Thanks to IFERI committee member, Dr Molly de Lemos, for drawing attention to this excellent piece by Laura Stewart following on from the Dehaene lecture
Laura Stewart's piece is extremely readable and informed by evidence - and another 'must' read to appreciate the importance of explicit teaching of phonics which should include providing learners with 'matched' texts to apply their phonics knowledge and decoding skill rather than predictable texts which bring about poor and potentially damaging reading habits/profiles.
What We Know About Beginning Reading
Laura D. Stewart
Vice President, Professional Development–Superkids
Research consistently shows that strong readers effortlessly recognize words and link words to their meanings in order to comprehend text. Skilled reading happens so quickly and efficiently that it seems as though words are recognized as whole units. But the evidence is clear that readers do attend to the inner structure of words (Adams, 1990; Ehri, 2005), assembling the letters and sounds very quickly—in as little as 150 milliseconds for a word (Shaywitz, 2003). We know that the “immediacy of reading is an illusion based on the extreme automaticity of these word-assembly steps, which operate outside our conscious awareness” (Dahaene, 2009).
Learning to decode words is the critical step in beginning reading because it requires students to process the inner structure of words. Students become familiar with common letter patterns through decoding, gradually increasing the speed with which they recognize words and letter sequences. This leads to automatic and effortless word recognition, which then allows the reader to focus cognitive energy on comprehension rather than word recognition. When the brain is freed up from the confines of decoding, it can focus on the real purpose for reading—comprehension.
The role of instruction
To build the neural connections necessary for decoding, readers need to be taught the relationship between letters and sounds—phonics—explicitly and systematically. A large body of evidence confirms that systematic, explicit phonics is the most critical component of beginning reading instruction (Adams, 1990; McCardle and Chhabra, 2004; Christensen and Bowey, 2005; Ehri et al., 2001; Foorman et al., 1998; Foorman et al., 2001; Moats, 1998; NICHD, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998, Rayner et al., 2001).
What does systematic, explicit instruction mean? Systematic instruction is characterized by the use of a method or system. The skills that are needed to acquire the alphabetic principle should not be learned opportunistically. To be effective, instruction must be organized into a logical sequence (Armbruster, et al., 2001). Explicit instruction is clearly, intentionally stated and not merely implied. It is direct instruction that does not make assumptions about the skills and knowledge that children acquire on their own. Explicit phonics instruction teaches the sound/symbol relationships before children meet them in words (Dixon, et al., 1992).
For children to develop the decoding habit, they must receive extensive instruction in phonics with ample opportunities to practice their decoding in connected text. Decoding skills are best practiced with text that matches the letter-sounds as children are learning them. This kind of text is called phonetically controlled, or decodable, text.
The importance of appropriate text in beginning reading
“The types of words which appear in beginning reading texts may well exert a more powerful influence in shaping children’s word identification strategies than the method of reading instruction.” (Juel and Roper-Schneider, 1985)
The text that teachers select impacts the kind of word identification strategies that students will use in their reading. So primary teachers need to think: What are my goals for my beginning readers? How do I develop sustainable strategies for getting the text off the page?
Using uncontrolled text in beginning reading: When beginning readers are given text for which they do not know the phonetic code, they develop an over-reliance on context and pictures. While context and pictures are useful for confirming meaning, they are not designed for initial word recognition. Students who develop context and pictures as their first word recognition strategies are essentially guessing, which puts them at a tremendous risk for reading failure, as they have not developed the decoding accuracy or automaticity necessary for reading success.
Using text based on “sight words”: Students who read from texts that are primarily constructed around high-frequency words will primarily employ a visual strategy for word identification, a strategy that will not sustain a reader very far into the process of reading (Foorman, et al., 2004), as children cannot begin to memorize all the words necessary to read.
Using predictable or pattern texts: Students who read from these texts, common in early “leveled readers,” will memorize patterns, repetitive language, and rhyme, but they are unlikely to acquire strong phonetic decoding skills. Students using patterns will not have developed a sustainable strategy for unlocking text. In fact, studies have shown that students in programs that emphasize these types of text fare poorly when compared to students in programs which employ decodable text (Foorman, et al., 1998).
Using decodable text:
Students who read from decodable text will develop a phonetic decoding strategy based on letter-sound correspondences. This is the best and most reliable strategy to develop in beginning readers, as this matches what brain science tells us about the need to establish a neural connection between sounds and letters (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2004). Decodable text allows students to get reliable results when the meet new words and reinforces their mastery of and automatic reliance on decoding. Furthermore, to become proficient readers, children must read great amounts of connected text (Beck & Juel, 1995; Snow, et al.,) but in the beginning are challenged by their struggle to identify words. Decodable text supports beginning readers so that they may have considerable successful practice with connected text. The combination of the accurate and automatic decoding and the practice with connected text will equip readers as they encounter higher levels of text with multi-syllabic and unknown words.
Although decodable text is important, the use of any decodable text alone is not sufficient for students to develop phonetic decoding skills. The text must match the instruction. In review of the research on decodable text, Mesmer (2001) notes that researchers have defined decodability by the presence of two primary features, 1) a proportion of words with phonetically regular relationships between letters and sounds, and 2) a degree of match between the letter/sound relationships represented in text and those that the reader has been taught. This match between instruction and application is critical; decodable text serves as a “ conduit for the application of phonics instruction” (Mesmer, 2001; p. 130).
Research on decodable text and student achievement
In a recent review of the empirical evidence regarding the influence of decodable text on reading performance and growth, Cheatham and Allor (2012) examined seven high-quality peer-reviewed studies (Compton et al, 2004; Hiebert and Fisher, 2007; Hoffman et al., 2001; Mesmer, 2010; Jenkins et al., 2004; Juel and Roper/Schneider, 1985; Mesmer, 2005) and concluded that “decodability is a critical characteristic of early reading text as it increases the likelihood that students will use a decoding strategy and results in immediate benefits, particularly in regard to accuracy” (p. 2241). They further state: “Theoretical research and empirical evidence support the need for students to apply phonics skills in connected text” and “Evidence is very clear that decodable text positively impacts early reading progress” (p. 2242).
The beginning years of learning to read are extraordinary! Children are mastering a complex system of sounds and symbols, and learning to derive meaning from print. The goal of effective primary-grade reading instruction is not only to teach children how to read, but to foster a love of reading in every child. Children who experience early reading success want to read more. This success leads to confident, independent, and engaged readers—readers who are able to tackle the demands of higher-order comprehension of complex text.
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