Category Archives: reading research

Learning through phonics is the best way to learn to read

If a child is having trouble reading, what is the most likely cause?

  • Reliance on pictures for meaning?
  • Guessing?
  • Weak word recognition skills?
  • Reliance on context word clues?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter LWeak word recognition skills is the mostly likely cause, and because of that, students guess at words or search for clues from pictures and other words.

Weak word recognition skills means an inability to sound out the letters which form words.  If a child comes upon a new word—for example, “trek”—and the child cannot sound out the individual letters, the child cannot read the word.

Since 2000 we have known that the most effective way to teach reading is through a system of associating sounds with letters and combining those letters to form words—in other words, a phonics-based approach.  A National Reading Panel authorized and funded by Congress assessed scientific research on reading.  The Panel’s goal was to determine the most efficient way children learn to read.  The Panel concluded in 2000 that to read well, children should associate sounds of English (phonemes) with letters or letter pairs and to combine the letter-sounds into words.

Child with arms stretched out at his sides, forming the letter T.The word “it,” for example, has two sounds, each of which is associated with a letter.  The word “shop” has three sounds with “sh” corresponding to a single sound.

By deconstructing words into their basic sounds, children learn to sound out words.  Without guessing, without context clues, without pictures, children can figure out how to read words.  Even though there are some words which defy this sounding-out system (words like “one” and “two”), the vast majority of words in English can be sounded out.

The problem is, even though we know what works best, teachers are still asking children to guess at words, to look at pictures to figure out what words mean, to read other words nearby and use those context clues to figure out words, and to memorize the look of a word.  In other words, some teachers are not teaching phonics as the primary way to learn to read.  They are relying on methods which research shows do not work as well as phonics.

When I went to first grade, I was taught to read using a memorization approach.  The first page of my first reader had the word ”look” under a picture.  The next page had the words “Oh, look” with a different picture.  The next page had “See, see, see” with another picture.  It wasn’t until fourth grade that my teacher, Sister James Bernard, CSJ, offered lesson after lesson on phonics.  What a revelation!

If your child hasn’t learned phonics, teach him or her.  If your child is guessing at words, make him sound out each letter or each syllable.  No guessing allowed!  This is the surest way to create a strong reader.

Three cueing—a popular reading theory proven wrong by research

For almost twenty years we have known that the best way to teach children to read is by focusing on phonics—pairing the sounds of English with one or more letters and then joining those sounds to form words.

But in the US from 1967 to the beginning of the 21st century, another method was thought to be better, a method known as three cueing.  It was proposed by Ken Goodman, a university professor and noted reading expert, who believed that readers predict what words mean using three cues:

  • cues from the letters themselves;
  • cues from the part of speech the word could be;
  • and contextual cues from pictures, a sentence, or a paragraph.

Goodman said we read by guessing at words based on the three cues.  His ideas replaced the two reading methods then in use:  memorizing whole words as in the Dick and Jane books from the 1930s (“Oh look.  See Spot.”) and using phonics to decipher words (as popularized in the 200-year-old McGuffey Readers series).

Using the three cueing method, teachers would encourage students reading a given passage to think of a word that made sense —like “horse”—when students couldn’t figure out a word.  Teachers would encourage students to look at the letters.  Do they look like “horse”?  Do the letters sound like “horse”?

A similar method that some teachers might be more familiar with is the “MSV” reading method.  Similar to three cueing, MSV is a system developed by Marie Clay of New Zealand.  The “M” means figuring out meaning, often from contextual clues; the “S” means sentence structure, or figuring out what part of speech is needed in a particular sentence; and the V means visual information, or the look of the letters in the unknown word.

Goodman’s approach became known as “whole language” and became popular in the US.  Clay’s approach led to the Reading Recovery program, a first grade reading intervention program started in New Zealand and now found all over the English-speaking world, including in the US.

But eventually research proved that both of these approaches were not as effective as phonics.  More about that in our next blog.

 

At a loss for words

One of the best radio reports I’ve ever heard on what is wrong with reading instruction in American schools is available at the following website:  https://www.apmreports.org/story/2019/08/22/whats-wrong-how-schools-teach-reading.  It will take 52 and a half minutes for you to listen to it, but if you are a reading teacher or a parent of a child learning to read or struggling to read, it is well worth your time.

Or you can read the report at the same website.

“At a loss for words” produced by Emily Hanford describes the correct way to teach reading—the way backed by research.  That way is to teach children that sounds correspond to letters, and that letters when combined, form words.

But despite almost 20 years of research endorsing a sound / letter correspondence, many teachers with the backing of their school districts and teacher education programs teach reading in ways proven not to work, such as memorizing whole words, using pictures as clues, skipping words, and thinking of an appropriate word that begins with the same letter as an unknown word.

In future blogs I will discuss aspects of this excellent radio report.  But for now I recommend you listen to it or read it.

Reading scores are down in American public schools

The just released results of tests that fourth and eighth grader public school students take every other year show that

  • The average eighth grade reading score declined in 31 states, compared to scores from 2017.
  • The lowest performing students who took the test slipped more than better performing students, though better performing students also slipped.
  • Black, white, Hispanic and Native American students showed lower scores while Asian scores remained unchanged.
  • For fourth graders, 17 states showed lower reading scores in 2019 compared to 2017.

The tests, officially called The National Assessment of Educational Progress, are sometimes called “the nation’s report card.” They are taken by representative groups of students from around the US.

Six questions to test your beginning reader knowledge

What is the best method for learning to read, based on research?

  • primarily using phonics
  • figuring out words from their context or from pictures
  • memorizing words (sight words, whole language)

Two fists with thumbs up and knuckles touching make letter "b" and "d" with a BeD visualized between the two thumbs.What two printed letters are the hardest for children to distinguish?

