Phonics or not: How 1st grade teachers would choose to spend reading instruction time

iStock_000003219917XSmallAsk teachers what they believe is the most effective approach to teaching reading and they are likely to tell you what you want to hear and what they want to believe about their teaching philosophy: That phonics instruction takes a high priority in teaching children to read.

But a team of researchers decided that one way to get at teachers’ implicit beliefs is to ask them a simple open-ended question: If you could choose how to spend a 2-hour block of time teaching language arts, how would you spend it?

According to a recent article in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, the 121 1st-grade teachers who participated in the study planned to spend fewer than 30 minutes of their language arts block (25%: of their allotted time) providing students with the explicit and systematic instruction needed to gain decoding fluency.

Preferences not aligned with research
Teachers who favored phonics instruction spent 40 minutes of their time engaging in explicit and systematic instruction while teachers who favored an emphasis on literature spent less than 20 minutes engaging in such practices, the authors write in the journal article.

The results show that many teachers prefer to allocate their language arts time to instructional practices in ways that are not aligned with current research or policy, they write.

The teachers who participated in the study were from 37 elementary schools in a large, urban school district in the Western United States.

The district had recently adopted a structured, comprehensive core language arts program that required that a considerable part of a daily 150-minute literacy block would be devoted to explicit, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding skills. The assessment took place prior to the beginning of a year-long program of professional development on the curriculum and reading approach.

Need for major initiatives
Major initiatives to boost phonics instruction are needed based on this study.

“The results of this study suggest that the coordination of large-scale professional development efforts, the use of structured core reading programs, stronger preservice training in the area of reading development, and licensure tests that are aligned with state standards seem appropriate in light of the instructional practices reported by a significant portion of our teachers.

Teachers were asked to describe very specifically how they would spend their time during the 2-hour block. The teachers generated more than 500 differently worded responses to the prompt.

The research team classified the responses into 13 instructional categories: Teacher-managed reading, writing, independent reading, phonics, oral language, grammar and spelling, reading comprehension, phonemic awareness, literature, sight words, letters/sounds/concepts of print (COP), vocabulary and assessment.

Time for activities was apportioned as follows by the sample of teachers:

  • 19.1% of time for teacher-managed reading activities
  • 16.4% of time for independent writing
  • 14.3% for reading activities
  • 11.5% for phonics instruction etc.

Teachers with special education credentials preferred spending significantly more time teaching letters and sounds to their students than general education teachers and teachers who performed well on phonics tasks also tended to prefer allocating more time to explicit and systematic instructional practices and less time to unstructured literature activities, says the study.

Teachers who were more knowledgeable about phonics allocated almost 3 times as much time to instruction focused on letters, sounds and COP than those who were less knowledgeable (2.8% vs. 1.0%).

Teachers with a literature emphasis spent 5 times more time as the larger group engaged in literature activities (14.5% compared with 2.9%). The authors note that rather than taking some time away from all activities equally for more literature-based activities, teachers who favored this approach took a significant proportion of time away from phonics to meet their instructional goals in literature.

They proposed spending less than 4 minutes a day on phonics instruction as compared with the 14 minutes preferred by the whole sample.

While it’s true that teachers’ preferred practices may not correlate with the actual practices they engage in during the school day (teachers said they would spend less than 1% of their time on assessment), researchers say their results show a real mismatch between self-reported and best practices.

They conclude that the “the results of this study indicate that many teachers prefer to allocate their language arts time to instructional practices in ways that are not concordant with current research or policy.

“How Teachers Would Their Time Teaching Language Arts, The Mismatch Between Self-Reported and Best Practices,” by Anne Cunningham et al., Journal of Learning Disabilities, September/October 2009, Volume 42, Number 5, pp. 418-430.

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