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

RRF Newsletter 49 back to contents
An Evaluation of the Government's Early Intervention Initiative: The Early Literacy Support programme Dr. Bonnie Macmillan

The Early Literacy Support (ELS) programme is a recent government National Literacy Strategy initiative. An elaborate set of materials and 3-day training courses have been made available to all primary school Year 1 teachers and designated literacy teaching assistants in the country. In spite of the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS), followed a year later by the NLS Progression in Phonics materials, it appears that a good portion of children continue to experience difficulty learning how to read. Accordingly, the NLS Early Literacy Support programme is designed to address this problem. Teachers are now to identify such children during the first term of Year 1 so that during the second term, they can receive the 60-session ELS intervention programme. In practical terms this means that in addition to receiving Literacy Hour instruction within the classroom, children identified as at-risk are given small group instruction outside the classroom for 20 minutes a day for 12 weeks. 

Analysis of the ELS programme

In an effort to gauge how effective this new intervention programme might be, I conducted a detailed time sampling analysis of the different activities within each of the 60 sessions. The purpose was to determine how much time is allocated to activities known to be most highly correlated with learning to read. In the Sumbler and Willows study (1996), for example, it was found that over a period of six months, only two instructional activities (learning about letter shapes and letter-sounds) were related to subsequent reading and spelling success.  

Examining the ELS lessons, I was able to isolate 8 different kinds of activities: 1) Shared Reading (shared guided reading of text, guessing at print from context, pictures, word length, memorising whole sentences, phrases, and words, sequencing cut-up sentences), 2) Shared Writing (group composing of text, invented spelling, practice in spelling to memorise both regularly and irregularly spelled words as wholes), 3) PA No Letters (phonological awareness training in the absence of letters or print), 4) Sound to Letter Training (all sound-to-letter activities required when spelling),  5) Letter to Sound Training (all letter-to-sound activities, sounding out letters, blending sounds together, as required for reading), 6) Letter Names (learning of letter names), 7) Letter Formation (practice writing letter shapes, but could find no evidence that letter-sound learning occurs at the same time), 8) Other (lesson introduction, lesson review, other miscellaneous activities not categorised). 

The total teaching time for this programme is 1200 minutes (60 sessions x 20 minutes each). Examining each lesson plan in detail, I was able to calculate the total number of minutes that is devoted to each of the eight different types of activities, and what percentage of the total teaching time this represents. The findings are shown in Table 1 below. The greatest amount of time is spent on Shared Reading and Shared Writing type activities, the kind of activities that Sumbler and Willows discovered were completely unrelated to subsequent reading or spelling success; in the ELS lessons, these kinds of activities together take up 60% of the total teaching time. Letter to Sound training and Letter Formation, the two activities that do make a difference to subsequent literacy success according to the Sumbler and Willows research, take up less than 5% of lesson time. 

Table 1          Amount of time devoted to different activities within the ELS lessons

 

 

Activity Type

 

Number of minutes out of 1200

 

 

Percentage of total teaching time

1) Shared Reading

406

34 %

2) Shared Writing

317

26 .4%

3) PA No Letters

108

10 %

4) Sound to Letter (Spelling)

141

12 %

5) Letter to Sound (Reading)

36

3 %

6) Letter Names

3

0.3 %

7) Letter Formation

21

2 %

8) Other Activities

147

12.2 %

The ELS programme reveals bias

The Progression in Phonics (PIP) materials state that “balance is essential” in developing a range of reading strategies among pupils, both “text down” and “spellings up” (p. 2). But note that ‘balance’ in the case of the ELS programme, as shown in Table 1 above, consists of only 3% of the time being allocated to the latter ‘spellings up’ category of activities, while 97% of the time is spent on the former ‘text down’ type of activities. Yet, this blatant and wholesale bias towards text down, whole-language type activities (seen within the ELS lessons, the accompanying training video, and in the support extended towards particular commercial reading schemes) appears to be something the government has decided to overlook.

In spite of statements to the contrary, both the earlier published NLS and PIP materials contain the same overwhelming ‘text down’ bias. One might have expected that the ELS programme would provide more intensive phonics instruction to help those children failed by the NLS and the PIP initiatives. Instead, the ELS lessons simply represent an additional dose of the same inadequate whole language/shared text instruction found in the previous programmes. 

