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).

 

 

 

How much do you know about teaching reading to little kids?

  1. Which should be taught first—blends at the beginnings of words (flag, stop) or blends at the ends of words (hand, fist)?

  1. Is it important for pre-K or kindergarten students to know their ABC’s in order?

 

  1. Which are the hardest vowel sounds for a child to distinguish?          A and E      E and I      I and O      O and U

 

  1. Do children who can name many items  read better?

family reading together

  1. Is the best way to teach reading to have the child memorize words so that every word becomes a sight word?

 

  1. Are all kids developmentally ready to learn to read by kindergarten?

 

  1. What two letters is a child most likely to mix up?

 

  1. If a child ignores punctuation, is that child likely to have reading comprehension problems?

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

  1. Is following your child’s teacher’s advice on how to teach reading a good idea?

 

  1. How many letter sounds does your child need to be able to hear and pronounce?

 

 

Answers

 

  1. Blends at the beginnings of words are easier for children to learn. So are single consonants at the beginnings of words.  End of word sounds are harder to hear.

  1. No, the order of ABC’s is not important until a child is old enough to sort words into alphabetical order—a second or third grade skill.

 

  1. E and I are the hardest. That is why it is better to teach CVC words with A, O, and U vowels first, and to spend more time teaching E and I words after the A, O, and U words are mastered.

 

  1. Yes. Research shows that the two best predictors of reading achievement are an awareness of letter sounds and an ability to rapidly name objects.

young girl with pencil in mouth

  1. No. The best way to teach reading is to use a systematic phonetic approach.  Eventually, the words we read repeatedly become sight words, but we need to know how to decipher new words, and to do that we need to understand the rules of phonics.

 

  1. No. Usually by age 7 most kids are ready to learn how to read, but even then there are outliers.

 

  1. Lower case b and d are the most mixed up. Some kids recognize the difference immediately, and others take years to discriminate between those two letters.

  1. Yes. Ignoring punctuation means ignoring meaning.

 

  1. It depends where you child’s teacher was educated. In 2016 the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabi of teacher training programs in the US and found that 39% of the schools teach what the research proves.

 

  1. In most places in the US, 42 sounds comprise our spoken language. However, regional dialects can increase or decrease that number of sounds slightly.

 

How’d you do on this quiz?  Read comicphonics regularly to know how to teach your child reading based on what the research shows.

 

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

Is copying words the best way to learn spelling?

A typical elementary grade spelling homework assignment goes like this:

  • Monday night: Copy each word correctly five times.
  • Tuesday night: Arrange the words in alphabetical order.
  • Wednesday night: Write each word in a sentence.
  • Thursday night: Take a practice spelling test.
  • Friday day: Take a spelling test in school.

Child Browsing the Web

The theory behind these homework assignments is that the more children write words, the more likely they remember the word’s spelling.  But will they?

According to Marie Ripple*, author of a book on how to teach spelling, here are some things to consider if you hope this type of writing and rewriting of spelling words will help a child to learn to spell.

  • Copying is a visual process. See the word, write the word the same way.  But with so many young children being primarily kinesthetic learners, copying is a method of learning which does not tap into many children’s natural way of learning.
  • Copying is a memory process. Research has shown that in learning to read, memorizing words is a far less effective method than using phonics.  Reading and spelling are closely related.  So using phonics to show how letter sounds are combined to make certain sounds is a better way for most kids to learn spelling.
  • Copying can be an “automatic pilot” situation for children. They write words over and over while thinking about something else.  When they are done, they have retained little.

Instead of copying, Ripple recommends a variety of approaches to teaching kids spelling.

  • Combine visual, auditory and kinesthetic processes when you teach spelling. Don’t rely on one sensory process.
  • Use the Orton-Gillingham approach, used to treat dyslexia.  It explains why words are spelled the way they are and how certain letter pairings lead to certain sounds.
  • Teach a child based on what he or she already knows, ignoring what grade the child is in.
  • Teach the logic of English spelling. According to Ripple, 97% of English words follow predictable spelling patterns which can be learned.
  • Customize teaching spelling to a particular child based on that child’s preferred learning style and speed. Some kids need little review; some need constant review.

*For more information of Ripple’s book, go to http://info.allaboutlearningpress.com/6-ways-spelling-easy-thank-you?submissionGuid=18c9c079-27d3-4d1e-8965-917681da5d93