Phonics 'proven' to stop comprehension

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yvonne meyer
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Phonics 'proven' to stop comprehension

Post by yvonne meyer » Tue Oct 13, 2009 10:04 pm

Professor Brian Cambourne, Principal Fellow at the University of Wollongong School of Education, Past President of the Primary English Teachers Assocation, whose "... national and international scholarship has earned him many prestigious awards, including being inducted into the International Reading Association's Reading Hall of Fame" has recently written the following piece which is available at the ABC's 'Unleashed' site.

Perhaps RRF'ers would like to comment to the Unleashed site.

"Recently The Australian newspaper ran a feature article, an editorial, and an opinion piece, on the teaching of reading. Each piece implied that intensive phonics instruction should be mandated by government fiat if the reading proficiency of Australian students was to be improved. These pieces mirrored recent shifts in government policy both in Australia and other English speaking countries such as USA, England, New Zealand. An alleged scientific superiority of a phonics-centred pedagogy over all other methods was invoked to justify and support this approach to reading instruction.

Has this alleged scientific superiority been borne out by subsequent research? If the ultimate outcome of reading instruction is to produce readers who accurately comprehend the meanings of the written texts they need (or desire) to read, then the answer is "No"!

Rather, empirical evidence that teaching intensive phonics actually interferes with children's ability to construct accurate meaning from text is starting to emerge from a range of sources, including USA government studies which specifically assessed the impact of intensive phonics-centred instructional approaches mandated by their "No Child Left Behind" legislation.

One of these is the three-year "Reading First Impact Study" (NCEE 2009-4038). This study demonstrates that time spent on phonics in grade one is significantly and negatively related to student reading comprehension. Ditto for grade two. For every minute spent on intensive phonics in the daily reading sessions there was a minus 0.10 point drop (-0.10) in grade one student comprehension scores in grade one, and a minus 0.15 (-0.15) point drop in grade two.

The more intensive phonics grade one and two students received, the less they could comprehend!

Another study showing similar trends is the NCEE evaluation of an after-school academic program using a specific phonic-centred, direct instruction pedagogy to teach reading to below grade second through fifth grade students. (NCEE 2009-4078) This study found that when compared to the reading scores of regular (that is not specifically phonic-centred) after-school programs, "two years of the enhanced reading program has a negative and statistically significant impact on their total reading scores."

Then there's the 2000 NAEP Reading Report. It reported that, "Help with breaking words into parts had a consistent negative relation to fourth-grade reading performance as demonstrated on the NAEP assessment... the more frequently students received this help the lower their average score; whereas fourth graders who reported that their teachers never helped them break words into parts had the highest average score." The Executive Summary summarises these results thus; "Fourth-grade students who reported that their teachers never or hardly ever helped them break words into parts scored higher that their peers who reported receiving such help daily or weekly."

It's not just government reports questioning the efficiency of phonics-centred instruction. The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy recently published a paper entitled, "The logographic nature of English alphabetics and the fallacy of direct intensive phonics instruction" (vol 7:3. 2007)

On page 315 this paper describes how "... students in two phonics based programs produced a significantly higher percentage of miscues that resulted in a loss of meaning. Furthermore, they were significantly less likely to attempt self-correction of their miscues, even when they did not make sense in the text". This same study also noted negative interference between phonics and comprehension, stating that, "... a significant negative correlation was found between phonics and retelling scores, such that the higher the phonics scores, the lower the retelling scores. Such results strongly suggest that students taught with phonics not only are unaware that what they say has no sense to it but are unable to explain (retell) what they have read".

Such research trends strongly suggest that intensive phonics, rather than supporting comprehension, actually gets in the way and complicates the process of learning to read for many children.

It's not hard to work out why. The human brain evolved to be able to go straight from visual signs to meaning without first going through speech. The belief that a set of alphabetic signs should be treated differently is simply an illusion. There is no evidence to support it.

