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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

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READING PUZZLES EXPLAINED: Old Research Supplies Missing PiecesCharles Richardson

Every few months we see new studies on reading or educational research with some new thoughts, but still recurring data that can't be explained beyond the "gee-whiz!" level. Public and professionals alike feel frustrated by their inability to "connect ALL the dots," and at the wiggle-room left for continuance of the so-called "reading wars." Two such puzzling pieces are the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (December 2000), and the voucher-effect findings of Howell, Wolf, Peterson, and Campbell, released in September, 2000, restated in EDUCATION WEEK, 2/7/01, "In Defense of Our Voucher Research," re-visited in The WASHINGTON TIMES WEEKLY, 5/13/02, as "Voucher programs raised scores of inner-city blacks." The NRP cannot explain certain time-sensitive patterns of systematic phonics instructional benefits, and Howell et al cannot explain why African-American children so uniquely benefit from public-to-private school transfers. Some of the information which follows appears on in "Black Under-Achievement - The Reading Connection." 

The NRP Subgroup Report section on phonics (pages 2-133 thru 138) discusses at some length  - experts observe but are unable to explain – repeated observations that systematic synthetic phonics taught in kindergarten and first grade has a significantly better effect than phonics teaching delayed until 2nd grade or later. Page 2-138 asks if such children "have difficulty acquiring....decoding strategies because they have already learned other ways to 'process print' that undermine the incorporation of new processes in their reading... ..Additional research is needed to study how phonics instruction is received by children who are 'already reading’; whether there are sources of conflict." There are, indeed, sources of conflict, known in the reading profession since circa 1910, which new research is able to quantify and relate to both the NRP quandary and the voucher research of Howell, et al. 

The Old Research

Research by Oskar Messmer (Germany, 1903), described by E.B, Huey in The PSYCHOLOGY and PEDAGOGY of READING, (U.S.,1908), replicated by Myrtle Sholty (Chicago, 1912) and by Geraldine Rodgers (1978) in four languages, showed that there are two different types of readers (as well as various mixtures of those types, according to Rodgers). The types appear to result from whether a child is FIRST taught to process print by memorizing whole words or by decoding syllables via their letter-sound connections. Whatever is learned FIRST appears to form a habit, or reflex, that interferes with use of the other, much as learning to drive on the right-hand side of the road interferes with attempts to drive on the left. 

A child taught to read by sight-memorizing tends to look at the length and outer shape of the word and seeks to connect it with a memorized word or a meaning. By contrast, a child coached to sound out a word by syllables looks at the INNER structure of a word for pronounceable syllables. As an example of conflicting perceptions of the same object, imagine a picture of a vase with the stem composed of silhouetted human faces. The two image sets compete for your attention, and whether you "see" faces or a vase may depend on your expectations. 

The child who reads by syllables was termed an "objective" reader, as he can practice his decoding skills to become automatic at recovering the sounds of syllables/words, freeing his attention to focus on comprehension. By contrast, the child who reads by whole-word memorization was called a "subjective" reader, as he must continually divide his attention between comprehension of the passage and verifying each guess at an unfamiliar word by "subjecting" it to the sense of subsequent context. When his memory banks get over-loaded he makes errors on "look-alikes," e.g., "from" for "form," "trail" for "trial," "clam" for "calm," "casual" for "causal," etc. 

Eye-movement studies (Adams and Bruck, 1995) have shown that inefficient [subjective] readers make frequent regressions to correct their wrong guesses, whereas efficient [objective] readers move steadily forward with a micro-stop on each word. 

New Research That Re-visits the Old 

The Miller Word Identification Assessment (MWIA) is a new tool that measures the degree to which a person is a subjective or objective reader. It consists of two lists of words, one drawn from the 220 high-frequency words that children are given as a "basic sight vocabulary" (letter-sound keys not explained) in early basal readers, and books such as "THE CAT IN THE HAT" and "GREEN EGGS and HAM." These 220 high-frequency words were identified by research in the 1920s as comprising half of all English running text. Dr. Seuss has stated that "THE CAT IN THE HAT" was written under contract to an educational publisher who supplied the 220 words. (Blumenfeld Education Letter, August, 1993) 

The second list consists of one-syllable, phonetically-regular words (first grade stuff!), with no silent letters, nor unusual or irregular pronunciations. Comparing speed and errors on the two lists reveals the person's "reflex," or how his brain has been conditioned to process print. A phonetic (objective) reader handles both lists equally, sometimes the second list faster because its words are inherently easier. A subjective (whole-word) reader, however, may fly through the first list with few (or no) errors, but slows down and makes more errors on the second list. And the differences can be major: Slow-downs of 10 to over 50 percent, and error counts 10 times as high! 

