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Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

The Great American Phonics Instruction Quiz: Part I

August 12, 2019

Schools are so tied up with testing these days, and this being the season of “monitoring assessments,” maybe a back-to-school phonics quiz would be a good way to welcome you all back.

I was having so much fun writing these test questions that I considered either putting in for a job at ETS or including a Part II next week ... I decided on the latter.

Let’s see how you do. The answers are all research-based!

1. The ability to decode print to speech is an essential reading skill. True or false.

Yes, indeed, in reading an alphabetic language like English, readers have to read an author’s words, not his or her ideas. Readers may “cheat” at times and try to get to the meaning without the words, such as looking at pictures or guessing from context, but despite such shortcuts and work arounds, an author’s words are of tantamount importance and good readers try to make sense of the words themselves. 

We gain access to their words by recognizing the letters and spelling patterns and conjuring up the pronunciations that they represent. That’s why every theory of reading — from Phil Gough’s “simple view” to Ken Goodman’s “psycholinguistic guessing game” — all include a role for orthographic-phonological processing. 

You can’t be a reader without it so this one is True.

2. Phonics instruction is essential. True or false?

This might seem like an overly easy question given the previous item but take a careful look and think about what the word “essential” means. According to my dictionary, something that is essential is “indispensable” or “necessary.”

In other words, the question asks whether kids can learn to read without the support of phonics instruction. And, the answer to that is, “yes, they can,” so that item should have been marked false.

Kids can definitely learn to read without phonics instruction. This has been documented in research studies (Barr, 1975; Biemiller, 1975; Bond & Dykstra, 1975) and there have been periods when popular instructional programs neglected phonics, and children taught with those programs have learned to read.

3. Phonics instruction is valuable. True or false?

True, true, true! Although it is possible for kids to read without the help of phonics, the research is overwhelming that they do better in learning to read when they receive such teaching (Adams, 1991; Bond & Dykstra, 1965; Chall, 1968; NELP, 2008; NICHD, 2000).

For the life of me I cannot understand why this has ever been controversial or why anyone would be surprised that such teaching helps.

Everyone agrees that kids have to learn to use orthography and phonology in reading (they may disagree on the degree to which they must rely on these, but no one claims kids don’t need to recognize spelling patterns and their relationship to pronunciation).

So, there is this essential thing that everyone needs to learn, and the issue then is, would this be easier to learn on one’s own or would it help if someone showed you how to do it? Duh!

In such cases, teaching usually provides a boost — and according to dozens of experimental studies in this case, this boost improves students’ abilities to read words, to read fluently, to comprehend what they are reading, and so on.

And, while phonics may only be helpful rather than essential for most kids, there are a group of kids for whom phonics seems to be absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, we can’t easily identify who can thrive without phonics and who can’t — just like we can’t tell which kids will get the measles or other horrible diseases.

Phonics is essential to some, useful to most, and does no harm to anyone, and that’s why it is so valuable.

4. Systematic phonics is better than informal phonics. True or false?

Some reading gurus have conceded that phonics instruction can help but have claimed that students would be better served by "responsive" phonics teaching rather than by following some commercial or locally-developed program of instruction. They argue that teachers should be diagnostic, providing decoding instruction as kids show a need for it.

I must admit that the vison of such opportunistic, “just in time” teaching is an attractive one. A youngster falters in reading or spelling a word, and voila, an apt mini-lesson springs forth to save the day.

And, then I remember teaching first-grade that way, and what a mess it was.

No wonder the research reports that kids taught phonics systematically (that is, following a planned, sequential program) do better than those taught by those supposedly responsive and individualized approaches (NICHD, 2000).

The evidence is clear on this one: find a good phonics program and follow it diligently.

 5. Research shows that synthetic phonics instruction beats analytic phonics instruction. True or false?

“Synthetic phonics programs teach children to convert letters into sounds or phonemes and then blend the sounds to form recognizable words. Analytic phonics avoids having children pronounce sounds in isolation to figure out words. Rather children are taught to analyze letter sound relations once the word is identified” (NICHD, 2000, p. 289).  

Thus, in synthetic phonics, students would be taught to sound each letter in “cat” and then to blend or join together each of these sounds to form a pronunciation: /c/-/a/-/t/.

Alternately, analytic phonics might teach the student to try to use word analogies (like bat and can) to derive a pronunciation or to recognize larger sound units, like onsets and rimes (/c/- /at/).  

I’ve witnessed amazing arguments over this distinction. I’ve lost friends because I was too dense to recognize that synthetic or analytic phonics were clearly the easiest to learn or best to teach or most effective.

And, yet, the research is not quite so certain. For the most part, researchers haven’t conducted research studies that directly compare the effectiveness of these approaches, so we’re left to the correlational results of meta-analyses.

Those analyses find no statistically significant difference between the two. It is certainly possible that one of these would be more effective than the other, but at this point there is no scientific support for such claims.

To me, that means you can make either of these kinds of phonics work well for kids — but you ought not to claim that the reason for picking one over the other is proven effectiveness. That just is not the case.

Personally, I have taught phonics both ways and found both to have some drawbacks at times — making me want to combine them occasionally. I know that is heresy to some and will cost me even more friends but given that research can find no difference in effectiveness I think you should grant me some latitude on this one.

Both analytic and synthetic phonics instruction can be explicit, systematic, and effective. Use whichever one your group of teachers can agree on and teach it well.

I hope you did well on the first five questions, next week we'll see how you do when several other issues in phonics teaching are explored. In the meantime, you might want to bone up on decodable text, invented spelling, sight words, dialect, and any number of other issues. Who knows, maybe there'll be three parts.

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"Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear." —

Judy Blume