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Shanahan on Literacy

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.

Phonics and Flexibility — Can They Really Go Together?

September 26, 2022

Teacher question: I am surprised that you are such a staunch advocate of phonics. English is a very complex language and teaching young children the sounds and letters won’t change that. Most letters and spelling patterns in English are not regular (not only the Dolch words, but lots of other words, too). It is just discouraging having to spend so much time teaching skills that can’t possibly work. I’ve taught for a long time, and I feel so sorry for these children given what I am required to teach now. I am so discouraged that I want to retire. This makes no sense. You could help teachers if you would just speak out against this silliness.

Shanahan’s response:

Take a breath.

Your observations aren’t crazy, but your conclusion is way off. Maybe I can help with that.

I recognize the complexities of English — that’s what you are right about. But there is also a great deal of systematicity or regularity to the language as well. So much regularity, in fact, that phonics can be quite useful — if you (and your students) grasp how phonics works or its raison d’être.

That’s why so many studies have found that teaching phonics boosts reading ability, which is why I promote it.

Many observers, like you, recognize that even in the best of situations readers trying to sound out words are going to make a lot of mistakes. There are many irregularities, exceptions, and conditionalities in the English spelling system, and a good deal of its regularity is not due to phonology.

For instance, think of a spelling pattern like ‘ea’ (in words like beat, great, and bread). How is a student supposed to know which sound to use when they come across a pattern like that? Of course, they’ll err sometimes, trying out the wrong sounds, making the wrong choices.

That isn’t a problem though.

The point of phonics isn’t to provide readers with exactly correct pronunciations of words, but only close approximations (Cunningham, 1975-1976). Its aim is to get readers to look at all the letters in a word (Venezky, no date) — not the word’s shape or first letter or the pictures on the page. Phonics instruction should tip students off to some of the more frequent and useful orthographic patterns, but it never attempts to impart them all. An ambitious phonics program usually introduces no more than 60-70 patterns over two to three years, not one-tenth of all the patterns linguists have identified.

The patterns that are taught are ones that are consistent enough to be useful and that come up frequently enough that they can provide reading support.

Additionally, introducing frequent and somewhat consistent patterns awakens an awareness of the existence of such patterns. Humans have amazing pattern recognition capabilities (that’s why some can learn to read simply by memorizing a bunch of words), but more kids will become sensitive to patterns if instruction tips them off that they are there.

You may have noticed that proficient readers don’t usually sound out words, and every first-grade teacher has observed students who struggle to remember words early in the year, but who later master new words without effort. Again, the point of phonics isn’t to enable overt sounding out, though that is unavoidable early on. No, the point is to reshape memory so that students remember words easily.

Finally, phonics should sensitize students to alternative sound-symbol relations and spelling patterns. That way when misreading a word like bread as breed, the student has available some other pronunciation choices for that ea.

Proficient decoders must be flexible, sensitive to orthographic patterns, comfortable with approximate results, and self-correcting. This has long been understood by researchers (e.g., Gibson & Levin, 1975). Critics of phonics expect too much of it and, consequently, reject it as being too primitive to overcome the limits and meet the expectations that they themselves have supposed.

Likewise, some educators and phonics promoters make the same mistake. They confuse phonics — a relatively simple and effective way for getting reading started — with phonetics, the complex science of speech sounds. This may result in curriculum and instruction that is overly consistent — ignoring, nay denying, irregularities in the system. That approach may deter some children from accomplishing the real purposes of phonics.

Though the need to deal with these complexities in a flexible manner has long been recognized, it has generated very little research — until the past few years. Recently, there has been a great deal of correlational investigation into the importance of cognitive flexibility in decoding. Enough convincing, high-quality work to conclude flexibility to be an essential property of proficient decoding ability. Kids who lack that kind of flexibility are at a disadvantage.

I wish I could say that the instructional research offers a discrete and specific instructional prescription for transforming all kids into flexible decoders. We’re not there yet. But several appear promising — at least under some conditions, and none appear to be either sufficient in and of themselves nor mutually exclusive of the others (Colenbrander, Wang, Arrow, & Castles, 2020).

How can we develop proficient decoding ability without engendering a too-rigid response from our students? How can we teach the systematic nature of the spelling system while fostering the cognitive flexibility needed to take full advantage of it? Certainly, a program of explicit phonics instruction is central to that goal, but some additional supports may help with the flexibility part of that.

Here are some practical ideas:

1. Teach Sight Words

Have kids memorize high-frequency words, particularly those that are spelled irregularly. I know some critics claim such memorization is harmful, but Colenbrander and company rightfully challenge those claims. Their well-researched conclusions: “Instruction of a small set of frequent, functionally useful irregular words, in addition to instruction in regular grapheme–phoneme correspondences, has been shown to be effective for typical readers and children with reading difficulties. There is no evidence that teaching irregular sight words alongside regular grapheme–phoneme correspondences is harmful for children or results in ‘unlearning’ of existing grapheme–phoneme correspondences. There is also some evidence that sight word instruction can result in generalization to words that are similarly spelled” (Colenbrander, et al., 2020, p. 98). Building a stock of irregularly spelled words in memory may help students to recognize some of the complications of the spelling system. (Don’t go crazy with this. Five minutes a day is probably more than enough time to ensure that all first graders know the 100 most frequent words and that second graders know the 300 most frequent words).

2. Teach Mispronunciation Correction

Several recent studies have focused on guiding students to correct mispronunciations in reading. Oral reading creates opportunities for such correction, but the lessons in these studies have been more explicit and specific, focusing only on irregular words. Basically, students are taught how to correct their mistakes. “If what is first produced does not sound like something already known from listening, a child has to change one or more of the sound associations (most probably a vowel) and try again” (Venezky, 1999). Approaches that have been tried include having students correct puppets’ reading errors, guided analysis of the mispronounced words to connect their spellings with their pronunciations (my favorite), and strategic steps in which students question themselves as to whether a word is correct or not and what other words sound like that.

3. Cognitive Flexibility Tasks

Cartwright and colleagues have found that engaging students in word reading tasks that require sorting based on multiple criteria improves cognitive flexibility and reading fluency. For instance, students must sort four words into a 2x2 matrix, grouping the words simultaneously based on their initial consonant and semantic category. Thus, fish and face would be grouped together in the same row since they both begin with ‘f’ but would go in different columns since face goes with tooth and fish with toad in terms of meaning. I can’t really figure out why this has worked so well or so consistently, but what the heck, it apparently helps.

4. Word Sorts

Don Bear and colleagues have long proposed word categorizing activities that both emphasize consistency and generalization as well as the exceptions (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2020). As they put it, “compare words that ‘do’ with words that ‘don’t’.” Thus, when kids are studying she, he, we, and me, it makes sense to include exceptions to the pattern if there are any, in this case: the. Or, sometimes it is less about the exceptions or what they call “oddballs,” and more about introducing alternatives pronunciations bow, cow, how, now, pow, sow, vow, wow, chow versus bow, crow, flow, low, mow, row, sow, tow, show. That kind of lesson complicates things in a useful way for young readers.

5. Morphology Instruction

One of the complicating factors in English orthography is that its regularity is based on more than phonology. Our spelling system represent sounds, but also meanings. The words themselves, of course, convey meaning, but the spelling does too. Think of how we usually indicate plurality. In oral language we add a sibilant sound at the end of a noun (/s/ or /z/). But we don’t do that in our spelling system. English spelling doesn’t attempt to represent the two different sounds, but instead to preserve the consistency of the plural meaning across words like cats and dogs. Many supposedly irregular words represent that consistency of meaning. Research shows that supplementing phonics instruction with explicit teaching of those kinds of semantic patterns can be beneficial (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010). Here I like best structured word inquiry.

6. Be Careful Not to Overdo Decodable Text

The purpose of decodable text is to provide practice in the application of phonics skills. To provide such practice, decodable texts tend to present a heavy dose of words with regular spelling patterns; a greater concentration is common in regular texts. We don’t want to mislead students into thinking that reading is quite that consistent and that sounding out words guarantees accuracy. I’m not recommending foregoing any potential practice benefits that may be derived from decodables (though research has not found them to improve learning), but

but I do suggest not limiting student reading to these texts. Those who claim it is harmful for children to try to read any texts that may include words tha may not yet be able to fully decode should provide evidence either that this is a problem or that a steady diet of decodables helps students to learn to read. Until then, let’s hedge our bets and cast the reading net a bit wider from the start — not necessarily to make the reading any harder (we are talking young children), but to expose them to more of the complicating features of how phonics works. Irregularly spelled words, if repeated frequently, are easy enough to learn. Structured word inquiry is great for this.

