What are the best practices in teaching reading?
Now we can peer inside the reading brain and see that all of us mortals must process a word phonologically before accessing meaning. Furthermore, the literate brain is physically changed from reading and “looks” different from an illiterate brain.
If these cognitive science studies (using fMRI and PET scan technology) are not convincing enough, then let’s turn to reading research…where again the studies overwhelmingly show that reading is not a milestone, struggling readers do not “catch on” and there are in fact best practices for teaching reading.
THE NATIONAL READING PANEL
The National Reading Panel was formed in 2000 to evaluate existing research in reading and to find the best practices in teaching reading. For decades, reading professionals had been debating best practices for teaching reading: whole language advocated teaching children to memorize the “whole” word and use context, systematic phonics advocated teaching children phonological awareness and phonics. Finally, Congress stepped in. We’re going to figure out what really works, they decided.
They hired a panel of professionals: teachers, administrators, scientists…etc. The panel was set to review 100,000 studies in reading research. They only considered studies that followed rigorous standards, including studies that were replicated, had control groups, and had statistically significant results. After they considered 100,000 studies in the field of reading, they concluded that best practices in teaching reading incorporates phonological awareness and systematic phonics.
Decades later, whole language advocates still ignore the results of this famous, elucidating meta-analysis.
BEST PRACTICES IN TEACHING READING & THE READING RESEARCH
In one study, Joseph Torgensen (1999) provided explicit phonemic awareness and systematic phonics instruction to a group of students in K-2 grade. A second group of K-2 students received embedded or sloppy, unsystematic phonics instruction (whole language style). A third group of K-2 students had no phonemic awareness or phonics instruction.
Which group did the best in reading? The group of children that received explicit phonemic awareness and systematic phonics training did significantly better on word reading in comparison with all other groups.
And guess what? If you can’t read the words, then you don’t perform well in reading. The other groups showed significant reading difficulty. Thus, best practices in teaching reading involve phonemic awareness development and explicit phonics.
Is that not convincing enough? Then let’s look at another study. There are so many (in support of systematic phonics) I feel like a mountain of research is behind me and all I can do is throw specks of dust your way. But here we go…
Ehri and Wilce (1987) found that children who were taught spelling units and how to segment words performed significantly better in reading. Thus, best practices in teaching reading involve segmentation skills, a key aspect of phonemic awareness. Studies like this have been replicated again and again.
Barbara Foorman studied three hundred children in grades 1 and 2. The first group of children were taught using systematic phonics instruction. The second group of children were taught unsystematic, sloppy phonics, the type that many whole language advocates like. Which group performed best in reading? The first group of children performed considerably better on nearly all measures of reading.
Whole language advocates like to emphasize the importance of comprehension. But guess what? If you can’t read the words, you can’t comprehend.
Jeanne Chall (1983) published a massive review of all the reading literature. Chall published convincing evidence that all children use phonics when reading, a finding now backed by Cognitive Science. Chall also found that early intensive phonics instruction produced huge gains in reading, and by third grade, students who received early intensive phonics instruction performed better than all other groups. Thus, best practices in teaching reading involve intensive phonics.
WHOLE LANGUAGE ADVOCATES CLAIM WORD CONTOURS HELP US READ
Whole language advocates argue that children memorize words by analyzing word contours, or word outlines. After enough exposure to a certain word, children memorize the outline of the word. However, this idea is no longer widely accepted.
The brains letterbox area does not identify word contours—if it did It WoUlD Be ImPoSsiBlE tO ReAd MiXeD cAsE. Thad Polk and Martha Farah (2002) found that the reading brain is in fact excellent at reading words in mixed cases, words that defy contours; thus, we don’t rely on word outlines to read.
Yet, many of my students receive homework inspired by this word contour nonsense.
If you would like to see more research, simply look up The National Reading Panel, and you’ll find thousands of statistically significant reading studies that show the importance of intensive systematic phonics instruction and phonemic awareness instruction.
But perhaps the most convincing study is one I will share next week. Bruce McCandliss did a fascinating study on learning how to read. I can’t wait to share this study next week.
But first, let me ask you: if you didn’t know how to read and you were just beginning the learning how to read process, would you rather 1) learn to read through memorization and context 2) learn to read using systematic phonics?
Bruce McCandliss actually made up a new writing code and had adults learn to read using each method. His remarkable study will be discussed next week.
The National Reading Panel. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/research/supported/Pages/nrp.aspx
Chall, J. Learning to Reading: The Great Debate.
Ehri , L. C. and Wilce 1987. Does learning to spell help beginners learn to read? Reading Research Quarterly 22:47-65.
Torgensen, J. K., Wagner, R., and Rashotte, C. 199. Test of Word Reading Efficiency. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
Foorman, Barbara, Chen D. T., Carlson, C. Moats, L. Francis, D. J. and Fletcher. (1997) The necessity of the alphabetic principle to phonemic awareness instruction. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16:289-324