  • p and q
  • q and g
  • b and d
  • m and n

Which two short vowel sounds are hardest for children to distinguish?

  • a and e
  • e and i
  • o and u
  • a and o

In order to learn to read, do children need to recite and/or recognize the ABC’s in alphabetical order?

  • yes
  • no

Which comes first?

  • recognizing a letter
  • recognizing a sound?

How many letter sounds does a child need to hear and speak in order to speak standard American English?

  • 26
  • 23
  • 42

Answers

Three children with signs around their necks that read: Meniruze words, Phonics, Whole LanguagePrimarily using phonics is the best method for learning to read. The US government did a comprehensive study of hundreds of research studies on how children learn to read and discovered that using a phonics-based approach produces the best results.

Lower case “b” and “d” are the hardest letter shapes for children to distinguish. Most children are confused at first.  Sometimes this confusion lasts into third grade, but with time, all children figure it out.

Short “e” and “i” are the hardest letter sounds to distinguish. Most reading series start by teaching short “a” followed by short “o” because these two sounds are the easiest to distinguish.  Expect lots of errors when “e” and “i” words are learned, and expect learning them will take more time.  Short “u” is harder than “a” and “o,” but since there are far fewer such words, learning “u” is not so hard as learning “e” and “i.

Beginning readers do not need to know their ABC’s in order. Alphabetic order is a second or third grade skill, so it doesn’t need to be learned immediately.

Recognizing a sound is more important than recognizing a letter at first. Beginning readers need to be able to hear sounds and to pronounce them aloud.  They do not need an alphabet in front of them to do that.  Toddlers can learn to recognize sounds long before they are ready to read letters.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.

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American standard English has 42 sounds. Some of the 26 letters duplicate sounds such as “c” and “k,” “c” and “s,” “s” and “z,” and “qu” and “kw.”  Many vowel sounds can be written multiple ways (ugly, Hannah, other).  Some sounds take two letters to make (th, ch, sh).  Regional dialects can add or subtract a sound or two, but in general there are 42 separate sounds in American English.

Worth reading: The Settled Science of Teaching Reading*

I thought the time for discussion was over, that the correct way to teach reading had been established by research almost twenty years ago.

Apparently not.  On social media the discussion continues.  Is it better to focus on teaching phonics and how letter sounds form words or to focus on whole language (memorizing words and discovering meaning).

After a study of hundreds of research reports of how children learn to read, the US government reported in 2000 that the best way to teach English reading is to focus on phonemes and phonics first.  Children need instruction on how sounds correspond to letters, and how combining those letters forms words. New readers also need to memorize high frequency words that don’t necessarily follow the rules of phonics (words like “was, ” “do,” and “the”).

According to the 2000 National Reading Panel, students need to learn five concepts relating to reading:

  • Phonics (combining letters to form words)
  • Phonological awareness (how sounds correspond to letters)
  • Fluency (reading in phrases with appropriate stops and starts and with voice inflection)
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension (understanding what is read)

Decoding the language comes from studying phonics, phonological awareness and fluency.  Combine that with vocabulary and you achieve the desired result of reading comprehension.

Yet research also shows that even today not all reading teachers know, or even if they know, apply the correct approaches to teaching reading.

If your kindergarten child comes home with lists of words to memorize, beware.  If those words are sight words, okay.  But the main focus of his or her learning should be how sounds correspond to letters, and how combining those letters forms words, and how combining those words forms sentences with meaning.

*https://www.collaborativeclassroom.org/blog/the-settled-science-of-teaching-reading-part-1/?_hsmi=76082821

How to foster rich academic language

Academic language—the vocabulary and phrases we use to talk about what we are studying, such as “factor,” “amendment,” or “gerund”—begins early in a student’s life.  “Add” and “subtract” are academic words.  So are “vowel,” “consonant,” and “syllable.”

Today it seems there are more academic language words than when I was a student.  “Digraph” was a word I didn’t learn until I was an adult.  I didn’t need it.  As a student, I learned “blend” which meant both blends and digraphs.  I learned “evaporate” in high school when I studied the water cycle for the first time.  But my four-year-old grandson was taught evaporation in his preschool.  He explained: “The rain comes down and then it goes back up again.”

What can we do to help our youngest students become comfortable with academic language?  According to researchers Friedberg, Mitchell, and Brooke* we can do plenty.

We can foster a language rich environment, whether at home or in the classroom.  We can use precise, adult words which are just as easy to learn as “baby” words.  “Explain what you see.”  “What can you infer about the feelings of Cinderella?”

We can teach essential vocabulary, and repeat those words often so that students learn them.  “Before,” “during,” “next” and “after” are essential to describe sequences.  Synonyms and antonyms need to be taught.  “Sufficient” means “enough.”

We can teach words showing shades of meaning.    An “incident” is a small “event.”  A “catastrophe” is a big “problem.”

We can teach content area words.  In a math class, we can teach “addend” and “sum.”  In a reading class, we can teach “sentence” “fragment” and “run-on.”

We can model the use of academic language.  We can say “spider” and “insect,” not “bug.”

To reinforce meanings, we can show photos, draw pictures and use diagrams.  We can post graphics on the refrigerator or bulletin board for students to scrutinize up close.

As students become a bit older, we can teach root words, prefixes and suffixes to show word relationships.  “Un” means “not” so “unhealthy” means not healthy.  “Ful” at the end of a word turns a noun into an adjective, so “grace” becomes “graceful.”

We can model self-monitoring of comprehension.  We can read a sentence or a paragraph and then paraphrase aloud what we just read to prove we understand it.

*“​Understanding Academic Language and its Connection to School Success​” (Friedberg, Mitchell, & Brooke, 2016).