We identify all the visual phenomena in our worlds directly without resorting to naming them (aloud or subvocally) first. We can immediately recognise a cow, or a picture or sketch of a cow without first associating the object or the picture with the name "cow". We don't need to utter "cow" aloud or subvocally in order to identify it as a "cow". We must first identify the object before we name it. Why should written language symbols be treated differently?

Giving young learners the message that written language can only be comprehended when converted into audible or inaudible speech to which the reader 'listens' is as impossible in practice as it is untenable in theory. It encourages many young learners to give up the search for meaning and concentrate on getting the sounds right, thus creating excellent decoders who cannot comprehend what they've decoded.

Does this mean we should abandon phonics teaching? Of course not. You can't spell or write without phonics. All teachers should teach phonics intensively when they're teaching writing and spelling. We simply need to avoid giving kids the message that comprehension and decoding are the same thing.

http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2689894.htm

JIM CURRAN
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Post by JIM CURRAN » Wed Oct 14, 2009 6:57 am

''That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science'' ( Adams, 1990; Anderson et al, 1985; Chall, 1983b, 1989; Perfetti, 1985; Stanovich, 1986b).

( page 415 Progress In Understanding Reading - Keith Stanovich )

Rod Everson
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Re: Phonics 'proven' to stop comprehension

Post by Rod Everson » Wed Oct 14, 2009 6:23 pm


One of these is the three-year "Reading First Impact Study" (NCEE 2009-4038). This study demonstrates that time spent on phonics in grade one is significantly and negatively related to student reading comprehension. Ditto for grade two. For every minute spent on intensive phonics in the daily reading sessions there was a minus 0.10 point drop (-0.10) in grade one student comprehension scores in grade one, and a minus 0.15 (-0.15) point drop in grade two.

The more intensive phonics grade one and two students received, the less they could comprehend!
The Reading First Report is available here. Go to page 74 of the PDF (which is numbered as Page 45 on the document itself) to find the following:

• In grade one, when tested individually, time spent on comprehension and vocabulary were
both significantly and positively related to student achievement. Specifically, a one-minute
difference per daily reading block in the time spent on comprehension is associated with a
0.15 scaled score point difference in student achievement, and a one-minute difference per
daily reading block in the time spent on vocabulary is associated with a 0.22 point difference
in student reading comprehension.
• Time spent on phonics in grade one, however, was significantly and negatively related to
student reading comprehension. In particular, a one-minute difference per daily reading block
in the time spent on phonics per daily reading block was associated with a –0.10 point
difference in student test scores.
• In the model that tested the joint association between reading achievement and time spent on
each dimension in grade one, only time spent on comprehension remained a significant
predictor.
• In grade two, time spent on phonics was significantly and negatively related to student
reading comprehension. Similar to the finding in grade one, a one-minute difference per daily
reading block in the time spent on phonics was associated with a –0.15 point difference in
student test scores.
• Time spent on comprehension was also significantly related to student reading
comprehension in grade two, such that a one-minute difference per daily reading block in the
time spent on comprehension was associated with a 0.12 point difference in student reading
comprehension.

(end of quote)

I dug this up to see if he was misrepresenting the report, but it appears not, although in the abstract the authors do say that there was no statistically significant impact of Reading First on comprehension. Nonetheless, the phonics and phonemic awareness component do appear to be statistically significant.
Such research trends strongly suggest that intensive phonics, rather than supporting comprehension, actually gets in the way and complicates the process of learning to read for many children.
This is a stretch. The research probably indicates a correlation, but not causation.
It's not hard to work out why. The human brain evolved to be able to go straight from visual signs to meaning without first going through speech. The belief that a set of alphabetic signs should be treated differently is simply an illusion. There is no evidence to support it.
And now we're into opinion with only rationalization for support. He ignores the fact that those alphabetic signs are individual units (however messy in English) that are intended to represent individual sounds. There's a mountain of evidence to support the contention that people who fail to learn this "code" struggle with reading at higher levels, not to mention the plunging scores in California when they decided to ignore this fact for a couple of decades. It's more likely that direct phonics instruction prepares one for comprehension later, but that to the extent it presently takes time away from vocabulary development, story telling time, etc., that it temporarily sets back comprehension. Willingham makes the point in his book that comprehension is directly related to the acquisition of background information and that process would not be occurring during direct phonics instruction. Plus, it's reasonable to assume that not all phonics instruction is a good use of class time. To the extent that such time was allocated inefficiently, it would injure comprehension.
We identify all the visual phenomena in our worlds directly without resorting to naming them (aloud or subvocally) first. We can immediately recognise a cow, or a picture or sketch of a cow without first associating the object or the picture with the name "cow". We don't need to utter "cow" aloud or subvocally in order to identify it as a "cow". We must first identify the object before we name it. Why should written language symbols be treated differently?