The ELS programme reveals misunderstanding of research

Government documents also assert that the NLS materials are based on “a detailed scrutiny of research” (PIP, p. 3), but the examination of the ELS materials here suggests that any research that has been considered has obviously been badly misunderstood.

a) Shared reading and writing activities predominate in ELS lessons

If the ELS lessons are meant to teach children how to read, why do they concentrate (60% of the time) on whole-language, whole text driven methods of instruction that research evidence shows to be ineffective? Aside from the Sumbler and Willows study, over the last 30 to 40 years, experimental studies comparing methods of instruction have shown that those methods that rely on whole language practices such as shared reading (guessing at, and memorising whole texts) and shared writing (invented spelling, memorisation of whole words, copying print) are not effective as beginning reading methods (e.g. Evans, Shaw & Bell, 2000; Stuart, 1999; NRP, 2000).     

Perhaps the government is still suffering from the popular delusion that shared reading and writing along these lines has something to do with learning how to read. One famous (and seriously flawed) study by Kenneth Goodman in 1965 has had an inordinate amount of influence in fostering this myth. Goodman found that children could read words in lists with 60 to 80% less accuracy than when the same words appeared subsequently in the context of a story. He therefore concluded that children should not be taught how to read words in isolation. 

While there were a number of very serious mistakes in the way Goodman conducted this study, one important error was that Goodman did not control for the ability of his readers. He used only poor readers in his experiment and had no control group. Many researchers who repeated his experiment subsequently found that it was only younger and poorer readers who make more errors reading words out of context. Good readers are able to read well whether words appear in, or out of context. Children who know how to read make no attempt to try and use context (a comprehension strategy) as a word reading strategy.  

One very important point here is that during reading, the decoding of words always takes place before the understanding of words, sentences or whole texts. Sophisticated eye movement and brain research [event related potential (ERP) studies] have convincingly demonstrated this. The eyes fixate on a word for about 250 milliseconds. During this time, a number of processes occur close together in time, but nevertheless, in a set sequence. The visual shape of each letter is recognised, each letter is translated into its sound equivalent, the sounds are assembled together to arrive at a mental sound equivalent for the whole word, and finally, the meaning of the word is accessed. Semantic processing occurs last (e.g. Lee, Rayner & Pollatsek, 1999: Sereno, Rayner, & Posner, 1998; Perry & Ziegler, 2002). As readers become more adept, instead of letter-by-letter symbol-to-sound translation occurring in a series, it has been shown that this process speeds up, and gradually groups of letters, common spelling patterns, and high frequency words begin to be recognised all at once, in parallel (Aghababian & Nazir, 2000; Jared, Levy & Rayner, 1999).  

Pictures and guessing play no part in any of the word reading processes that occur. Nor is the use of context among the processes that occurs during an initial eye fixation. Only after an initial eye fixation occurs, and only on the occasions where word meaning is in doubt, do the eyes regress back over the preceding text to use context as an aid to meaning. These particular regressions constitute a post reading strategy that may occur afterwards: in effect, a non-reading strategy used to confirm meaning, not to extract it in the first place. 

In order to become readers, children need to learn how to become very adept at the word reading processes known to occur and perform them in the correct sequence: recognising letter shapes, translating these into phonemes, blending phonemes of a word together, arriving at a mental sound equivalent of the word, and finally recognising this as an understandable word on its own (if it appears in isolation), or a word that makes sense with preceding text (if it appears in continuous text). If the aim is to teach children to read, activities that have nothing to do with word-reading processes (teaching children as in the ELS lessons to memorise text, to guess at words by looking at the pictures, a word’s first or last letter, or by repeating preceding text, to arrange cut up sentences in order, or to copy and invent sentences or stories) are not surprisingly, entirely useless (demonstrated convincingly in the study by Sumbler and Willows, 1996). 

b) Phonological activities in the ELS lessons

The ELS lessons reveal that government officials have been influenced by the vast amount of phonological awareness research. But, once again, the composition of the ELS lessons reveals the extent to which they have misconstrued it. First, in spite of the bulk of research demonstrating that for the purposes of teaching children to read, phonological awareness instruction is of little or no usefulness unless it is combined with letter-sound instruction (e.g. Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Watson, 1999), 10% of ELS lesson time is wasted with this type of activity. Perplexingly, this lesson design error occurs alongside the government’s assertion that phonemic instruction should be “linked to knowledge of the letter-sound correspondences” (PIP, p.3). 

