How explicit must phonics instruction be?

iStock_000003219917XSmallResearch has established the importance of early reading success. Children who are poor readers in third grade are unlikely to catch up to their peers in reading skills; in one study, 74 percent of them were still poor readers in Grade 9. Studies also reveal that phonological awareness and phonological processing skills are important for success in beginning reading. Efforts to improve poor reading skills have, until recently, been focused on remediation once children have fallen significantly behind their peers. But while recent research has demonstrated that training in phonological awareness can remediate early deficits and enable children to make better progress in learning to read, few remedial efforts have been successful.

Research with Title 1 students shows little evidence of effectiveness for traditional pull-out tutoring programs unless the tutoring is one-on-one. And attempts to mainstream students using Title 1 or special education aides in the regular classroom have not proved successful either. Recently educators are focusing on preventing reading problems by analyzing which instructional programs provide students with strong beginning reading skills.

The most successful of the kindergarten or first-grade prevention programs has been Reading Recovery. It provides students beginning first grade with the poorest skills with 30 minutes one-on-one with a specially trained tutor daily for 10 to 12 weeks. Recent research with Reading Recovery has demonstrated that adding direct instruction of phonics increases the speed with which these students reach grade level. Because individual instruction is expensive, researchers have been studying group instructional methods to determine which produce the most achievement in a broad range of students learning to read. It is the best predictor of reading comprehension. Although many children acquire it with little direct instruction, beginning readers with little phonological awareness seem to need direct instruction in phonics to acquire good decoding skills.

An important question is how explicit this phonics instruction needs to be. Phonics instruction can range from explicit letter-sound rules practiced with single words and controlled vocabulary texts, to embedded-phonics approaches in which instruction in letter sounds and spelling patterns is taught within literature selections, to the incidental learning of phonics rules through teacher feedback when the class reads literature.

Three approaches to phonics instruction

In the present study, researchers Barbara R. Foorman and Jack M. Fletcher, University of Texas/Houston Medical School; David J. Francis and Christopher Schatschneider, University of Houston; and Paras Mehta, Arizona State University, investigated the degree of explicitness in phonics instruction most effective in increasing word recognition and comprehension in Title 1 students.

Two hundred eighty-five first- and second-graders in 19 schools who scored in the lowest 18 percent of their classes in reading skills were chosen for the study. Sixty percent of the students were African-American, 20 percent were Hispanic and 20 percent were white. Sixty-one percent were male. All students were assigned to one of three instructional groups, and these groups were comparable in age, gender and ethnicity.

Each group was assigned to one of three reading programs. One focused on direction instruction of phonics rules using single words and controlled-vocabulary stories. Another emphasized phonemic awareness and spelling patterns in predictable books. In the third, teachers facilitated learning, helping the children with integrated writing, reading and spelling activities in which phonics was discussed as needed. The central focus in this third approach was on literature and writing. Despite the significant differences in these three approaches to phonics instruction, all classes were print-rich environments where children spent a lot of time reading, writing and listening to stories.

Results showed that for children with poor phonological processing and beginning reading skills, direct instruction of phonics rules and controlled-vocabulary stories in first and second grade produced the most growth in word-reading skills. By the end of the school year, the direct-instruction group came close to the national average in decoding skills (43rd percentile) and passage comprehension (45th percentile). This was significantly better than the performance in groups that did not use direct instruction in phonics. The groups did not differ in spelling performance; none achieved well in this area.

These researchers caution that longer-term intervention may show different results. The less direct methods of phonics instruction may take longer to show positive effects. It is important to note that children in classrooms where phonics was not explicitly taught had significantly more positive attitudes toward reading. These positive attitudes, although not associated with higher reading performance in beginning reading, may motivate students to read more and consequently improve their reading skills in the years to come.

These researchers conclude that adding direct phonics instruction to primary reading programs appears to help beginning readers with poor phonological processing skills develop stronger word-reading and comprehension skills more quickly. But they point out that it did not improve spelling skills and appeared to reduce children’s enjoyment of reading.

“The Role of Instruction in Learning to Read: Preventing Reading Failure in At-Risk Children,” Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 90, Number 1, March 1998 ,pp. 37-55.

Published in ERN May/June 1998 Volume 11 Number 5

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)