An additional testing step is to re-visit some of the mis-called phonetic words, ask the student to spell them aloud, then retry. Most of the time he will then say them correctly (!). It need be asked, "If he has the alphabetic skills to say them right, why did he mis-call them the first time when he was 'running on automatic?'" Why the difference in fluency? There is no biological rationale, as the sight-word list contains over two dozen that are either multi-syllable (another, anything) or irregular (could, would). The fluency difference has to be from a LEARNED behaviour -- the "reflex" from initial whole-word learning, a reflex that undermines/disrupts a person's automatic utilization of phonics decoding skills taught AFTER a basic sight vocabulary has been acquired. (The errors are usually "look-alikes.") The phenomenon of damage from non-phonic teaching has been observed frequently enough to be included in a 1993 National Institutes of Health pamphlet on dyslexia, and described by Dr. Samuel Orton in his article, "The Whole-Word Method As A Cause of Reading Disability" in the JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY of February, 1929. The MWIA work may be the first time this effect has been systematically quantified. 

Filling in the Puzzle Pieces 

The above explains the National Reading Panel's finding that systematic phonics delayed until 2nd grade or later is significantly less effective than when taught in K-1: That whole -word reflex gets in the way - has done its damage. But what of Howell's voucher findings? They are explainable by a combination of factors relating to reading, discovered via work with the MWIA. An unexpected -- but consistent -- finding is that the slow-downs and error rates for African-Americans with "whole-word dyslexia" (for lack of a better term), in similar school environments, are roughly twice as severe as those for Caucasians. The phenomenon was discovered in North Carolina by Edward Miller, creator of the MWIA, and persists in the test results by this writer on Long Island. 

Miller has tested nearly 1000 students in North Carolina and Florida. My data cover nearly 200 persons including adults in drug rehabilitation programs and teenagers in a literacy program for youth involved with the criminal-justice system. Because of low frustration thresholds in this population, I elected to use MWIA's shorter version (Called "Level I") with only 50 words per list. Despite its disarming simplicity (See Appendix I), it produces startling results, comparable to those of the full-length (Level II) version. The statistics are in preparation for wider publication, but a partial listing shows the following:



Caucasian African-American
Number of testees 64 65
Holistic Speed, WPM, Mean 68 63
    "           "       Std. Dev. 29 29
Holistic Errors, Mean 4.5 7.5
    "           "       Std. Dev. 5.0 9.5
Phonetic Speed, Mean 55 43
    "           "       Std. Dev. 29 31
Phonetic Errors, Mean 9.1 17.1  *
    "           "       Std. Dev. 8.4 14.7
Percent Slo-Down, Mean 19.3 39  *
    "           "       Std. Dev. 16.2 28
Ratio Phon Er/Hol Er, Mean 2.6 3.4
    "           "       Std. Dev. 2.1 2.9
Passage Comprehension, Woodcock
Rdg. Mastery Test, Mean 5.0 3.6 Grade Equivalent
    "            "      Std. Dev. 2.5 1.6
(Obviously some distributions are skewed)
The African-American Plight

Before jumping on me as a racist, compare the above data from products of schools which "mix whole language and phonics" with the experiences of inner-city schools that use, or have switched to, phonics-only reading programs. One such is Barclay Elementary in Baltimore, praised by Albert Shanker in his NY Times column of August 20, 1995. Barclay adopted the curriculum of the Calvert (independent) School and in four years its reading scores went UP 30 to 50 percentile points and referrals for special education went DOWN by a factor of four! Also look at the inner city all-minority schools described on which make a point of starting systematic phonics in K-1, and have black students in the 70th percentiles right up there with the Beverly Hills crowd. There are five "no-excuses" schools in the NYC area (one of which I have visited), but they are ignored by the education establishment and the media. 

