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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.

Print-to-speech or Speech-to-Print? That Is the Question

June 6, 2022

Teacher question: I know you typically don’t talk about specific programs, but I really would like to know your thoughts. I had always wanted more training in a structured literacy program/approach. I always thought Wilson, and specifically OG approaches, were the gold standards. More recently, I began reading about programs labeled as speech to print. Proponents of speech to print methods claim it is much faster to teach kids to read (and spell) than OG based approaches. Is there research to support this? Are these studies comparing programs based on OG (that mainly follow a more print to speech approach) and programs that are more specifically speech to print? Thank you!

Shanahan’s response:

You are correct that I usually don’t comment on specific programs. However, I am willing to talk about research on programs or the consistency of certain parts of a program with research.

Let’s start with the claim that Orton-Gillingham (OG) and programs closely derived from it being the “gold standard.”

To me the gold standard for an instructional program would be an approach that consistently results in positive learning outcomes and that outperforms competing methods. This outperformance would be demonstrated by direct research comparisons, or by meta-analyses summarizing a bunch of disparate but relevant comparisons. Basically, a gold standard approach would result, on average, in greater amounts of learning.  

If OG is the gold standard of decoding instruction, then it should reliably do better than other approaches to explicit decoding instruction.

Back in National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) days, we analyzed the effectiveness of phonics across 38 experimental and quasi-experimental studies (that looked at 18 different curricula). Our conclusion was that phonics added a valuable ingredient to literacy teaching, and that programs that included explicit systematic phonics generally outperformed those that did not.

What about different types of phonics teaching? We made some of those comparisons, too. For instance, synthetic phonics (reading words from individual letters and sounds) resulted in higher average effects over analytic phonics (focused on syllables, morphemes, and use of known words as analogies), but this difference wasn’t statistically significant. In other words, those different approaches did about equally well.

We didn’t compare individual phonics programs with each other.

There were usually only 1 or 2 studies of most programs. That Phonics Program A outperformed its poorly specified comparison group a bit more than Phonics Program B outperformed its, isn’t the kind of evidence on which I want to make decisions.

One exception to this was OG approaches. There were enough of those to compute a meaningful estimate of overall effectiveness. Although there were both with positive and negative results, I didn’t push for such an analysis because I suspected the results would be misleading. When OG failed, it was usually with severely disabled populations. OG did not do particularly well in those cases (despite contrary claims), but would alternative approaches have done better?

Over the past 20 years, more research has accumulated, and OG now has its very own meta-analysis (Stevens, Austin, Moore, Scammacca, Boucher, & Vaughn, 2021). That study found OG to be effective but with rather modest benefits — lower effectiveness than was reported for the average phonics study in the NRP report.

So much for being the gold standard!

Orton-Gillingham procedures are no more effective than any other explicit systematic phonics instruction — despite the religious fervor of some of its advocates.

Of course, those true believers, argue against the data:

“They didn’t look at the right version of OG.”

“I do it a little differently than others and it really works well for my kids.”

“The newer trainers aren’t as good as the past ones, so they probably studied teachers who weren’t well trained.”

There is no reason to believe that those things are any more (or less) true of OG than any other approach — and the more studies that accumulate the less likely it matters. If it’s so hard to find a potent version, then we shouldn’t expect widespread success.

We don’t have direct comparisons of OG with other phonics approaches, but generally it looks like it can work as well they do (or, sometimes, not as well).

Which moves us on to the second point — the one about speech-to-print approaches to phonics.

I’ve oft grumbled about the lack of evaluation of individual features of complex instructional programs. Research may affirm the benefits of a program without revealing its active ingredients.

You’d think with all the interest in phonics these days there would be many such studies exploring the implications of sound tracing, analytic/synthetic approaches, grapheme-phoneme sequences, inclusion of morphological analysis, decodable text, emphasis on consistency versus flexibility, print-to-speech/speech-to-print approaches, dosage variation, and so on.

Unfortunately, there are few research comparisons of print-to-speech and speech-to-print. There is relevant information about that difference, just nothing definitive yet.

