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

RRF Newsletter 50 back to contents
Research DigestJennifer Chew

Bowman, M. and Treiman, R, 2002. Relating print and speech: The effects of letter names and word position on reading and spelling performance. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 82 (2002) 305-340. This article reflects a type of thinking very alien, though in an unusual way, to synthetic phonics. The researchers’ baseline is that ‘US prereaders are reasonably familiar with the names of letters’. They conducted experiments in which young children were taught, by a whole-word approach, to ‘read’ 2-letter invented spellings. Some of the spellings allowed children to use letter-name knowledge in word-initial position (e.g. ‘TM’ for ‘team’, where the letter-name of ‘t’ can be heard at the beginning of the word) or word-final position (e.g. ‘BR’ for ‘bar’); some allowed them to use letter-sound knowledge (e.g. they were taught that ‘TM’ spelt ‘tame’); and some allowed neither but were ‘visually distinctive’ (e.g. the ‘T’ and ‘M’ were in different sizes, colours and materials but children were told that ‘TM’ spelt ‘wide’). It was found that children learnt the words with ‘letter-name cues’ in initial position most easily. The researchers suggest that including such words in early reading instruction ‘may help children understand that the printed forms of words are related to their spoken forms’. By contrast, synthetic phonics advocates would surely say that even if children arrive at school already knowing letter-names, teachers are misleading them if they encourage them to believe that using letter-names as outlined above is really useful for reading. 

Tunmer, W.E. and Chapman, J.W., 2002. The relation of beginning readers’ reported word identification strategies to reading achievement, reading-related skills, and academic self-perceptions. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 15 (2002) 341-358. This research was carried out in New Zealand, where reading instruction has been strongly influenced by the view of Clay that ‘all readers, from five-year-old beginners on their first book to effective adult readers’ need to use knowledge of meaning, sentence-structure etc. ‘before they resort to left to right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or, in the last resort, single letters’ (p. 9 of An observation survey of early literacy achievement published 1998 by Heinemann). All the children in the Tunmer and Chapman study had been taught by this type of whole language approach. The researchers nevertheless thought it possible that some children might have worked out something about the alphabetic code for themselves. This was confirmed when the children were asked what they did when they encountered a word that they didn’t know: some gave replies such as ‘sound it out’ and ‘hear all the letters’, whereas others gave replies such as ‘guess’ and ‘have a look at the picture’. Assessments were carried out at the end of Year 1 and in the middle of Year 3. These included the Burt single-word reading test and standardised comprehension tests. The children who used letter-based strategies not only achieved significantly higher scores but also had ‘more positive academic self-concepts’. 

Cardoso-Martins, C., 2001. The reading abilities of beginning readers of Brazilian Portuguese: Implications for a theory of reading acquisition. Scientific Studies of Reading, Vol. 5 No. 4 (2001) 289-317. Cardoso-Martins was interested in the 1990 suggestion of Wimmer and Hummer that the regularity of a writing-system may be the main factor encouraging beginners to use phonics as a reading strategy from the start and that this may be why English beginners do not use this strategy. She felt that teaching methods might be an equally important factor. She compared a Brazilian school using a phonics approach from the start with one using a whole-word approach at first and introducing phonics in the middle of the first year. Portuguese has a much more regular writing-system than English, and if this had been the main factor affecting children’s strategies, then all the children, regardless of teaching method, should have relied more on phonics than on anything else. The results showed, however, that teaching method was a more important factor: the children initially taught by a whole-word approach did not start using phonics strategies until taught to do so.




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