Research published today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has shown that learning to read by sounding out words (a teaching method known as phonics) has a dramatic impact on the accuracy of reading aloud and comprehension.
There has been intense debate concerning how children should be taught to read. Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit tested whether learning to read by sounding out words is more effective than focusing on whole-word meanings. In order to assess the effectiveness of using phonics the researchers trained adults to read in a new language, printed in unfamiliar symbols, and then measured their learning with reading tests and brain scans.
Professor Kathy Rastle, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway said, “The results were striking; people who had focused on the meanings of the new words were much less accurate in reading aloud and comprehension than those who had used phonics, and our MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading.”
English-speaking countries should replicate UK use of phonics
In England, the provision of systematic phonics instruction is a legal requirement in state-funded primary schools. The impact of phonics is measured through a screening check administered to children in Year 1. The results of this screening check have shown year-on-year gains in the percentage of children reaching an expected standard — from 58% in 2012 to 81% in 2016.
However there are objections to the use of systematic phonics. Many practitioners argue in favour of a less-prescriptive approach, consisting of a variety of phonic- and meaning-based skills. One frequent objection is that while phonics may assist reading aloud, it may not promote reading comprehension.
“There is a long history of debate over which method, or mix of methods, should be used to teach reading,” continued Professor Rastle “Some people continue to advocate using a variety of meaning-based cues, such as pictures and sentence context, to guess the meanings of words. However, our research is clear that reading instruction that focuses on teaching the relationship between spelling and sound is most effective. Phonics works.”
Schools Standards Minister Nick Gibb said, “Our plan for Britain is built on ensuring every child has equal opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the future. Teaching all children to read fluently by the time they leave primary school is fundamental to this ambition.
“This research highlights the potential benefits of learning to decode using phonics. Thanks to the hard work of teachers, our continued focus on raising standards and our increased emphasis on phonics, there are now 147,000 more six-year-olds on track to becoming fluent readers than in 2012.”
Reading aloud with understanding; phonics works
The paper describes how people who are taught the meanings of whole words don’t have any better reading comprehension skills than those who are primarily taught using phonics. In fact, those using phonics are just as good at comprehension, and are significantly better at reading aloud.
Dr Jo Taylor, also of the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway argues “People frequently argue that phonics disadvantages reading comprehension. Our work puts that claim to rest. Phonics actually enables reading comprehension by relating visual symbols to spoken language. The laboratory method that we’ve developed in this study offers strong evidence for the effectiveness of phonics, and has also helped us to understand why phonics works, in terms of the brain systems responsible for reading.”
The researchers are continuing this work by investigating how reading expertise develops in the brain.
This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Materials provided by University of Royal Holloway London. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Early Literacy: Policy and Practice in the Preschool Years
As early childhood education moves front and center in the public policy debate, more attention is being paid to early literacy. Early childhood professionals have long recognized the importance of language and literacy in preparing children to succeed in school. Early literacy plays a key role in enabling the kind of early learning experiences that research shows are linked with academic achievement, reduced grade retention, higher graduation rates and enhanced productivity in adult life. This report synthesizes the body of professional knowledge about early literacy and offers research-based recommendations.
What we know:
- Literacy development starts early in life and is highly correlated with school achievement.
- All of the domains of a child’s development —physical, social-emotional, cognitive, language and literacy—are interrelated and interdependent.
- The more limited a child’s experiences with language and literacy the more likely he or she will have difficulty learning to read.
- Key early literacy predictors of reading and school success include oral language, Alphabetic Code, and print knowledge.
- Well-conceived standards for child outcomes, curriculum content, and teacher preparation help establish clarity of purpose and a shared vision for early literacy education.
- Increased demands for program accountability are often heavily focused on assessments of children’s early literacy development.
- Highly capable teachers are required to implement today’s more challenging early literacy curriculum.
- Teacher knowledge, respect and support for the diversity of children’s families, cultures, and linguistic backgrounds are important in early literacy development.
- All children should have access to early childhood programs with strong literacy components that include clear adaptations for children with special needs.
- Early literacy curricula and teaching practices should be evidence-based, integrated with all domains of learning, and understandable to staff members.
- Early literacy standards should be established that articulate with K-12 programs and reflect consistency and continuity with overall program goals.
- Early literacy assessment should use multiple methods and use the information to improve both teaching and the total preschool program.
- Standards for early childhood professionals should require staff to meet early literacy instructional standards.
- Parent involvement programs should have a strong early literacy component that guides parents and caregivers in providing early literacy experiences at home.
- Support for English Language Learners should be specified and provided in both the home language and English where feasible.