Consider also the testimony of Mary Burkhardt in the foreword to WHY JOHNNY S-T-I-L-L CAN'T READ (Flesch, 1981), when she was Director of K-12 Reading for the Rochester (NY) City Schools, page xiv: "I am sure you have often heard it said that the percentage of children who are minority influences the degree of reading failure in a given school or district. Reality is that whether children are 'advantaged' or 'disadvantaged,' black or white, rich or poor, does not have anything to do with how successfully children learn to read. Based on my professional experience, such statements are only excuses for not teaching children to read." Her "professional experience" included five years after she had manoeuvred three good phonics programs into place, and Rochester's first graders were above grade level and its 2nd through 6th graders averaged on grade level or better. 

The Voucher Data of Howell, et al

The MWIA data has only highlighted what anyone might have deduced from careful examination of schools where African-American children do well as compared with those where they do less well: Early phonics appears to be more crucial for African-Americans than for other ethnicities, and once that is in place they do just fine. [Implications for UK African-Caribbeans? – Editor] 

And private schools tend to have stronger phonics programs than do public schools. A friend who taught first grade in Jersey City many years ago, when the reading programs were all phonics, used to say, "The black kids are smarter than the whites!" 

In discussions of the MWIA data with black colleagues, it has been pointed out to me that Africans were the most sophisticated people in communicating by drums, and their musical talent is legendary. It may be that their super sensitivity to sound gets in the way of learning to read when they are constrained to a process based solely on visual processing, shutting out sound involvement. Only more research can solve this part of the puzzle. But, fortunately, there are remedies. 


Prevention, of course, is the best remedy. Next best, after the fact, is some way to get those ubiquitous 220 sight words temporarily out of the reading environment. Ed Miller reasoned that where the 220 high frequency words make up half of what students normally read, such repeated exposure keeps reinforcing the wrong behaviour. He devised his "Sight-Word Eliminator" (SWE) by modifying a popular American novel, blacking out those high frequency 220 wherever they occurred. One's likely first reaction on seeing it is, "How do I read this? Half the words are obliterated!" 

After a word-guessing student is tutored with a full set of decoding skills, he spends a few hours with the SWE where he has to decode every word - simple behaviour modification. Miller states that a group of 56 fourth-grade students was substantially cured in a few weeks of regular practice. Students may start reading 50 words per minute with 25% errors and reach say, 100 words per minute with less than 5% errors with guided help/monitoring by a teacher or even in peer groups. 

Interestingly, what's left in our language without those 220 (nuts and bolts) words is the "meat" of the story. It's surprising how well you can still follow the story line of the SWE book, Pat Robertson's AMERICA'S DATES WITH DESTINY. Thinking globally, if children risk developing "whole-word dyslexia" by unguided time spent with THE CAT IN THE HAT, should we start a campaign for warning labels to be applied by the publisher(s)? How important is it? In 1993 I tested (with the Level II) the major fraction of the seniors in an upper-middle-class Long Island high school, and compared the error counts to their verbal SAT scores. The correlation coefficient was a -0.61!

Numerically that's a robust correlation; the minus sign means that higher error counts related to lower SAT scores. From the district's (retired) reading coordinator, I learned that ten years earlier their reading program had been a whole-language series. 


HOLISTIC (The vocabulary of GREEN EGGS & HAM): Sam am and anywhere a are box be boat could car do dark eggs eat fox green goat good ham here house I in if like let mouse me may not on or rain say see so that them there they tree train the try thank would will with you. 

PHONETIC (Words from WHY JOHNNY CAN'T READ): Ben nip map tag job let sip mix pad lock wig pass hot rack jet kid pack Tom luck neck pick cut deck kick duck fuzz mud hack sick men hunt rash pest land tank rush mash rest tent food bulk dust desk wax ask gulps ponds hump lamp belt. 

This article and the reading or educational test (copyrighted in 1991 by Edward Miller) are used here with permission.




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