I know you think phonics can’t help students given the complexity of English. Research on learning says that is a baseless concern. However, research also indicates that phonics works best for readers when they recognize the need for flexible responses to words — recognizing the complexity and conditionality of spelling, monitoring their reading for errors, and considering alternative pronunciations.

I think it would be wise for you to embrace phonics instruction, but complicate a bit, so your students don’t miss the point. I think you’ll see that it really can help and I hope you can make some combination of these instructional approaches to flexibility work for your students as well.

Selected comments

Comment from Amie

Hi! I'm a 5th Grade Language Arts teacher who is interested in knowing more about this part of your fascinating article: “guided analysis of the mispronounced words to connect their spellings with their pronunciations (my favorite).” I want to make sure I'm understanding correctly so that I may implement, so could you please provide an example or further detail? Thank you!

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Amie —

There are various ways of doing this, but Colenbrander and her colleagues generously provide a script used in their study. Go to this site and the MPC training script. That should give you one good example. 

Tim

Comment from Carol

I always learn from your blogs, and often share them with colleagues. I am a literacy coach in Ohio trying to disseminate accurate information about what we should be doing to help our students become proficient readers and writers. 2 recommendations in this blog made me pause:

#1: I have been urging all my K-2 teachers and parents to NOT have their students memorize the whole word (especially irregular words like said), but rather orthographically map the phonemes to the graphemes. So, your first recommendation of teaching sight words by having students “memorize high frequency words,” threw me for a loop, Can you help me understand when to orthographically map and when to have kids memorize whole words?

#6: We also have been shifting to lots more decodable text in K-2, depending on each student's phonics skills. We are trying to read grade level complex text during read alouds to promote comprehension, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. If children can read CVC, CVCe, blends, digraphs, r-controlled vowels, regular & irregular vowel teams in one- and two-syllable words with fluency, we move them into LATER leveled books and trade books. (We too have spent thousands of dollars on leveled books!) But, those early leveled books (A-D) are written in such a way as to undermine what we are trying to accomplish with decodables. Can you clarify for me how to include both decodables and leveled text in our small groups?

Thank you again. I want to support my teachers with accurate, efficient, effective practices.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Carol —

1. Despite those earnest claims by some, there is no evidence that memorizing any words is harmful in any way (in fact, the research goes the other way). In any event, in my experience the best way to help kids to memorize words is to make sure that they are paying attention to all of the letters in the word — and connecting those to sounds is very reasonable, too.

2. There are few studies of the effectiveness of decodable text — and while, it makes sense to keep texts relatively simple initially when kids are starting out, there is no research supporting decodability per se (in fact, the best study we have found no difference in the benefits drawn from texts that were 85% decodable versus those that were 15% decodable). That doesn't mean kids should be working with predictable text (research does find that those do harm). Simplify texts both by decodability and by repetition (introducing “irregular” words that are going to be repeated frequently is beneficial).

Recognizing the limits of what you had been doing and then changing that is a sign of strength. Going off the deep end and rejecting research supported approaches in that effort looks a lot like “virtue signaling” — trying to look good even if what you are doing isn’t particularly helpful to kids.

Tim

Comment from Amelia

Thank you Tim! You always deliver. I do have a wondering about implications for multilingual learners/emergent bilinguals. When it comes to teaching mispronunciation correction, what are additional variables to consider?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Amelia —

I don't know any research on these issues with English learners, though such students were in some of the samples in these studies. I have no reason to think these would be any less of a concern with second language students (though they MIGHT be less problematic with kids who can already read in another language).

Tim

Comment from Laura

Your advice to not limit students to decodable text very much mirrors my own experience working with my daughter, who has both dyslexia and ADHD.

During the course of second grade she was able to both catch up to grade level, and then surpass it, after daily phonics with decoadable text practice in and out of school, and continuing to work with texts and books on grade level according to lexile level, in and out of school.

I have worried that we did something incorrect in advocating that both be used- her teacher and reading interventionist each believed only one type of text should be used at all times. Of course, I can’t de-emphasize how much scaffolding was necessary — we pre-taught certain heart words, and she used a tablet app in school that could read hard words outloud to her as needed.

I hope this area of reading is researched more throughly!

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Laura —

Me, too. We need more such research... researchers have not been especially interested in the role of text types in student learning which is unfortunate given the results of existing studies. In any event, there are consultants etc who wouldn’t know a research study if it bit them on the leg telling teachers and parents that kids won’t learn to read if there are any words they confront any words that aren’t easily decoded immediately. Shameful behavior on their part. I'm glad you had the courage to do what made sense to you instead of following the scare tactics. (Of course, as shameful as that promotion can be, so can some what has generated its opposition — the promotion of texts that encourage kids to look at the pictures, etc. instead of the words).