Well, ah, because there's some pretty strong clues in the symbols, perhaps. Clearly a child confusing "what" and "that" is unaware of them and has to overload working memory with other ways to recall them. Willingham speaks to this also, emphasizing the need to automate certain processes to become more efficient at thinking. Recognition of the symbols representing sounds is one of those processes, even though the time spent training a child to do so might temporarily deduct from time that could be spent teaching background knowledge, and therefore, comprehension.
Giving young learners the message that written language can only be comprehended when converted into audible or inaudible speech to which the reader 'listens' is as impossible in practice as it is untenable in theory. It encourages many young learners to give up the search for meaning and concentrate on getting the sounds right, thus creating excellent decoders who cannot comprehend what they've decoded.
The old "word caller" argument for which there is precious little evidence. Certainly, a modest lag in comprehension in the studies he cites is no evidence that one has created "excellent decoders who cannot comprehend what they've decoded." Quite a stretch.
Does this mean we should abandon phonics teaching? Of course not. You can't spell or write without phonics. All teachers should teach phonics intensively when they're teaching writing and spelling. We simply need to avoid giving kids the message that comprehension and decoding are the same thing.
And then he hits us with this? First of all, you can certainly write without phonics. People do it all the time. They are just terrible spellers, so he's right, you can't spell without phonics. So he admits the obvious need to teach phonics, while devoting 95% of the article to disparaging the effort to do so? And he closes with the straw man that we should "avoid giving kids the message that comprehension and decoding are the same thing" without explaining just who has managed to make that the main message of phonics instruction. Clearly, the intent of phonics instruction is accurate reading, from which comprehension should logically follow, though even then a poor reader with better background on a subject will comprehend it better than a good (accurate) reader with poor background, per Willingham once again. (He really did write a great book when he gave us Why Don't Students Like School?)

Rod Everson
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yvonne meyer
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Post by yvonne meyer » Wed Oct 14, 2009 9:36 pm

Prof. Cambourne received a Churchill Fellowship to study with Jeanne Chall at Harvard. He lasted 2 weeks. He then moved in with Ken & Yetta Goodman for a month before returning to Australia.

I find it interesting that when Cambourne addresses the wider community, he never uses the term, Whole Language. Yetta Goodman has contributed to the Unleashed forum and she also does not mention Whole Language.


Yetta M. Goodman :
14 Oct 2009 4:16:57am

I have been involved in reading research for more than 50 years. My research involves -- listening to readers read whole texts from beginning to end and examining the ways in which readers use their phonics, their orthography, their grammar and their meanings as they read aloud. I have also interviewed readers to talk with them as they respond to listening to their own reading. In this way I can document what readers know about the written text. More recently with graduate students we have been observing with eye movement technology where the eye is when a person is reading. We do this kind of research as readers are reading silently and orally. One important conclusion is that the eye controlled by the brain is searching for meaning.... for making sense.