In fact, there is a great deal of confusion over phonological awareness research. When evaluating the research investigating the relative contribution that different skills make to reading ability, many have overlooked a major flaw inherent in much of this research. At least half of such studies have overestimated the contribution of early phoneme awareness skills to learning to read simply because the possible contribution that early letter-sound knowledge might make was not taken into account (for review, see, Macmillan, 2002b). Much evidence suggests that children do not in fact develop phoneme awareness skills until they possess quite a high level of letter-sound knowledge (Duncan & Seymour, 2000b; Johnston et al., 1996 Stuart, 1999). But confirming the typical kind of confusion that occurs when examining this research, the government officials have devised ELS lessons so that only 3% of lesson time is spent on developing letter-sound skills, while 22% of time is spent on phoneme skills (10% with no letters, and 12% involving oral segmentation with letters).  

Second, while government officials acknowledge the research demonstrating that phonemic awareness (defined as the ability to segment and blend phonemes) “linked to letter-sound teaching” is “a very strong predictor of reading and spelling success” (PIP, p.3), the ELS lessons show that they have failed to properly comprehend the meaning of the term ‘predictor’. Correlational studies have indeed shown that a child’s early phoneme segmentation and blending skills, as well as letter-sound knowledge are related to, or predictive of later reading and spelling success, but such studies are only suggestive; they cannot properly establish what are the most important reading skills to teach, nor can they answer questions about how best to teach them. The only way to really establish causation, in terms of what are the most important skills and how best to teach them, is to conduct a true experimental study. 

Conveniently, a large-scale research project of this kind was conducted in Scotland (Watson, 1999); but unfortunately, government officials do not appear to have recognised how extremely relevant its findings were for the purposes of designing an effective early intervention programme of instruction.  

Three methods of beginning reading instruction were compared (in experiment 2): 1) whole word learning, and no letter instruction, 2) segmenting and blending instruction, but with emphasis on segmenting, whole-to-part or sound-to-letter instruction, only involving initial sounds or letters of words, and 3) blending and segmenting instruction, but with the emphasis on sounding and blending, part-to-whole or letter-to-sound instruction, involving all letters or sounds of words. 

The second method of instruction is almost identical to the type of Sound to Letter (spelling) and Letter to Sound (reading) instruction that is included in the ELS lessons. Rarely do the ELS activities involve segmenting and spelling all the sounds, or sounding and blending all the letters, in sequence, from the beginning to the end of a word. And the bulk of these activities are to do with skills directly related to spelling, not reading. Yet, the results of the Scottish study showed very clearly that ten weeks of this, method two, kind of instruction did not improve reading ability, letter-sound knowledge or phoneme skills any more than did the first method, where no letter instruction at all was involved.  

If those who designed the ELS lessons had attended to this important research, not only would they have ensured that the ELS activities involved blending and segmenting all letters in words, instead of focusing on initial, final and medial sounds in separate activities, they also would not have allocated such a small amount of time to this sort of instruction (only 15% of lesson time, 12% + 3 %). The Scottish study involved 20 minutes of segmenting and blending instruction per day, whereas the 15% of time ELS lessons provide translates to an average of less than 3 minutes per day.  

Furthermore, they would have allocated at least equal time to developing both segmenting and blending skills. In many studies, the crucial importance of letter-to-sound (and blending) instruction has been shown (e.g. see a review of some of these, Macmillan, 2002a). The ELS lessons, however, spend just 3% of the time developing letter-to-sound and blending skills. Moreover, any tiny positive effects this kind of instruction might have on improving reading skills is likely to be cancelled out by the large amount of contradictory whole word and whole text memorisation instruction comprising a major part of these lessons. How are these children meant to realise that all the letters in a word need to be sounded out if, most of the time, they are being taught to regard words as strange configurations that have to be memorised? 

