Blend of integrated language arts and phonics works best in kindergarten

Literacy skills were significantly higher when teachers reported using both integrated language arts and phonics in their kindergarten classrooms. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), researchers Yange Xue, University of Michigan, and Samuel J. Meisels, Erickson Institute, Chicago, found that children need a balance of both “whole-language” and phonics approaches in learning to read.

The objective of this study was to examine empirically the impact of early literacy instruction on children’s learning using this large, nationally representative, longitudinal study.

The phonics-centered approach is associated with skill-based direct instruction with emphasis on teaching the alphabetic principles in a structured manner to learn to decode individual words. Previous research on the effects of phonics instruction shows that it leads to high word reading and spelling achievement.

Phonics instruction has been shown in some studies to be more effective than other approaches in kindergarten and first grade. It should be noted that most of the evidence supporting the teaching of phonics is based on achievement measures that test letter-sound knowledge and word knowledge in isolation.

Whole-language instruction emphasizes the use of literature texts. Literacy learning in these environments is designed to be meaningful and functional, relying on authentic reading and writing tasks. It tends to be child-centered in that children are empowered to make choices about what to read. The main strategies for decoding words are prediction and guessing.

Whole-language advocates believe learning to read should not be viewed as a process to be broken down into component skills that are taught in sequence. Since many whole-language advocates are suspicious of quantitative and experimental methods, there is relatively little quantitative research on whole language.

Some studies show that when reading achievement tests are used as a criterion, whole language does not appear to be as effective as skills-based approaches. However, qualitative measures show that whole language seems to stimulate elements of literacy development not affected by phonics instruction alone, such as vocabulary, writing ability and greater motivation for independent reading.

Substantial evidence indicates that most teachers combine methods. Research that observed both outstanding teachers and typical teachers in first-grade classrooms at five sites across the country found that the most effective classrooms, in terms of students’ literacy and academic achievement, seem to be balanced with respect to skills and whole language.

Exemplary teachers used both a literature- based approach and explicit skills development, but they taught phonics and decoding strategies to children directly rather than using a phonics workbook. In summary, current research suggests that the most effective path to early literacy is to emphasize the holistic process of reading and writing but also to ensure that children have a strong grounding in systematic phonics.

Details of study

Little empirical evidence exists to determine if the presence of both elements is more effective than teaching either one alone. Xue and Meisels’ sample from the large nationally representative study included 13,609 kindergarten children in 2,690 classes in 788 schools across the country. Approximately 65 percent were white, 15 percent African-American, 13 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Asian-American; 5.7 percent came from non-English-speaking households.

The direct cognitive assessment in language and literacy used in this study included questions focusing on basic skills (print familiarity, letter recognition, beginning and ending sounds, rhyming words, word recognition), picture vocabulary, and listening comprehension for words in context.

An indirect cognitive measure asked teachers to evaluate each child’s proficiency in speaking, listening, and early reading and writing.

Teachers also rated children’s attitudes and behaviors that might affect their learning (attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization).

Teachers were asked how often they used specific curricular and instructional activities (learning letter names, writing the alphabet, dictating stories to the teacher, listening to stories, performing skits, journal writing).

Measures of child characteristics (gender, race, family income, parents’ education and occupation), teacher characteristics (preparation and experience) and school characteristics (average SES, mean achievement scores, range of grade levels, and heterogeneity of students) were also collected. This study examined the effects of different instructional approaches, taking into account these teacher, classroom and child characteristics.

Results and conclusions

Both instructional approaches were positively associated with children’s direct cognitive test scores at the end of kindergarten. The size of the effect was greater for integrated language arts than for the phonics approach. However, on average, children’s achievement was greater at the end of kindergarten when teachers made more frequent use of integrated language arts and phonics activities together.

The overall amount of instructional time in literacy activities had a significant effect on achievement. Teaching experience and preparation were not significantly related to achievement in this study. Children learned more in classrooms with higher levels of entering reading ability, and full-day kindergarten had a positive effect. There was some indication that integrated language arts was more effective among children with higher entering performance levels than among children at lower levels.

Although integrated language arts had a positive effect on the average scores of the class, the effect was smaller for children with lower entering performance. Regardless of the level of phonics instruction, children exposed to more frequent integrated language arts instruction learned significantly more. However, the highest performance was noted when children received high levels of both types of instruction.

The majority of U.S. kindergarten teachers combined these two approaches in their practice; very few used one approach exclusively. The results show that different approaches made different contributions to children’s literacy development in kindergarten.

Both are positively associated with learning, but the effects of phonics instruction are contingent upon the frequency of integrated language arts instruction. In classrooms where integrated instruction occurred less often, phonics instruction mattered more, whereas in classrooms where the use of integrated instruction was high, the effects of phonics were relatively small.

Mean high achievement at the end of kindergarten appears to require high levels of both types of instruction. Phonics instruction is clearly important in learning to read — all children must know the letters and understand letter-sound relationships. Direct cognitive tests show that phonics instruction was equally effective for all children regardless of their initial ability, whereas integrated language arts activities were less effective with children entering kindergarten with lower literacy skills.

While the same balance of these elements may not be best for all children because of individual differences, these researchers stress that neither should be omitted from kindergarten classrooms.

Limitations of study

This study is limited by the self-reported secondary sources of some of the data. Self-report data can be less reliable or biased, although the diversity of results makes this unlikely in the current study. In addition, the description of instructional methods is not as detailed as direct observation would provide, and the study was limited to a single academic year. Also, the phonics test has lower reliability than the measure of integrated language arts and this may have influenced the results.

Despite these limitations, Xue and Meisels contend that the large, nationally representative sample of children, classrooms and schools provides good validity and can be useful in our understanding of how children learn to read. These findings suggest the advantages of an instructional policy calling for a balanced approach to early literacy instruction. These researchers propose that the most sensible beginning reading instruction reflects a balance of skill development and authentic reading and writing. Their study provides empirical evidence that instruction incorporating both is more effective than either one taught alone.

Children need a balanced approach that includes learning to break the code and engaging in meaningful reading and writing activities in kindergarten.


“Early Literacy Instruction and Learning in Kindergarten:Evidence From the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study — Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 41, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 191-229.

Published in ERN October 2004 Volume 17 Number 7

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