Brian Cambourne's work adds to our research helping us consider how the brain learns to read and how reading is language very similar to oral language. We do not teach kids to read by dropping sounds and letters into their piggy bank brain. Rather, we help kids learn to read by providing them with all kinds of opportunities to learn to read. Learners are in control of what they choose to learn. Those who learned to read early and well have little memory of such learning because they learned to use all the language systems in a simultaneous fashion. Most children in literate family learn to read because reading and writing are central to the culture in the home and the community. We support learning to read by setting up environments in which children become aware of the importance and excitement of literacy. (Phonics is a small part of the whole process).
At the same time, by listening to kids read, I am able to show them how they use their phonics, their grammar, what they know about the world
as they read. I find in my discussions with readers that we can talk seriously about linguistic units of language. But the focus is always on making sense. The main questions to readers should be.... what do you think that means.

Yetta Goodman

yvonne meyer
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Post by yvonne meyer » Wed Oct 14, 2009 9:44 pm

The Reading First Impact Study was flawed and subsequent reports inform us that the program was, in fact, highly successful.

From Kerry Hempenstall;

"There were a number of problems with this study that make its findings of doubtful value. Only 2% of schools were sampled, and didn’t include schools with high risk students. This represents significant sampling error. Many non-Reading First schools were implementing the same programs and professional development opportunities as the Reading First schools. So, when comparisons were being made it was a case of comparing like with like, rather than comparing on intervention with a traditional program. In fact, 60 percent of Reading First and non-Reading First schools were following the same curriculum by the third year of implementation."

There is extensive reporting on Reading First avaiable at the National Right to Read Foundation, http://www.nrrf.org.

Rod Everson
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Post by Rod Everson » Thu Oct 15, 2009 12:14 am

I don't mean to raise hackles with this line of discussion, but it strikes me that it's possible that direct phonics instruction would not improve comprehension during the time that such instruction is being delivered and that if a comparison group were instead getting taught background knowledge, which has been proven to improve comprehension, then the second group might at least temporarily test better than the phonics-taught group on comprehension.

However, it seems likely that the phonics taught group with henceforth read more accurately and in so doing will eventually outpace the second group in comprehension as well, assuming they then put their reading skills to work to gain additional background knowledge.

If this initial comprehension disadvantage does in fact happen, then it would seem to be something that we, as phonics advocates, should be informed about so that we are not blindsided by the results of studies like those cited (which might or might not be good studies--that's not my point.)

It's also possible that some phonics programs might be shown to be relatively inefficient compared to others and that comprehension gains differ across even phonics programs. I can't imagine the Spalding Method, for example, doing poorly on a comprehension measure taken over an entire school year, as it moves so quickly into reading good literature and developing writing skills. Some other phonics programs might not fare as well, however.

Incidentally, if a lot of schools adopted Reading First by the end of the study, but were included in the non-RF category for purposes of evaluation then that would, if anything, indicate that if there truly is an effect as indicated, that effect would have been even larger if the those schools had not adopted Reading First midstream in the study.

Rod Everson

Bob Boden
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phonics as a dangerous thing to teach kids

Post by Bob Boden » Thu Oct 15, 2009 3:08 am

Professor Cambourne's paper on the damage done to kids through teaching them phonics is, in my humble opinion, garbage.

Bob Boden

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Debbie Hepplewhite
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Post by Debbie Hepplewhite » Thu Oct 15, 2009 8:18 am

Yetta:
The main questions to readers should be.... what do you think that means.
There is a huge difference between reading a word which activates meaning automatically - or decoding it then considering what the new word means - compared to thinking what the word might mean first in order to 'read' the word.

Some testing which I'm privy to right now reveals shockingly just how many children guess, or substitute, words instead of reading accurately - and yet the oral vocabulary level and background knowledge of the students enables them to make 'sense' of the passages they read.

In effect, the students do gain meaning from the text - despite the faulty and faltering way in which they have read the text.

But would I suggest that, therefore, they don't need to be able to read the text accurately because their comprehension levels were generally good?

And would an ability to read the text accurately have dimished their understanding of that text?

Students reflect how they are taught and they reflect what is asked of them. I agree that phonics teaching should include the basic premise that we are learning to read the words in order to understand what they mean. Vocabulary development and a focus on comprehension should be part of any phonics programme. In fact, the significantly improved capacity of learners to 'decode' along with a wide vocabulary bank introduced through a systematic, cumulative phonics teaching programme lends itself to a focus on learning new vocabulary and 'meanings' of words - improving comprehension and speaking and listening and learning.