Historically, phonics programs tended to emphasize print-to-speech. Kids are taught to identify letters, to link sounds to those letters, and then to sound out words by sounding each letter. That instructional sequence is in the same order as the process readers must use during reading: look at the letters and use that information to generate a phonological representation.  

It seems reasonable to teach students explicitly what we eventually want them to do. However, advantageous curriculum designs do not necessarily mirror their end points so closely. Engaging in a process like reading and learning to read are not the same thing.

Perhaps the opposite — starting with phonemes and pronunciations and connecting those to letters and printed words — might be a good idea. It’s possible that trying to spell and write words does more to enhance phonemic awareness and it may somehow make the phonology more prominent or easy to perceive (Wasowicz, 2021).

The earliest evidence I know of on this was reported by Jeanne Chall (1967). In her qualitative review of research on phonics, she concluded that programs with spelling, writing, and dictation did better than those without.

I followed up on that in my reading-writing relationship research in the 1980s. I found spelling and decoding to be closely related, even when a lot of other variables were available to suck up the variance (Shanahan, 1984). Later, Ginger Berninger and her colleagues followed up on that with an even more ambitious effort they found the same thing (Berninger, Abbott, Abbott, Graham, & Richards, 2002).

Marilyn Adams (1990) and Linnea Ehri (1997) both theorized on that possibility as well, and Steve Graham reported a meta-analysis on spelling instruction that found spelling to improve reading — probably because of its contribution to decoding (Graham & Santangelo, 2014).

That’s all fascinating, but it’s indirect. It suggests value, it doesn’t prove it.

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion. Louisa Moats (1998, 2005, 2010), for example, has several publications that treat this as a settled matter, claiming speech-to-print to be most effective. Her reasoning hasn’t convinced me, and yet preponderance of current data are certainly on her side.

Perhaps the closest thing we have to a direct test of the proposition is a meta-analysis of 11 studies (Weisler & Mathes, 2011). It concluded that instruction that integrated encoding into decoding instruction led to significantly higher reading achievement. Still not the strongest evidence — because it combined investigations that compared encoding with decoding (Christensen & Bowey, 2005) along with those that compared encoding instruction with things like extra math lessons (Graham, Harris, & Chorzempa, 2002).

At some point, any decoding program must focus on print-to-speech, since that is what we do in reading. However, I think there are real benefits to be derived from activities like invented spelling, spelling instruction, word construction from sounds, and so on — in any phonics program. Speech-to-print activities appear to increase learning. My advice: get a phonics program that includes such activities or layer them into a traditional print-to-speech program (including OG).

References

Adams, M. (1990) Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Abbott, S. P., Graham, S., & Richards, T. (2002). Writing and reading: Connections between language by hand and language by eye. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35(1), 39–56. https://doi.org/10.1177/002221940203500104

Chall, J.S. (1967). Reading: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ehri, L. C. (1997). Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost. In C. A. Perfetti, L. Rieben, & M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to spell (pp. 237-269). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Graham, S., & Santangelo, T. (2014). Does spelling instruction make students better spellers, readers, and writers? A meta-analytic review. Reading and Writing, 27, 1703-1743. DOI:10.1007/s11145-014-9517-0

Moats, L.C. (1998). Teaching decoding. American Educator, 22(1), 1-9.

Moats, L. C. (2005). How spelling supports reading and why it is more regular and predictable than you may think. American Educator, 29(4), 12-22, 42-43.

Moats, L. C. (2010). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

National Reading Panel (U.S.) and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read : an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Shanahan, T. (1984). Nature of the reading-writing relation: An exploratory multivariate analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 466–477.

Stevens, E.A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A.N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children, 87(4), 397-417.

Wasowicz, J. (2021). A speech-to-print approach to teaching reading. LDA Bulletin, 53(2), 10-18.

Weisler, B., & Mathes, P. (2011). Using encoding instruction to improve the reading and spelling performances of elementary students at risk for literacy difficulties: A best-evidence synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 17-200.

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