Join 96 other subscribers
Want a blog feed?
Category Archives: reading research
You can teach your child to read. Start with a phonics assessment.
Are you are planning to teach your child how to read this summer, either starting at the beginning or filling in the gaps? If so, where do you start? I suggest you give your child a pretest to see what reading skills your child has learned well, and what ones he has not yet grasped. The words on this pretest are more or less divided into four kinds of words in this order: 1. Short (closed) vowel, one-syllable words. These include one- and two-letter words, words beginning or ending with blends and digraphs (black, church) words which end in twin consonants (fell, jazz), words which end in “ck,” and words to which an “s” can be added to make plural words or certain verbs (maps, runs). 2. Long (open) vowel, one-syllable words. These include words ending with silent “e,” words with double vowels which have only one vowel pronounced (goes, pear), and certain letter combinations (ild, old). They also include words with “oi,” “oy,” “ow” and “ou” letters. 3. Two– and three-syllable words which follow the above rules (catnip, deplete) and two- and three-syllable words which don’t follow the above rules but which follow a pattern (light, yield). These words include words with certain suffixes (le, ies) and words with a single consonant between two vowels (robin, motel). 4. Exceptions. These include words with silent letters (gnaw, lamb), words from other languages (debris, cello), and words which fit no pattern (business). Ask your child to read the words in the pretest below. Each row across tests a particular phonics skill. If you child hesitates at all, that is the place to begin teaching him or her phonics. I will talk more about how to teach these four groups of phonics skills in my next blog. Phonics assessment bad, hem, fit, don, pug, am, if, lass, jazz lock, Mick, bills, cliffs, mitts, catnip, Batman grand, stent, frisk, stomp, stuck chuck, shun, them, branch, brush, tenth star, fern, birds, fork, purr, actor, doctor, victor muffin, kitten, collect, pepper, gallon complex, helmet, falcon, napkin, after tantrum, muskrat, constant, fulcrum, ostrich skate, bike, Jude, mole, dare, shore, tire, pure need, cheer, aim, hair, bay, pie, boat, oar, Joe, low, soul fruit, few, child, blind, fold, colt, roll, light, high earn, worm, rook, pool fault, claw, all, chalk, Walt boil, so, pound, down comet, dragon, liver, salad, denim total, ever, student, basic, demon, vital apron, elude, Ethan, Owen, ideal, usurp inside, nearly, absent, unicorn, degrade, tripod advance, offense, fence gripped, planned, melted, batted, handed sweeping, boiling, thinning, flopping, biking, dating rapper, saddest, finer, bluest, funnier, silliest easily, busily, massive, active, arrive, wives keys, monkeys, armies, carried action, section, musician, racial, crucial, nuptials brittle, pickle, carbon, dormer parcel, decent, gem, urge, badge lose, sugar, nature, sure graph, Phil, then, moth bomb, thumb, gnat, gnome, high, sign whip, whirl, echo, ghoul, knee, knob could, calf, folk, hustle, listen, wrist alone, bread, bear, chief, young, squaw, swan, waltz, word decision, exposure, gigantic, polarize, occupant, quarantine If you want to help your child learn to read, one of the best things you can do is not to let him guess. Most words can be deciphered if the student has a phonics background. Also, don’t let your child depend on pictures for meaning once the child starts to read. Most adult reading material is not accompanied by graphics. Students must learn to gain meaning from the text alone. If you have decided to help your child read this summer, good for you. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to help your child read better. Years of research show that the best way to teach reading is to start with letter sounds (phonemes) and then to combine those letter sounds into words (phonics). If you do this in a systematic way, such as following the four-part sequence I describe above, your child will learn to read.
Largest US school system to change how reading is taught
With half its students unable to pass reading tests, the City of New York has decided to change the way it teaches reading.
Starting this fall in some schools and in the fall of 2024 in others, “the science of reading” will ground all reading instruction. This means that students will focus on learning sounds associated with letters (phonemes) and on joining those letter sounds (phonics) to form words.
Chancellor David C. Banks will announce the change today (May 9, 2023). He hopes the new approach will change the current outcome in reading instruction in which half the city’s third through eighth graders are not proficient in reading.
The city’s schools are divided into 32 local districts. Each district can choose one of three acceptable reading programs, all of which focus–to varying degrees–on phonics. Research has shown that a phonics-based approach to learning to read produces the best results for primary grade students.
The city’s principals’ union is opposed to a one-size fits all approach in the city’s 700 elementary schools. Teachers say they need training.
Local school districts within the city will have some choice in how to proceed. They must choose one of three reading programs: Into Reading, Expeditionary Learning, and Wit & Wisdom. They can and in some cases must supplement these programs with more systematic phonics instruction.
One advantage of the unified approach is to provide students who transfer from one New York school to another a single reading curriculum. Another is to follow the mandate of New York’s Mayor Eric Adams, who has dyslexia, to teach reading using a phonics-based approach. Still another is to provide teachers with materials that have been shown to work, so each teacher doesn’t need to seek materials independently.
The change will start this fall in city school districts showing the least proficiency in reading.
New York is the latest and biggest school district to show dissatisfaction with the way reading has been taught and to turn to a research-supported approach. Poor student performance on reading tests, parents’ demanding change after Covid 19 educational losses, and a growing cohort of students who cannot read are propelling changes in reading instruction throughout the US.
