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News from the Reading First Impact Study (p.45) that doesn't get any publicity. Put this in your literacy coach's face the next time she tells you to get on script.

by Brian Cambourne

Recently The Australian newspaper ran a feature article, an editorial, and an opinion piece, on the teaching of reading. Each piece implied that intensive phonics instruction should be mandated by government fiat if the reading proficiency of Australian students was to be improved. These pieces mirrored recent shifts in government policy both in Australia and other English speaking countries such as USA, England, New Zealand. An alleged scientific superiority of a phonics-centred pedagogy over all other methods was invoked to justify and support this approach to reading instruction.

Has this alleged scientific superiority been borne out by subsequent research? If the ultimate outcome of reading instruction is to produce readers who accurately comprehend the meanings of the written texts they need (or desire) to read, then the answer is "No"!

Rather, empirical evidence that teaching intensive phonics actually interferes with children's ability to construct accurate meaning from text is starting to emerge from a range of sources, including USA government studies which specifically assessed the impact of intensive phonics-centred instructional approaches mandated by their "No Child Left Behind" legislation.

One of these is the three-year "Reading First Impact Study" (NCEE 2009-4038). This study demonstrates that time spent on phonics in grade one is significantly and negatively related to student reading comprehension. Ditto for grade two. For every minute spent on intensive phonics in the daily reading sessions there was a minus 0.10 point drop (-0.10) in grade one student comprehension scores in grade one, and a minus 0.15 (-0.15) point drop in grade two.

The more intensive phonics grade one and two students received, the less they could comprehend!

Another study showing similar trends is the NCEE evaluation of an after-school academic program using a specific phonic-centred, direct instruction pedagogy to teach reading to below grade second through fifth grade students. (NCEE 2009-4078) This study found that when compared to the reading scores of regular (that is not specifically phonic-centred) after-school programs, "two years of the enhanced reading program has a negative and statistically significant impact on their total reading scores."

Then there's the 2000 NAEP Reading Report. It reported that, "Help with breaking words into parts had a consistent negative relation to fourth-grade reading performance as demonstrated on the NAEP assessment... the more frequently students received this help the lower their average score; whereas fourth graders who reported that their teachers never helped them break words into parts had the highest average score." The Executive Summary summarises these results thus; "Fourth-grade students who reported that their teachers never or hardly ever helped them break words into parts scored higher that their peers who reported receiving such help daily or weekly."

It's not just government reports questioning the efficiency of phonics-centred instruction. The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy recently published a paper entitled, "The logographic nature of English alphabetics and the fallacy of direct intensive phonics instruction" (vol 7:3. 2007)

On page 315 this paper describes how "... students in two phonics based programs produced a significantly higher percentage of miscues that resulted in a loss of meaning. Furthermore, they were significantly less likely to attempt self-correction of their miscues, even when they did not make sense in the text". This same study also noted negative interference between phonics and comprehension, stating that, "... a significant negative correlation was found between phonics and retelling scores, such that the higher the phonics scores, the lower the retelling scores. Such results strongly suggest that students taught with phonics not only are unaware that what they say has no sense to it but are unable to explain (retell) what they have read".

Such research trends strongly suggest that intensive phonics, rather than supporting comprehension, actually gets in the way and complicates the process of learning to read for many children.

It's not hard to work out why. The human brain evolved to be able to go straight from visual signs to meaning without first going through speech. The belief that a set of alphabetic signs should be treated differently is simply an illusion. There is no evidence to support it.

We identify all the visual phenomena in our worlds directly without resorting to naming them (aloud or subvocally) first. We can immediately recognise a cow, or a picture or sketch of a cow without first associating the object or the picture with the name "cow". We don't need to utter "cow" aloud or subvocally in order to identify it as a "cow". We must first identify the object before we name it. Why should written language symbols be treated differently?

Giving young learners the message that written language can only be comprehended when converted into audible or inaudible speech to which the reader 'listens' is as impossible in practice as it is untenable in theory. It encourages many young learners to give up the search for meaning and concentrate on getting the sounds right, thus creating excellent decoders who cannot comprehend what they've decoded.

Does this mean we should abandon phonics teaching? Of course not. You can't spell or write without phonics. All teachers should teach phonics intensively when they're teaching writing and spelling. We simply need to avoid giving kids the message that comprehension and decoding are the same thing.

Associate Professor Brian Cambourne is currently a Principal Fellow at the University of Wollongong in NSW.



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