A growing body of evidence shows that early learning experiences are linked with later school achievement, emotional and social well-being, fewer grade retentions, and reduced incidences of juvenile delinquency and that these outcomes are all factors associated with later adult productivity.1 Other research has identified key predictors for reading and school success.
An analysis of the research literature indicates specific skills and abilities of children ages birth through 5 years that predict later reading outcomes.
Key predictive skills and abilities include:
- Oral language
listening comprehension, oral language vocabulary
- Alphabetic Code
alphabet knowledge, phonological/ phonemic awareness (the ability to discriminate sounds in words), invented spelling
- Print Knowledge/Concepts
environmental print, concepts about print
Other less significant indicators include: Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN); visual memory; and visual perceptual abilities.
How young children acquire early literacy and its oral language foundation has gained the attention of educators and policymakers. Research establishes four major principles of early literacy acquisition:
Oral language is the foundation for literacy development.
Oral language provides children with a sense of words and sentences and builds sensitivity to the sound system so that children can acquire phonological awareness and phonics. Through their own speech children demonstrate their understanding of the meanings of words and written materials.
- Children reared in families where parents provide rich language and literacy support do better in school than those who do not. Languagepoor families are likely to use fewer different words in their everyday conversations and the language environment is more likely to be controlling and punitive.3
- Exposure to less common, more sophisticated vocabulary (rare words) at home relates directly to children’s vocabulary acquisition. Rare words are those that go beyond the typical 8,500 most common words in the English language.4
- There is a strong relationship between vocabulary development and reading achievement. Understanding the meanings of words is critical to understanding what a child reads. Good readers combine a variety of strategies to read words. Even when children have strong familiarity with the alphabetic code, they frequently meet words for which the pronunciation is not easily predictable.
Children who acquire strong vocabularies increase their ability to make sense of what a word might be while using what they know about phonics.5
Children’s experiences with the world greatly influence their ability to comprehend what they read.
Reading involves comprehending written texts.What children bring to a text influences the understandings they take away and the use they make of what is read.
- Background knowledge about the world is built from a child’s experiences.
- The more limited a child’s experiences the more likely he or she will have difficulty comprehending what is read.
Learning to read and write starts long before first grade and has long-lasting effects.
Learning to read and write is an ongoing process from infancy. Contrary to popular belief, it does not suddenly begin in kindergarten or first grade. From the earliest years, everything that adults do to support children’s language and literacy is critical.
- Language and literacy develop concurrently and influence one another. What children learn from listening and talking contributes to their ability to read and write and vice versa. For example, young children’s phonological awareness (ability to identify and make oral rhymes, identify and work with syllables in spoken words, and the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds— phonemes—in spoken words) is an important indicator of their potential success in learning to decode print. Early vocabulary development is an important predictor of success in reading comprehension. Both phonological awareness and vocabulary development begin early with participation in rhyming games and chants, shared book experiences, and extended conversations with adults.6
- Children who fall behind in oral language and literacy development in the years before formal schooling are less likely to be successful beginning readers; and their achievement lag is likely to persist throughout the primary grades and beyond.7
- Responsive adults have a special role in supporting children’s ongoing, self-generated learning. Instructional support that relies on the accumulation of isolated skills is not sufficient. Teaching children to apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful situations has a significantly greater effect on their ability to learn to read.8
Blending is the process of saying the individual sounds in a word the running them together to make the word. For instance sounding out d-o-g and making dog. It is a technique every child will need to learn, and it improves with practice. To start with you should sound out the word and see if a child can hear it, giving the answer if necessary. Some children take longer than others to hear this. The sounds must be said quickly to hear the word. It is easier if the first sound is said slightly louder. Try little and often with words like b-u-s, t-o-p, c-a-t and h-e-n. There are lists of suitable words in The Phonics Handbook and the Jolly Phonics Word Book.
Remember that some sounds (digraphs) are represented by two letters, such as sh. Children should sound out the digraph (sh), not the individual letters (s-h). With practice they will be able to blend the digraph as one sound in a word. So, a word like rain should be sounded as r-a-i-n, and feet as f-e-e-t. This is difficult to begin with and takes practice. The Jolly Phonics Regular Word Blending Cards can be used in class to improve this skill.
You will find it helpful to be able to distinguish between a blend (such as st) and a digraph (such as sh). In a blend the two sounds, s and t can each be heard. In a digraph this is not so. Compare mishap (where both the s and h are sounded) and midship (which has the quite separate sh sound). When sounding out a blend, encourage children to say the two sounds as one unit, so fl-a-g not f-l-a-g. This will lead to greater fluency when reading.
