Is using phonics the best approach for teaching reading to young children?

In 1997, Congress asked the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (a division of the National Institutes of Health) plus the federal Department of Education to investigate the best research about the teaching of reading.  This action came about to settle once and for all the “reading wars” by proponents of various ways of teaching reading.

Three children with signs around their necks that read: Meniruze words, Phonics, Whole Language

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

A panel composed of 12 university professors, one principal from an elementary school, a parent, and one language arts teacher from a middle school, reviewed thousands of experimental research results; held public hearings at which parents, teachers, students, scientists and government officials testified; and asked for input from leading educational organizations concerned with reading issues.

In April 2000, the results were published (www.nationalreadingpanel.org).  They showed that although reading is a complex process and not every child learns to read the same way, a systematic, phonics-based approach yields the best results, especially for the youngest students.  The panel said kindergarteners (the youngest children researched) gain the most reading and spelling abilities from studying phonics, but that students through grade 6 improve using this approach.

For low achieving students and students with disabilities, a phonics-based approach significantly helped them to read words compared to other approaches.  For students who were already good readers, a phonics-based approach helped with spelling.

The panel stressed that systematic phonics instruction needs to be one of four components to teaching reading.  The panel defined phonics as how a letter corresponds to a sound in English, and defined systematic phonics as planned, sequential letter-sound instruction.  The other three components (to be discussed in a coming blog) are phonemic awareness, fluency and reading comprehension.

The panel indicated that teachers and parents should not teach only phonics if they expect a student to learn to read.  Yet phonicst is a good place to begin, especially for the youngest students.

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