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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 II

August 19, 2019

Last week, I posed 5 questions as the first half of the Great American Phonics Quiz. I hope you did well on those items that focused on whether students could learn to read without phonics, what kind of contribution it makes to learning, whether phonics instruction needs to be systematic, and whether analytic or synthetic phonics was best.

Here is the second half of the Great American Phonics Quiz. Good luck.

6. Lack of adequate phonics instruction is likely the reason why so many American students are failing to become proficient readers. True or false?

Recently, I received an angry note from a gentleman concerning the dearth of phonics and the low reading proficiency rates on NAEP. He was frustrated by an American education system that, in his opinion, had been unresponsive to these “facts.”

We went back and forth and at some point, he relaxed and started asking me questions. It turns out he was a dentist and what he knew about these topics he picked up from Twitter chatter and other “authoritative” sources.

My guess is that if we did a better job of teaching phonics it would be unlikely to increase the numbers of proficient readers very much. In other words, I think this item is “false.”

Since 1971, fourth-grade reading scores in the U.S. have fluctuated, and these fluctuations have tended to be upwards during pro-phonics periods and downwards when phonics has been on the outs in American schools.

I suspect that this pattern is not coincidental.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, fourth-grade scores steadily advanced. Then, America’s schools fell in love with “whole language,” and discouraged phonics and spelling instruction; fourth-graders did worse in reading than at any time during these 50 years! In the ’90s, many states adopted phonics requirements and the feds added to this in the early 2000s… both of those efforts witnessed climbing reading scores.

That suggests that phonics can make a significant contribution to early learning success.

However, no matter how heavy the emphasis has been on phonics, fourth-grade reading proficiency rates have never come close to being universal for young children.

The benefits of phonics instruction — as with any other advantageous instructional approach — are marginal. Instructional studies consistently find that adding phonics improves achievement, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who get phonics does great and all the other kids fail. There are real benefits and yet they are much more limited than my dentist assumed.

And what of eighth-grade reading scores during these on-again off-again emphases on phonics?

Apparently, those advantaged fourth-graders never reach eighth-grade. Adolescent reading levels haven’t budged whether or not we’ve been teaching phonics.

Phonics can give kids a better reading start, but they also need instruction in fluency, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing — and they need to gain lots of knowledge about our social and natural worlds — if they are to become fully literate.

A stronger emphasis on phonics is likely a necessary element in achieving full reading proficiency, but it is far from a sufficient one.

7. There is a particular instructional sequence that should be adhered to when teaching phonics. True or false?

In the previous quiz, I said kids did best when teachers followed a specific sequence of instruction. Teachers shouldn’t be trying to guess what phonic elements and spelling patterns to teach.

So, what is the best sequence, and why don’t school districts simply adopt programs that teach that sequence?

While research reveals the value of a set instructional phonics sequence, no particular sequence has been found to outperform any other. In other words, schools should adhere to a phonics sequence, but which sequence they adopt doesn’t seem to matter much.

Over a long career, I’ve seen some harmful sequences, but these incidents are atypical. For instance, I remember a couple of programs with very different sequences (one starting with vowels and the other consonants). Not necessarily a big deal, but I saw a school allow teachers to use either program. Some of the kids never were taught vowels and others never got many consonants. That’s pretty dopey. Teachers in a school should work with the same sequence, whichever one it may be.

There is no particular instructional sequence that needs to be followed (so this item is false), but you do need to adhere to a planned instructional sequence, and I bet teachers tend to teach these skills more thoroughly when they are following a program.

8. Kids should learn to read some number of words before phonics instruction is introduced. True or false?

This is one that I was told when I went into teaching. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but then I heard someone making this claim more recently.

I can’t find any research pursuing this question, though it is evident from the dozens of studies of phonics instruction (NICHD, 2000), particularly those done with preschoolers (NELP, 2008), that kids can make great progress with phonics without mastering any words prior to the onset of phonics teaching. This one is definitely false.

I’m not against having kids memorize some words, but I agree with the National Research Council (1998), that the amount of attention to this should be pretty limited. They recommended about 20 words in kindergarten (including the child’s name) — along with their phonics, and I have long recommended 100 high frequency words in grade 1… though again with phonics playing an important role in that.    

Teaching a few words in addition to phonics can allow kids to make a faster transition into reading (hence, the 20 kindergarten words) or can facilitate fluency (those high frequency words that are exceptions to the usual spelling/pronunciation patterns, like the, done, and have). But don’t wait for kids to learn such words before introducing phonics.

9. Phonics instruction should include writing or spelling activities. True or false?

This one is true, and we’ve known it to be true for a long time.

There are examples of successful phonics program that don’t include dictation, spelling, or writing, but programs with this element seem to do a bit better.

Back in the 1960s, Jeanne Chall concluded that such writing and spelling activities were beneficial. And, more recently, the National Reading Panel (NRP) wrote:

“Methods that teach children to manipulate phonemes with letters are more effective than methods limiting manipulation to spoken units. Teaching children to segment phonemes in words and represent them with letters is the equivalent of invented spelling instruction.” (NICHD, 2000, p. 2-41)

Several of the phonics studies the NRP reviewed had a spelling or writing dimension, too.

I checked with What Works Clearinghouse, and of the 16 programs that had clear evidence showing effectiveness in promoting decoding ability, at least 9 of those included writing and/or spelling activities.

10. Decodable text is an essential part of phonics instruction. True or false?

The term “decodable text” refers to having students read texts that they can fully or almost full decode based only upon the phonics skills taught up to that point in time.

These days many reading authorities promote decodable text as an important part of phonics instruction. And, the idea is an attractive one. You teach decoding skills and then you give the kids practice in implementing these skills.

However, research has not been especially supportive of this idea. Studies that have evaluated the impact of different levels of decodability have found no learning benefits, and none of the major research reviews of phonics instruction have even pondered about the value of such text.  

Not only hasn’t decodable text improved kids’ reading achievement — or even their decoding ability — but there are reasons to be concerned about its potential for overuse.

English is a phonemically and orthographically complex language. Even within syllables, readers have to be able to consider alternative pronunciations for particular spellings. Studies have shown that the patterns evident in beginning reading materials have long range impacts on later decoding ability, and when those instructional patterns are inconsistent with the statistical properties of English it can lead to systematic and persistent reading and spelling error.

A noted educational psychologist pointed out to me that these findings are consistent with cognitive research on massed versus distributed practice. By massing practice (that is, making sure there is a lot of practice with the already-taught skills), performance appears to improve rapidly. However, more enduring learning results from distributed practice (that is practicing with less consistent text).

Practicing with decodable text early on might be useful, but it is important to shift quickly to texts that provide less consistent practice.

I think the best way to do that is to have young children reading a more diverse set of texts (such as traditional controlled vocabulary readers or language experience stories) along the way.

Decodable texts suggest which spelling patterns are worth paying attention to, and the less decodable texts keep kids honest in applying these skills and start them on the road to statistical learning, so they can figure out how best to weigh the comparative value of the various patterns they are learning.

This one is false.

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"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox