College instructors of reading teachers flunk phonics test

iStock_000014316766XSmallSocioeconomic status, family background and English Language Learner (ELL) status are frequently blamed for children’s literacy problems, but a recent Journal of Learning Disabilities’ study says the quality of phonics instruction should get more attention in the debate. Several research studies in recent years have tested reading teachers’ knowledge of phonics and found that teachers’ understanding of syllables, speech sounds and other elements of phonics was woefully inadequate.

In a new study, researchers took this research a step further: They tested instructors in college and university teacher education programs on their knowledge of phonics to see how much teachers’ difficulties could be traced back to their own teachers.

The results are serious cause for concern.

Definition of phonemic awareness

Researchers surveyed 78 college-level education instructors responsible for teaching reading about their knowledge of language concepts. They used a 68-item questionnaire called the Survey of Language Constructs Related Literacy Acquisition which quizzed instructors about definitions of terms and asked them to identify speech sounds and morphemes in words.. There were 22 items on phonology, 10 on phonics, 18 on morphology and 10 on comprehension.

The study found that:

  • Only 54% of instructors could correctly recognize the definition of phonemic awareness in a multiple- choice question although 98% correctly recognized the definition of phoneme;
  • Only 26% correctly identified the number of morphemes in the word observer (3), 29% in the word frog (2) and 19% in spinster (2);
  • Only 42% correctly counted the speech sounds in the word box and only 27% could correctly recognize words with final stable syllables (paddle).

Many instructors said they believed phonics instruction was important in reading instruction.

“Even though phonics instruction was mentioned as an effective method of instruction, instructors’ responses in Study 1 indicated that teacher educators were not knowledgeable about the steps involved in systematic and explicit synthetic phonics instruction,” the researchers write.

“It is noteworthy that a large number of studies have shown the importance of phonemic awareness in becoming a good reader not only in English but also in several other alphabetic languages,” the study says.

All the respondents had previously taught in elementary schools and were currently teaching 2-4 courses in reading education to preservice elementary education teachers in the Southwest.

Instructors performed well in defining and counting the number of syllables correctly. They were moderately weak in correctly recognizing words with 2 closed syllables (napkin), correctly recognizing words with open syllables, correctly counting speech sounds in words such as through and correctly identifying the definition of a morpheme.

Lack explicit knowledge

The researchers add that the instructors demonstrated implicit knowledge of how to use these concepts, but they did not have the explicit knowledge that is essential for reading teachers.

“However, an explicit knowledge of such critical reading strategies and skills is necessary for teaching others these same skills, because one cannot teach something one cannot express explicitly,” they write.

In the survey, instructors were asked how well-prepared they felt to teach typical readers and struggling readers how to read. On a scale of 1-4, teachers rated themselves 2.04 on being prepared to teach literacy skills to ELLs and 3.06 for teaching comprehension.

The Texas-based researchers asked reading instructors from another state to participate in the second part of the study. About 40 instructors from 12 universities in a midwestern state completed a different survey with 12 questions relating to the causes of reading disability, general philosophy of teaching and best practices in teaching 5 components of teaching reading (phological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension).

All had doctoral degrees, had previously taught in elementary school and believed they were academically well prepared to teach reading. One of the researchers then traveled to all 12 universities and asked the same 12 questions to the participants in taped sessions that allowed for further analysis.

Quality of instruction as factor

Only 20% of respondents in this second part of the study correctly defined phonological awareness and the remaining 80% defined it as letter-sound correspondence.

According to the participants’ responses, the 3 most common factors that they associated with the high incidence of reading disability were:

  • socioeconomic status (69%)
  • family background (60%) and
  • English as a second language status (55%)

None of the instructors mentioned the quality of instruction as a reason for failure in learning to read. (The total adds up to more than 100% because participants could cite more than one reason in their responses.)

With regard to their preferred reading methodologies:

  • 75% of instructors identified the bal-anced approach as their philosophy of teaching reading
  • 25% identified the whole-language approach
  • 15% cited the language experience approach.

The researchers observe that many teachers who say they favor “balanced reading instruction” rely on the whole-language philosophy and neglect systematic decoding instruction.

To make up for the serious deficiencies in knowledge of language concepts, teacher educators need intensive instruction on the linguistic features of the English language and more professional development in this area, the authors conclude. In 2000, the Texas Reading First Higher Education Collaborative (HEC) was formed to support teacher educators of reading instruction in integrating scientifically based reading research into their teacher prep courses.

A 2001 federally funded study found that 60% of K-3 teachers could not answer half of the questions in a 20-item multiple-choice assessment that examined knowledge of the structure of the English language at both the word and sound levels. (e.g. How many speech sounds are in the word “eight”? How many speech sounds are in the word box? What is a phoneme?)

“If preservice and in-service educators do not have the knowledge of effective literacy instruction, it is likely that they did not acquire the concepts in their reading education courses or from the prescribed textbooks,” the authors write.

For administrators, the take-home lesson is that even a teacher with a recent education degree might not be prepared to provide phonics instruction to beginning readers.

“Why Elementary Teachers Might Be Inadequately Prepared to Teach Reading,” by R. Malatesha Joshi et al., Journal of Learning Disabilities, September/October 2009, Volume 42, Number 5, pp. 392-402.

Readers Comments
An excellent article – I am a firm believer in phonics instruction for beginning readers and as a result of so many years of poor misguided reading instruction, we now have college instructors as well as their students who do not have a realistic sensible grasp of the basic elements of phonics and reading instruction.
Mary Jane Daudlin

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