Countless research studies have been conducted
on phonics instruction. Much of this research has focused on the usefulness
of phonics instruction and the best ways to teach children about sound-spelling
relationships. Below is a list of ten of the top research findings regarding
#1: Phonics Instruction Can Help All Children
Learn to Read
All children can benefit from instruction
in the most common sound-spelling relationships and syllable patterns
in English. This instruction helps children decode words that follow these
predictable sound-spelling relationships and syllable spelling patterns.
Phonics instruction is particularly beneficial
for children at risk for learning difficulties those children who
come to school with limited exposures to books, have had few opportunities
to develop their oral languages, are from low socio-economic families,
have below-average intelligence, are learning English as a second language,
or are suspected of having a learning disability. However, even children
from language rich backgrounds benefit from phonics instruction (Chall,
1967). As Chall states "By learning phonics, students make faster
progress in acquiring literary skills reading and writing. By the
age of six, most children already have about 6,000 words in their listening
and speaking vocabularies. With phonics they learn to read and write these
and more words at a faster rate than they would without phonics."
Phonics instruction is therefore an essential
ingredient in reading instruction. The purpose of this instruction is
to teach children how to read with accuracy, comprehension, fluency, and
pleasure. The early ability to sound out words successfully is a strong
predictor of future growth in decoding (Lundberg, 1984) and comprehension
(Lesgold and Resnick, 1982). Weak decoding skills are characteristic of
poor readers (Carnine, Carnine, and Gertsen, 1984; Lesgold and Curtis,
1981). Readers who are skilled at decoding usually comprehend text better
than those who are poor decoders. Why this is so can be gleaned from the
work of cognitive psychologists. They contend that we have a set amount
of mental energy that we can devote to any task (Kahneman, 1973). Since
decoding requires so much of this mental energy, little is left over for
higher-level comprehension. As decoding skills improve and more and more
words are recognized by sight, less mental energy is required to decode
words and more mental energy can be devoted to making meaning from the
text (Freedman and Calfee, 1984; LaBerge and Samuels, 1974).
In addition, successful early decoding ability
is related to the number of words a reader encounters. That is, children
who are good decoders read many more words than children who are poor
decoders (Juel, 1988). This wide reading subsequently results in greater
reading growth. Children not only learn more words, but they become more
familiar with the common spelling patterns of English which, in turn,
helps them decode longer words.
Phonics instruction also helps to get across
the alphabetic principle (that the letters of the alphabet stand for sounds)
by teaching the relationship between letters and the sounds they represent.
Beginning readers learn better when their teachers emphasize these relationships
#2: Explicit Phonics Instruction Is More
Beneficial Than Implicit Instruction
According to Chall (1996), "systematic
and early instruction in phonics leads to better reading: better accuracy
of word recognition, decoding, spelling, and oral and silent reading comprehension."
The most effective type of instruction, especially for children at risk
for reading difficulties, is explicit (direct) instruction (Adams, 1990;
Chall, 1996; Honig, 1995; Evans and Carr, 1985; Stahl and Miller, 1989;
Anderson et al, 1985.). Implicit instruction relies on readers "discovering"
clues about sound-spelling relationships. Good readers can do this; poor
readers aren't likely to. Good readers can generalize their knowledge
of sound-spelling relationships and syllable patterns to read new words
in which these and other sound-spellings and patterns occur. Poor readers
must rely on explicit instruction.
Although explicit instruction has proved
more effective than implicit instruction, the key element in the success
of explicit phonics instruction is the provision of multiple opportunities
to read decodable words (that is, words containing previously taught sound-spellings)
in context (Stahl, Osborn, and Pearson, 1992; Juel and Roper-Schneider,
1985; Adams, 1990) and ample modeling of the application of these skills
to real reading. In fact, students who receive phonics instruction achieve
best in both decoding and comprehension if the text they read contains
high percentages of decodable words. In addition, by around second or
third grade, children who've been taught with explicit phonics instruction
generally surpass the reading abilities of their peers who've been taught
with implicit phonics instruction (Chall, 1996).
#3: Most Poor Readers Have Weak Phonics
Skills and a Strategy Imbalance
Most poor readers have a strategy imbalance.