Reading instruction is finally catching up to research
Increasing numbers of state legislatures are mandating that a phonics-based approach be used to teach young children how to read. Not all states are on board yet, despite a massive study more than 20 years ago that culled research and concluded that teaching children phonemes (the sounds associated with letters) and phonics (assembling letters into words) is the most successful way to teach reading.
Beginning in 2014 in Mississippi, states have forced teacher training programs, school districts and public school teachers to switch to a phonics-based approach to teaching reading. Here are states* which have passed legislation mandating a phonics-based approach or strengthening laws already mandating such an approach.
- 2013: Mississippi
- 2014: South Carolina
- 2015: Nevada
- 2016: Michigan, Mississippi
- 2017: Arkansas
- 2018: Montana, Nebraska
- 2019: Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, West Virginia
- 2020: DC
- 2021: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas
- 2022: Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Utah, Virginia
As you can see, the number of states passing laws to require phonics-based reading instruction has steadily increased with the greatest increase in 2021. Educators surmise that because students were home for months in 2020 because of the Covid 19 virus, parents became more aware of how their children were being taught to read. As a result, they demanded change.
While not all states have updated their education laws concerning the teaching of reading, the trajectory is in that direction. Expect improved reading scores on national tests as students being taught using this approach infiltrate into higher grades. Mississippi has already noted this positive change.
*according to Education Week
What fonts might help dyslexic readers read better?
Many easy-to-read fonts already exist on computers. They incorporate the characteristics of sans serif, upright, monospaced typefaces, recognized as features enabling easier reading for people with dyslexia.
Newer fonts designed specifically for dyslexic readers have become available within the past decade. Some are free; some are available for a fee. These fonts assume that dyslexia is a visual problem, a problem solved by changing the size and shape of letters. These fonts are designed so letters don’t seem to move. A “d” can’t flip to a “b”; a “p” can’t flip to to a “b.” A “u” can’t rotate to an “n.” Letters are less likely to switch places as in “saw” and “was.”
According to research, the following characteristics improve reading for dyslexic readers:
- Sans serif typefaces. Serifs are tiny projections at the ends of letters. Sans serif typefaces do not have serifs. Times New Roman is a typeface with serifs. Arial is a typeface without serifs. Sans serif fonts are easier to read.
- Upright fonts. Upright fonts (sometimes called Roman fonts) show the ascenders (upright lines as in b, h and k) and descenders (descending lines as in j, p and q ) at 90 degree angles from the horizontal. Upright fonts are easier to read than italic or oblique fonts which show the ascenders and descenders as diagonal lines from the horizontal.
- Monospace fonts. Monospace fonts show each letter taking up the same amount of horizontal space. So a “w” and an “i” occupy the same amount of space within a word. Most typefaces, including the one you are reading now, use proportional or variable width spacing, allowing a wider letter to occupy more horizontal space than a narrower letter. Monospace fonts are easier to read.
Fonts created for dyslexic readers add a fourth typeface characteristic. They distinguish between letters often confused, like “b” and “d” with additional differences, such as angling slightly the round parts of the letters, or shaving off the thickness of parts of letters. Some of these fonts make the bottoms of letters thicker and heavier -looking than the tops.
Another typeface characteristic making for easier reading is the size of the middle part of letters (letters minus the ascenders and descenders, such as the rounded parts of a, c, d and p). The larger these mid-parts are in proportion to the ascenders and descenders, the easier the typeface is to read.
With these characteristics in mind, what are free recommended fonts you might set as default fonts on computers used by dyslexic readers?
- Arial, Helvetica and Verdana are san serif, upright fonts, but they do not use monospacing.
- Courier is an upright, monospaced typeface, but it uses serifs.
- OpenDyslexic is freely available to download. It is sans serif and upright for the ascenders, but it does not use nonospacing. Its letters get wider and heavier (like bell-bottomed jeans) as they go from top to bottom, giving letters a weighted look.
But do typefaces designed for dyslexic readers make that much of a difference in enabling them to read? We will look at what the research says in our next blog.
Number of primary grade students reading at grade level declines in US
Almost a third of children in kindergarten, first and second grades were reading below grade level at the start of the 20-21 school year, according to research reported on earlier this month.
When first grade students were tested at the beginning of this school year, about twice as many as before the pandemic (school year 2019-20) showed kindergarten level or lower scores.
The federal government is spending billions to try to close the gap in student reading achievement. But the US lacks enough qualified reading teachers to do so. Nearly half of the public schools have teacher openings, many in the lower grades. These openings are due to resignations and retirement.
“Nearly half (44 percent) of public schools currently report full- or part-time teaching vacancies,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a part of the US Department of Education. Schools report that the Covid-19 virus prompted many of these vacancies.
Some of the federal money is funding a new phonics-centered curriculum called Fundations. Fundations is part of Wilson Language Training, a well-known program for teaching reading.
Government funded research more than 20 years ago shows that a reading program focusing on phonemes (sounds as represented by letters of the alphabet) and phonics (combining sounds and letters to form words) is a superior way to teach young children how to read.
Posted in phonemes, phonics, 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?
- Weak word recognition skills?
- Reliance on context word clues?
Weak 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.
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.
Posted in reading research, reading strategies
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)
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?
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?
Primarily 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.
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.