Tim

Comment from Heather

What would you say is a good resource so teachers can effectively learn the phonics rules themselves? Thanks!

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Heather —

Try these books:

  • Beck & Beck, 2012. Making sense of phonics
  • Moats, 2020. Speech to print
  • Venezky, 1998. American way of spelling

Tim

See all comments 

References

Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & Deacon, S. H. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 229-251. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654309359353

Cartwright, K. B., Marshall, T. R., Huemer, C. M., & Payne, J. B. (2019). Executive function in the classroom: Cognitive flexibility supports reading fluency for typical readers and teachers-dentified low-achieving readers. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 88, 49-52.

Colenbrander, D., Kohnen, S., Beyersmann, E., Robidoux, S., Wegener, S., Arrow, T., Nation, K., & Castles, A. (2022). Teaching children to read irregular words: A comparison of three instructional methods. Scientific Studies of Reading, https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2022.2077653

Colenbrander, D., Wang, H. C., Arrow, T., & Castles, A. (2020). Teaching irregular words: What we know, what we don’t know, and where we can go from here. Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 37(2), 97–104. https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2020.11 

Cunningham, P. M. (1975-1976). Investigating a synthesized theory of mediated word identification. Reading Research Quarterly, 11(2), 127-143. https://doi.org/10.2307/747546

Dyson, H., Best, W., Solity, J., & Hulme, C. (2017). Training mispronunciation correction and word meanings improves children’s ability to learn to read words. Scientific Studies of Reading, 21(5), 392–407.

Edwards, A., Steacy, L. M., Seigelman, N., Rigobon, V. M., Kearns, V. M., Rueckl, J. R., & Compton, D. L. (2022). Unpacking the unique relationship between set for variability and word reading development: Examining word-and child-level predictors of performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 114(6), 1242–1256.

Kearns, D. M., Rogers, H. J., Koriakin, T., & Al Ghanem, R. (2016). Semantic and phonological ability to adjust recoding: A unique correlate of word reading skill? Scientific Studies of Reading, 20(6), 455–470.

Rueda, M. R., Rothbart, M. K., McCandliss, B. D., Saccomanno, L., & Posner, M. I. (2005).Training, maturation, and genetic influences on the development of executive attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(41), 14931–14936. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0506897102

Shaul, S., & Schwartz, M. (2014). The role of executive functions in school readiness among preschool-age children. Reading and Writing, 27(4), 749–768. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-013-9470-3

Steacy, L. M., Edwards, A. A., Rigobon, V. M., Gutierrez, N., & Marencin, N. C. (2022). Set for variability as a predictor of word reading: Potential implications for early identification and treatment of dyslexia. Reading Research Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.475

Steacy, L. M., Rigobon, V. M., Edwards, A. A., Abes, D. R., Marencin, N. C., Smith, K., Elliott, J. D., Wade-Woolley, L., & Compton, D. L. (2022). Modeling complex word reading: Examining influences at the level of the word and child on mono- and polymorphemic word reading. Scientific Studies of Readinghttps://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2022.2077109

Steacy, L. M., Wade-Woolley, L., Rueckl, J. G., Pugh, K. R., Elliott, J. D., & Compton, D. L. (2019). The role of set for variability in irregular word reading: Word and child predictors in typically developing readers and students at-risk for reading disabilities. Scientific Studies of Reading, 23(6), 523–532. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2019.1620749 

Thorell, L. B., Lindqvist, S., Bergman, S., Bohlin, G., & Klingberg, T. (2009). Training and transfer effects of executive functions in preschool children. Developmental Science, 12(1), 106–976. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00745.x

Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2021). Introducing phonics to learners who struggle: Content and embedded cognitive elements. Reading and Writing, 34, 2059-2080.

Vadasy, P. F., Sanders. E. A., & Cartwright, K. B. (2022). Cognitive flexibility in beginning decoding and encoding. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR). https://doi.org/10.1080/10824669.2022.2098132

Venezky, R. L. (1999). The American way of spelling. New York: Guilford Press.

Venezky, R. L. (no date). The structure of English orthography: Letters, sounds, spellings, and meanings. Children of the Code. https://childrenofthecode.org/interviews/venezky.htm

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