During World War II, U.S. schools changed from predominantly phonetic to non-phonetic ways of teaching reading. This change was the culmination of a movement that had started almost 100 years before. As the idea of universal education became widespread throughout the nation, some educators were afraid that a detailed phonetic way of teaching reading would be too difficult and tedious for most children. It was thought that if more books were written specifically for children, and if children learned how to identify words mostly from whole-word memory , with some help from the context of stories, they would be able to read real stories sooner and thus would more likely become motivated to continue to learn how to read. It was assumed that all words were eventually read as whole, sight-words by good readers. Struggles between the more detailed and analytic phonics approach and the whole-word approach lasted until the 1940's. By this time, the whole-word approach virtually won the battle in the name of progressive education. Even though the English language is coded in an alphabetic system in which letters map the sounds in words, children in the 1940's and 50's learned very little about how to decipher this code.

This battle has continued right up to our present day. In the early 70's, as a result of the fear that "Johnny Can't Read," there was a slight blimp in the trend back to giving the phonetic basis of the English language more importance. But at the same time, the whole-word approach was bolstered by a new "theory of reading" that did give some additional importance to phonics, but maintained the importance of whole-word identity via various contextual cues from a text. This theory of reading attempted to explain how good readers identify words rapidly and accurately as they read. It was called the "psycholinguistic guessing game." The assumption was that the good reader could not possibly read fluently, and with understanding, and, at the same time, visually and phonetically process all of the printed details. The new explanation was that the good reader heavily used contextual clues to make up for just briefly sampling printed detail. Therefore, learning how to use the more "advanced" contextual information, in identifying words, was given greater importance than learning the alphabetic principle.

This introduction of a new theory led to a massive rush by experimenters to test, confirm and/or refine the hypothesis. Yet, before any results were found, educators and publishers of children's books and textbooks also rushed to implement this theory in what became known as the whole-language instructional approach to teaching reading that was inferred from the theory of how good readers read. This approach taught that, in spite of the written alphabetic code, a full knowledge of the code was not necessary. In fact, it was thought, that such a complete knowledge would prevent a child from learning the more advanced contextual reading skills.

This approach to teaching reading was successful in branding any detailed phonics approach as old-fashion and unimaginative, even harmful. Phonetic knowledge was given a small role in the reading process. A detailed phonics approach was often relegated for use only with children with the most severe reading difficulties. The whole-language approach has dominated the teaching of reading for the last three decades.

In the meantime, during these three decades, the study of how good and poor readers identify words has become the most heavily researched topic in all of education and cognitive psychology. Results from research groups from various parts of the world and the U.S. began to converge during the late 80's and early 90's. The results have been unanimous. The new theory of reading, the "psycholinguistic guessing game," was found to be completely wrong 10.

It was found that good readers, in fact, do process all of the details of print and how it is linked to the phonology of the language through an alphabetic code. In fact, it is the acquisition of these skills, not contextual skills, that distinguish between good and poor readers. In spite of the small role given phonetic knowledge, many talented readers acquire the necessary skills and knowledge of the alphabetic principles on their own. It has been found that it is the weak readers who are more likely to attempt to use contextual clues to identify words, rather than the strong readers. These results, of course, have heated up the "reading debate."

The United States Department of Education and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) have supported the review of hundreds of studies done in recent years on reading instruction and disabilities. This body of research confirms that the swing away from phonics instruction to a singular whole language approach has made it more difficult to lift children with learning difficulties out of the downward learning spiral and, in fact, may impede the progress of many students in learning to read with ease 11. The state of California was a leader in the movement to embrace whole-language instruction. Recently, its students scored next to last in reading among all states that were tested. When the results were broken down by race, California white students were last; African-American students were fourth from the last; and Hispanic students were third from the last.

As the need for more effective ways of teaching reading developed, especially during the last three decades, ways of teaching reading became less effective. Reading educators and theorists made a critical error that contributed to this reduction in effectiveness. This error had two parts. 1.) It was assumed that phonics was too hard for children to learn. It was believed that learning how to read could be made easy if the child focused on interesting stories first and then learned whatever phonics was necessary as needed. 2.) It was also assumed that children didn't need to learn phonetic decoding skills thoroughly because these skills were not the dominant skills used by the good reader to identify words.

These were serious errors because it has been since found that a thorough knowledge of the alphabetic basis of written language is an absolute necessity for good reading. In fact, it is these skills that good readers are particularly good at. And, when children have any difficulty at all in learning to read, learning the language code is the source of difficulty. Yet, to by-pass the mastery of this part of reading results in slow progress and/or week reading skills. Reid Lyon, chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)states that "Phonics is non-negotiable. You have to learn it." 12 These errors have been costly to thousands of children and to society as a whole.

