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

RRF Newsletter 48 back to contents
Research DigestJennifer Chew

Johnston, F.P. 2001. The utility of phonic generalizations: Let’s take another look at Clymer’s conclusions. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 55 No 2, October 2001. An old but influential study by Clymer (published in 1963) has persuaded many people that the phonic generalizations commonly taught to young children are not very useful. Francine Johnston (University of North Carolina) re-examined the data and reached rather different conclusions, in spite of the fact that she set herself a hard task in focusing only on vowel patterns, which are recognised as more difficult than consonant patterns. She found that the rules could be restated to make them much more reliable. For example, the first vowel has its ‘long’ sound over 95% of the time with ay, ai and oa. Words with -air and –oar can be considered either separately as ‘r-controlled’ or, at least in American accents, as needing only minor adjustment in pronunciation if initially sounded out with the first vowel’s `long’ sound. With some digraphs for vowel sounds, the fact that the first letter does not ‘do the talking’ is compensated for by the near-100% reliability of the sounds in words (e.g. the ­–aw, -oy and -oi in saw, boy and join) or else by the fact that there is usually only a two-way choice (e.g. the ow, ew, and oo in snow/how, blew/view, boot/book). Johnston recommends that children should be encouraged to adopt a ‘flexible strategy...such as trying more than one sound and checking the results with their oral language and context’. Some of her solutions work better in American accents than in British, but the general principles she offers would be easily adaptable. 

Connelly, V., Johnston, R., and Thompson, G.B., 2001. The effect of phonics instruction on the reading comprehension of beginning readers. Reading and Writing: An interdisciplinary journal, 14, 2001.  It is often claimed that whole-language teaching fosters better comprehension in children, even though phonics-taught children may be better at word-recognition. Connelly et al., however, found the reverse: phonics-taught children were better not only at word-recognition but also at comprehension. The researchers compared Scottish phonics-taught children with a group in New Zealand who were matched on word-recognition ability but were taught by the characteristic New Zealand ‘book experience’ method, which encouraged reliance on context rather than on sounding out and blending. A particularly interesting finding was that ‘Phonics taught children produced more contextually appropriate errors, and in both single word and text reading made more attempts at reading unknown words’ – in other words, it seems that children actually make better use of context if they have first extracted all the information they can from the letters in the target word. ‘Compared with the non-phonics group, the phonics group spent more time in attempts at identifying unknown words and this included using contextual information, which apparently resulted in more rehearsal of the meaning and hence better reading comprehension performance’. 

Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Willows, D.M., Schuster, B.V., Yaghoub-Zadeh, Z., Shanahan, T., 2001. Phonemic awareness instruction helps children learn to read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis.  Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3, July/August/September 2001. This article covers much the same ground as the relevant section in the USA’s National Reading Panel Report (2000). Studies on phonemic awareness (PA) had to meet stringent criteria in order to be included. An interesting finding related to the socio-economic status (SES) of at-risk readers: ‘only 27% were low in SES while 37% were middle to high SES’ (the SES of the remainder was not specified). It was found that focusing on just one or two PA skills (e.g. segmenting or segmenting and blending) was more effective than focusing on more PA skills, that `Teaching PA effectively includes teaching the applications as well as the skill’, that PA benefited comprehension as well as word-identification, and that ‘PA instruction was more effective when it was taught with letters’. 

Macmillan, B.M. Rhyme and reading: A critical review of the research methodology. Journal of Research in Reading, Vol. 25 No. 1, February 2002. Bonnie Macmillan carried out a meticulous examination of the research evidence behind the influential claims that rhyme awareness promotes reading ability. Much of the article is very technical, but the first three and last three pages are quite accessible even to non-academics. A major point made by Macmillan is that many of the research studies, while claiming to have found a clear causal link between rhyming ability and reading ability, are equally open to the interpretation that the really crucial factor is alphabet knowledge – the researchers have often simply overlooked this possibility. Another important point is that ‘The [rime analogy] strategy cannot, in fact, be considered a beginning reading strategy because some letter-sound decoding skill and a considerable sight vocabulary are needed first, in order to use it’. In the closing section of the article, Macmillan gives a very clear and simple account of what is necessary in order to read a cvc word: `letter-shape recognition, the left-to-right, letter-to-sound translation of each letter in turn, and the blending together of the three letter-sounds to pronounce the word’. This study raises some very serious questions about the thinking behind much of the National Literacy Strategy. 

Editor’s comment:                                Examining research 

Research requires very careful examination. It would be no surprise to find that we are generally desensitised to the “Research says…” statement, as we know instinctively that we must view research conclusions with caution. In any event, we invariably hear about research ‘third hand’ by which stage it may be less than accurately described. It seems to be human nature to use claims of ‘research’, even in good faith, to make us appear more authoritative in order to persuade others to move towards our own understanding, conclusions and preferences. Research is a complex minefield. 

One difficulty can be that the very people who conduct any research unwittingly bring with them previous experiences and pre-conceived ideas. This can skew either the procedures of the research and/or the conclusions. To conduct research with an absolutely clear, logical, scientific and open mind is not an easy or straightforward task. In addition, by continuously building on experience and research, knowledge and understanding invariably grow and change over time. We know that charismatic and plausible individuals have had an unprecedented influence on how we teach reading despite the lack of scientific evidence to support new and inspiring philosophies. Having had our fingers well and truly burned, we must now take every step to guard against the propensity of fads and philosophies to sweep through our profession. Are we seeing history repeat itself? 

It should be a valuable and valued exercise for others not involved in the original research to examine the processes and conclusions with a fine-tooth comb. Bonnie Macmillan and Jennifer Chew bring their analytical minds, a fresh viewpoint, and possibly a new dimension to the knowledge base and understanding. Such people seem to have a propensity for objectivity and analysis that is rarely so apparent in the rest of us. 

Feelings can run high when research is re-evaluated, as reputations and many years’ work can be at stake. But should it be like this? If the researchers are truly scientific, is it so difficult for them to accept that all objectivity is to be welcomed, if it is to lead to better understanding for the benefit of others? Should it be so difficult to accept and acknowledge that understanding has ‘moved on…’? Isn’t this what our lives are all about? 

We are probing deeper and further in an endeavour to learn more – and in the case of the teaching of reading we should be collectively and collaboratively trying to move towards greater effectiveness and inclusion for all. Is this what is happening everywhere or are people stuck with their old ideas, prejudices and preferences? 

Even now, the RRF and others are seriously questioning one of the conclusions drawn from research in America which has influenced official advice in the UK. We suggest that there is no need to devote so much time and emphasis on developing phonemic awareness out of the sight of print  - particularly in the case of teaching reading. Watch this space!





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