Summary

To summarise, Table 2 shows that most of the activities within the ELS lessons (60%) are of no direct value in terms of expecting that they will have any effect on reading skills. Activities that research evidence has shown to have no effect on learning to read include: shared reading, shared writing, phonological instruction with no letters, instruction in letter names and other activities not categorised. 

In addition, research suggests that the particular kind of Sound to Letter instruction and the small amount of letter writing practice without reference to letter sounds within ELS lessons (taking up together 14 % of the time) is likely to be of little or no use in helping a child learn how to read (see Watson, 1999; and Sumbler & Willows, 1996, respectively). 

Finally, only 3% of the time in these ELS lessons is spent on activities directly related to reading processes, activities that have been shown to have dramatic effects on reading skills. 

Table 2 

 Value of activities for learning to read and time devoted to them in the ELS lessons 

Category of Usefulness 

Activities and (% Time Spent)

Percentage of Total Time Allocated to This Category

 

 

Activities that have no impact
on learning to read

 

Shared Reading (34 %)
Shared Writing (26.4 %) 
Other Activities (12.2 %)
Letter Names (0.3 %)
PA with No Letters/Print 
(10 %)

 

 

83 %

  Activities of limited value in teaching a child to read

  Sound to Letter instruction  (single, isolated sounds) (12 %)
Letter Formation (no L-S) learning) (2 %)

         

  14 %

  Activities that have a definite impact on learning to read

  Letter to Sound Instruction 
(3 %)

  3 %

Conclusion

In conclusion, when 97% of ELS lesson time is taken up with activities of either limited or no usefulness in terms of learning to read, I estimate the chance of the ELS intervention programme of instruction being effective in improving the reading skills of at-risk children to be close to zero.

 References:

Aghababian, V. & Nazir, T. (2000). Developing normal reading skills: Aspects of the visual processes underlying word recognition. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 76, 123-150.
Duncan, L. & Seymour, P. (2000). Socio-economic differences in foundation-level literacy. British Journal  of Psychology, 91, 145-166.
Evans, M., Shaw, D. & Bell, M. (2000). Home literacy activities and their influence in early literacy skills. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54 (3), 65-75.
Goodman, K. (1965). Cues and miscues in reading: a linguistic study. Elementary English, 42 (6), 639-644.
Jared, D., Levy, B. & Rayner, K. (1999). The role of phonology in the activation of word meanings during reading: Evidence from proof-reading and eye movements. Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General, 128(3), 219-264.
Johnston, R., Anderson, M. & Holligan, C. (1996). Knowledge of the alphabet and explicit awareness of phonemes in pre-readers: The nature of the relationship. Reading and Writing, 8, 217-234.
Lee, H. Rayner, K, & Pollatsek, A. (1999). The time course of phonological, semantic and orthographic coding in reading: Evidence from the fast-priming technique. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 6 (4). 624-634.
Macmillan, B. (2002a). Classroom research findings and the Nutshell Programme. Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter, 46.
Macmillan, B. (2002b). Rhyme and reading: A critical review of the research methodology. Journal of Research in Reading, 25(1), 4-42.
NRP (National Reading Panel) (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC:NICHD.
Sereno, S. Rayner, K, Posner, M. (1998). Establishing a time-line of word recognition: Evidence from eye movements and event-related potentials. NeuroReport, 9, 2195-2200.
Stuart, M. (1999). Getting ready for reading: early phoneme awareness and phonics teaching improves reading and spelling in inner-city second language learners. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 587-605.
Sumbler, K. and Willows, D. (1996). Phonological awareness and alphabetic coding instruction within balanced senior kindergartens. Paper presented as part of the symposium Systematic Phonics within a Balanced Literacy Program. National Reading Conference, Charleston, SC, December.
Watson, J. (1999). An investigation of the effects of phonics teaching on children’s progress in reading and spelling. PhD thesis, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Brief biography

Dr Bonnie Macmillan was educated in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and in Perth, Western Australia, Australia. She has been a primary school teacher in both countries and at a Montessori School in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. She has held lectureships in the Faculty of Education, and worked with children and adults at the Reading Clinic at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Currently a Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and a Research Associate with the Department of Psychology, University of Hull, she is the author of Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read.  

 

 

 

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