They tend to overrely on one reading strategy, such as the use of context
clues, to the exclusion of other strategies that might be more appropriate
(Sulzby, 1985). To become skilled fluent readers, children need to have
a repertoire of strategies to figure out unfamiliar words (Cunningham,
1990). These strategies include using a knowledge of sound-spelling relationships,
using context clues, and using structural clues and syllabication strategies.
Younger and less skilled readers rely more on context than other, often
more effective, strategies (Stanovich, 1980). This is partly due to their
inability to use sound-spelling relationships to decode words. Stronger
readers don't need to rely on context clues because they can quickly and
accurately decode words by sounding them out.
Unfortunately, children who get off to a
slow start in reading rarely catch up to their peers and seldom develop
into strong readers (Stanovich, 1986; Juel, 1988). Those who experience
difficulties decoding early on tend to read less and thereby grow less
in terms of word recognition skills and vocabulary.
A longitudinal study conducted by Juel (1988),
revealed an 88% probability that a child who is a poor reader at the end
of first grade would still be a poor reader at the end of fourth grade.
Stanovich (1986) refers to this as the "Matthew Effect" in which
the "rich get richer" (children who are successful decoders
early on read more and therefore improve in reading), and the "poor
get poorer" (children who have difficulties decoding become increasingly
distanced from the good decoders in terms of reading ability).
#4: Phonics Knowledge Has a Powerful Effect
on Decoding Ability
Phonics knowledge affects decoding ability
positively (Stanovich and West, 1989). Early attainment of decoding skill
is important because this accurately predicts later skill in reading comprehension
(Beck and Juel, 1995).
One way to help children achieve the ultimate
goal of reading instruction, to make meaning of text, is to help them
achieve automaticity in decoding words (Gaskins et al, 1988). Skilled
readers recognize the majority of words they encounter in text quickly
and accurately, independent of context (Cunningham, 1975-76; Stanovich,
1984). The use of graphophonic cues (knowledge of sound-spelling relationships)
facilitates word recognition abilities. In fact, a child's word recognition
speed in first grade was found to be a strong predictor of reading comprehension
ability in second grade (Lesgold and Resnick, 1982; Beck and Juel, 1992).
However, the inability to automatically recognize
frequently encountered words affects reading in the following ways (Royer
and Sinatra, 1994):
1. Since words can be stored in working
memory for only a limited amount of time (approximately 1015 seconds),
slow decoding can result in some words "decaying" before a meaningful
chunk of text can be processed.
2. Devoting large amounts of mental energy
to decoding words leaves less mental energy available for higher-level
comprehension. This can result in comprehension breakdowns.
#5: Good Decoders Rely Less on Context
Clues Than Poor Decoders
Good readers rely less on context clues than
poor readers do because their decoding skills are so strong (Gough and
Juel, 1991). It's only when good readers can't use their knowledge of
sound-spelling relationships to figure out an unfamiliar word that they
rely on context clues. In contrast, poor readers, who often have weak
decoding skills, overrely on context clues to try to make meaning of text
(Nicholson, 1992; Stanovich, 1986). Any reader, strong or weak, can use
context clues only up to a certain point. It has been estimated that only
one out of every four words (25%) can be predicted using context (Gough,
Alford, and Holley-Wilcox, 1981). The words that are the easiest to predict
are function words such as the and an. Content words
the words that carry the bulk of the meaning in a text are the
most difficult to predict. Researchers estimate that content words can
be predicted only about 10% of the time (Gough, 1983). A reader needs
to use his or her knowledge of phonics (sound-spelling relationships)
to decode these words.
|"The whole word method (meaning
emphasis) may serve a student adequately up to about second grade.
But failure to acquire and use efficient decoding skills will begin
to take a toll on reading comprehension by grade 3." Jeanne Chall,
#6: The Reading Process Relies on a Reader's
Attention to Each Letter in a Word
Eye-movement studies have revealed that skilled
readers attend to almost every word in a sentence and process the letters
that compose each word (McConkie and Zola, 1987). Therefore, reading is
a "letter-mediated" rather than a "whole-word-mediated"
process (Just and Carpenter, 1987). Prior to these findings, it was assumed
that readers did not process each letter in a word, rather recognized
the word based on shape, a few letters, and context.