In spite of this complexity of reading, about 30% of the population learn to read easily. For the remaining population, learning how to read is difficult. For these children, learning how to read well takes many years of instruction and practice until the basic elements of the language code are mastered. For about 20% to 30% of the school population, learning to read is one of the most difficult tasks that they will have to do throughout their schooling. Therefore, teaching reading to most school children is a complicated and difficult task for teachers. In the November 22, 1999 feature report on Dyslexia by Newsweek, Louisa Moats, a prominent researcher states, "Teaching reading is rocket science. Our profession has underestimated how much and what kind of training teachers need."

The fact that learning to read is as complex and difficult as it is for most children partly explains the long and involved controversies over how to teach it. Possibly the greatest mistake made by most teachers of reading in the last 60 years was thinking that learning the mechanics of reading words would be easy if they were subordinated to focusing on meanings and interesting stories first. The advantage that teachers now have is the results of vast amounts of high quality research to base their teaching on. In the 1997 special issue of the Scientific Studies of Reading on the topic of Components of Effective Reading Intervention, the editors of the issue, Louisa Moats and Barbara Foorman, stated:

"Learning to read is not natural for many individuals, who remain dependent on the skill, knowledge, and persistence of their teachers to acquire reading proficiency. Reading instruction, however, can be designed with greater validity than ever before because of a solid, converging body of scientific research on reading acquisition, reading processes, and reading disabilities. Basic and applied research has established the linguistic, primarily phonological nature of reading difficulty." 16

Converging evidence from many sources accumulated over the last 20 years strongly indicates that virtually all students, including students with learning and other mild disabilities, can become competent readers if quality instruction is given early. It has been demonstrated that learning to read well in the early grades can make a difference in cognitive growth equal to at least 15 IQ points.

The same research that refuted the "psycholinguistic guessing game" theory of identifying words also found, what is now thought to be the root cause of reading difficulties. It has been concluded that the basis of early reading delay resides largely in phonological ability. 17 That is, the source of knowledge about the phonology of language and how it is coded by an alphabetic system that was previously given a minor role is now seen as an essential ability to reading and accounts for difficulties in learning how to read. In short, beginning readers' knowledge of the sounds of one's language, contained in the pronunciation of words, is essential to the successful processing of written and oral communications. Reading is now seen as a process of mentally re-phonicizing language. Good readers have learned how the alphabetic system represents speech so well that, even when reading at speed, the bond between the letters and the pronunciations of words is so firm that they are inseparable.18

This lack of sensitivity to the phonology of language also often contributes to vocabulary deficits. One reason many children with learning problems are slower at acquiring vocabulary than the average learner is that they tend to remember words based on their meaning not their sounds. This may be a compensation for a weakness. Also, it has been found that the lack of awareness of the sounds in words and the inability to translate letters to speech sounds in words is the most frequent cause of reading difficulties. Thus, teaching low performing learners knowledge of the phonological structure of words and how to translate the alphabetic symbols for these sounds into spoken words, not only can improve their ability to remember words but also to read sooner. Both of these skills can increase a child's acquisition of vocabulary, which can contribute to their future success.

The remaining part of the statement from the journal, Scientific Studies of Reading, continues:

"It (recent research) has cast doubt on the possibility that orthographic processing or "visual memory" approaches can compensate for, or provide an effective bypass for, a learning process that depends heavily on the use of phonological codes in working memory."p187

In the same issue, researchers, Scanlon and Vellutino, report on a study of over 1000 children through kindergarten and first grade. They concluded, "the components of instruction most related to good reading at the end of Grade 1 were those that addressed spelling and phoneme awareness. Instruction in meaning-making and appreciation of literature had almost no relation to first-grade reading proficiency. Many at-risk children who were taught letter identification, phoneme awareness, and word-reading skills became average readers."

According to Dr. Keith E. Stanovich, a leading reading expert from Canada, in an article entitle, "Romance or Reality," in the January 1994 issue of The Reading Teacher, a publication of the International Reading Association, commemorating his work:

"That the direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science."

And finally, according Dr. Marilyn Adams, in her award-winning book, Beginning to Read, that synthesized most extant reading research up to 1990:

"Collectively these studies suggest, with impressive consistency, that programs including systematic instruction on letter-to-sound correspondences lead to higher achievement in both word recognition and spelling, at least in the early grades and especially for slower or economically disadvantaged students."

On April 13, 2000, NICHD issued a press release that reported on the findings of the National Reading Panel a Congressionally mandated independent panel that was directed to review the scientific literature and determine, based on that evidence, the most effective ways to teach children to read. For its review, the panel selected research from the approximately 100,000 reading research studies that have been published since 1966, and another 15,000 that had been published before that time.

The panel determined that effective reading instruction includes "teaching children to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness), teaching them that these sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet which can then be blended together to form words, (phonics), having them practice what they've learned by reading aloud with guidance and feedback (guided oral reading), and applying reading comprehension strategies to guide and improve reading comprehension." The greatest improvements in reading were seen from systematic phonics instruction. This type of phonics instruction consists of teaching a planned sequence of phonics elements, rather than highlighting elements as they happen to appear in a text. (see