It defies common sense that students who read text partially accurately are able to extract more meaning from the the text read with word substitutions, stumbling, blurring of words, skipping words, going on to read the rest of the sentence to then go back and guess the unknown word - and so on - compared to simply decoding each word in the text, as it occurs in the text, competently and accurately. :roll:

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Post by JIM CURRAN » Thu Oct 15, 2009 8:45 am

Research shows that most reading problems occur at the single word level and are caused by poor decoding skills. Research by Perfetti ( 1976 ) shows that there is a strong link between single word decoding and good comprehension skills.

I am amazed that in the face of all the research over the last forty years that these people can still persist in their advocacy of reading as a ‘‘psycho- linguistic’’ guessing game because the multi-cueing strategies that they continue to advocate are just a fancy name for guessing.

However I shouldn’t really be amazed. The Universities and Teacher Training colleges are full of these people who have always believed that learning to read is a natural process and that children don’t need to be taught to do something that comes so naturally.

The biggest worry that I have is that they still wield a huge influence.

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Post by confusedparent » Thu Oct 15, 2009 10:05 am

Psycho-linguistic guessing games are alive and well at my son's school.

He uses strategy A - Prompted by the pictures or subject he rattles his way through his entire vocabulary in a bizzare word association game until he eventually hits upon the word written before him.

Strategy B - reel off a description of the picture at such speed that no-one can be bothered/deem it necessary, to take him back and get him to read what it really says.

It may be comprehension, but it's not reading in any form I understand it. It's reducing us both to tears quite frankly.

chew8
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Post by chew8 » Thu Oct 15, 2009 10:40 am

Debbie wrote:And would an ability to read the text accurately have dimished their understanding of that text?


I'm sure we'd all agree that the answer is 'no', in general. In the very early stages, when the sounding out and blending routine is laborious, children can probably be putting so much effort into it that they lose the thread of what they are reading - but then sentences should be very short at this stage and the content should be very simple, so re-reading should quickly lead to understanding.

The argument that phonics interferes with comprehension is often expressed in such a way as to suggest that children are either decoding accurately or comprehending well but that they can't be doing both. In fact, though, they can of course be doing both, once decoding has become automatic. What we are surely aiming for is that decoding becomes automatic as soon as possible so that children can focus all their conscious attention on meaning.

confusedparent: I sympathise with your feelings - what is happening with your son is probably a good illustration of the fact that the strategies you call A and B are far more time-consuming and inefficient than decoding would be, even at the stage when decoding is rather laborious. I am trying to convey concern about this sort of thing to people who should be able to do something about it.

Jenny C.

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Post by Elizabeth » Thu Oct 15, 2009 11:13 am

Yes, children understand what they can read when it's in their spoken vocabulary. Yes, you can teach children the meaning of new words when they read and pronounce them using their decoding skills. That's a bonus. However, the main purpose of a phonics lesson for children who can't read is to learn to decode, encode and form letters. In my experience children are not bothered about reading for meaning at this stage. It's a game, a challenge, to say the words they see written and write the words they hear.

It's important to think of language development and reading skills as separate at school until children can read texts accurately and easily. A daily lesson in reading and writing skills (decoding, encoding, handwriting) leaves several hours a day for language development across the curriculum, through listening and speaking:

reciting poems and rhymes,
listening to the teacher reading text - stories, non fiction,
role play and drama,
listening to and giving instructions,
recounting events (could be news time),
learning new vocabulary (roots, triangle, percussion),
discussion,
etcetera.

As children begin to read texts more easily and accurately, their teachers can start to integrate reading, writing and language development. A good background, preferably at home and at school, in listening and speaking, will mean they understand more of what they read at this stage. Then the life-changing process takes off, as they learn from their reading, enjoy new literature and express themselves through writing.
Elizabeth

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