Research has also revealed that poor readers
do not fully analyze words; for example, some poor readers tend to rely
on initial consonant cues only (Stanovich, 1992, Vellutino and Scanlon,
1987). Therefore, phonics instruction should help to focus children's
attention on all the letters or spellings that make up words and the sounds
each represents by emphasizing the full analysis of words. In addition,
phonics instruction must teach children strategies to use this information
to decode words. This attention to the spelling patterns in words is necessary
for the reader to store the word in his or her memory. It also helps the
reader to become a better speller because the common spelling patterns
of English are attended to to a greater degree and thereby more fully
learned (Ehri, 1987).
#7: Phonemic Awareness Is Necessary for
Phonics Instruction to Be Effective
Before children can use a knowledge of sound-spelling
relationships to decode words, they must understand that words are made
up of sounds (Adams, 1990). Many children come to school thinking of words
as whole units cat, dog, run. Before they can learn to read,
children must realize that these words can be broken into smaller units
and sounded out. Phonemic awareness is the understanding, or insight,
that a word is made up of a series of discrete sounds. Without this insight,
phonics instruction will not make sense to children. Some students with
weak phonemic awareness skills are able to make it through the first couple
years of reading instruction by memorizing words. This strategy breaks
down when the number of unique words in text increases in grades three
and up. Therefore, if weak phonemic awareness skills are not detected
and corrected, these students may enter the intermediate grades with a
very serious reading deficit.
#8: Phonics Instruction Improves Spelling
Reading and writing are interrelated and
complementary processes (Pinnell, 1994). Whereas phonics is characterized
by putting together sounds to form words that are printed, spelling involves
breaking down spoken words into sounds in order to write them. To spell,
or encode, a word a child must map a spelling onto each sound heard in
Spelling development lags behind reading
development. A word can generally be read before it can be spelled. The
visual attention a child needs to recognize words is stored in his or
her memory. This information the knowledge of the spelling patterns
of English, also known as orthographic knowledge is used to spell.
Spelling, however, requires greater visual recall than reading and places
higher demands on memory.
Good spellers are generally good readers
because spelling and reading share an underlying knowledge base. Poor
readers, however, are rarely good spellers. Phonics is a particularly
powerful tool in improving spelling because it emphasizes spelling patterns,
which become familiar from reading. Studies show that half of all English
words can be spelled with phonics rules that relate one letter to one
sound. Thirty-seven percent of words can be spelled with phonics rules
that relate groups of letters to one sound. The other thirteen percent
must be learned by memorization. Good spellers have not memorized the
dictionary; they apply the phonics rules they know and have a large store
of sight words.
Writing, in turn, supports a child's reading
development because it slows the process by focusing the child's attention
on how print works. Poor spellers experience difficulties in both writing
and reading. Poorly developed spelling ability also hinders vocabulary
development (Adams, Treiman, and Pressley, 1996; Read, 1986).
#9: A Teacher's Knowledge of Phonics Affects
His or Her Ability to Teach Phonics
A teacher's knowledge of phonics has a strong
effect on his or her ability to teach phonics (Carroll, 1990; Moats, 1995).
This knowledge of the English language enables the teacher to choose the
best examples for instruction, to provide focused instruction, and to
better understand students' reading and writing errors in relationship
to their developing language skills. I highly recommend that all teachers
take a basic course in phonics or linguistics to gain further insights
into our language that can be used in the classroom in productive and
#10: Knowledge of common syllable patterns
and structural analysis (affixes, roots) improves students' ability to
read, spell, and learn the meanings of multisyllablic words.
For many children, reading long words is
an arduous task. Explicit instruction in the six common spelling patterns,
the most common syllable types (e.g., VCe, VCCV,), prefixes, suffixes,
roots, and word origins helps students recognize larger word chunks that
makes decoding easier and aids in figuring out a word's meaning. For example,
it may be efficient for a student to decode text containing simple CVC
words such as cat and ran sound by sound, it is not efficient
to decode text containing words such as transportation and unhappy
sound by sound. Rather, it is more efficient to recognize common word
parts such as trans, port, tion, un, and happy and blend
these larger chunks to sound out the word.
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