Some words in English have an irregular spelling and cannot be read by blending, such as said, was and one. Unfortunately, many of these are common words. The irregular parts have to be remembered. These are called the “tricky words”.
The following article originally appeared in Literacy & Learning magazine, Autumn 1997 (UK).
What sort of phonics?
Systematic Phonics: the latest research
Dr Rhona S. Johnston and Joyce Watson are researchers at the School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland. The teaching of phonics is now a prescribed element of the Government’s strategy for raising literacy standards. But how should phonics be taught and when? Dr Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson report on the findings of a five-year study into the teaching of phonics in Scottish schools.
Since the publication of Adams’ (1990) book, there has been a growing consensus that phonics teaching should form a part of the reading curriculum. Phonics is taught in most schools in Scotland as part of an eclectic approach which includes using reading scheme books, and which has a significant emphasis on reading for meaning. Five years ago we started a study to examine just how phonics is taught in Scotland, and what practices seemed to be particularly beneficial.
In a study of 10 schools in Scotland, we found that phonics teaching followed a systematic programme which expended over the first three years at school. Up until Easter of the first year, the letter sounds were taught at the speed of one letter per week. Children were introduced to these letters in the context of words which started with that initial sound, e.g. ‘bat, bull, bin’ etc. That is, they were introduced to the alphabet by means of alliterative groups of words. After Easter, the classes were introduced to three letter consonant-vowel-consonant (C-V-C) words, e.g. ‘pat’ . This was mainly by means of work book exercises and teacher devised work sheets. Words were presented with a missing letter and the child had to complete the word, having worked out what it was from picture cues. At this stage, therefore, they were alerted to letters in the middle and final position of words instead of just the initial position. However, few classes were explicitly taught to sound out the letters individually and blend them together in a systematic way.
One school introduced the children to C-V-C words earlier than the others, encouraging sounding and blending, and we found that this led to a spurt in reading attainment on the British Ability Scales Word Reading Test (Elliott et al, 1977). The other classes showed a spurt later on when they started to study C-V-C words. In Years 2 and 3, the children were systematically introduced to word families, based on consonant blends and digraphs, and vowel digraphs. Rules such as the silent ‘e’ were also taught. This work was carried out alongside the use of a reading scheme, but was not integrated with it. This is probably due to a decrease in the use of phonic readers, which used to make a natural link with the study of word families in the phonics programme.
This study led us to look closely at the value of teaching children early on in the reading curriculum to sound and blend letters to pronounce unfamiliar words. We decided to investigate whether a ‘synthetic’ phonics approach, whereby children are taught groups of letter sounds and then shown words made up of those letters, is more effective than getting them to break whole words down into their letter sounds (i.e. analytic phonics). We became interested in Jolly Phonics (Lloyd, The Phonics Handbook, 1992), which Sue Lloyd developed at Woods Loke School in Lowestoft. This is a synthetic phonics approach which is introduced soon after school entry. It lasts eight weeks, and is carried out before the children are given reading scheme books. The children are taught six letters of the alphabet per week, and shown how the letters combine to form words, e.g. in week one they learn s, a, t, i, p, n, and in week two they learn c(k), e, h, r, m, d. They are shown these letters in all positions of words, ‘s’ occurs in spots, sand and nest. Books are provided with pictures of the words containing the target letter, the words being presented elsewhere on the page. There is a great emphasis on blending, both as an oral exercise and with printed words. Additionally, a set of irregular words are taught as sight words.
We assessed the Reception class at Woods Loke School on a wide battery of tasks, including letter knowledge (names and sounds), ability to give the sounds in spoken words (e.g. c-a-t ), rhyme skills, vocabulary knowledge, and emergent reading skills. We matched them on these measures with a group of Primary 1 children in Scotland whose reading programme included an analytic approach to phonics. It should be particularly noted that the two groups were equivalent in their ability to read items on the Clay ‘Ready to Read’ Word Test (Clay, 1979), which is a test specifically designed to measure word recognition skills at this very early age.
We then retested the children at the end of the first term at school. The 25 synthetic phonics children had been taught 40+ sounds, including digraphs such as ch, sh, th. However, they were not taught consonant blends as it is believed they will work these out for themselves. The 29 analytic phonics children had be then been taught 8/9 letter sounds in the initial position of words.
At this stage all of the children were given the British Ability Scales Word Reading Test (Elliott, 1977). We found that the synthetic phonics taught children were 11 months ahead of the analytic phonics group on this test; their mean reading age was 5 years 11 months, mean chronological age being 5 years. The analytic taught phonics children had a mean reading age of 5 years, and a mean chronological age of 5 years 2 months. The synthetic phonics group were also ahead on the emergent reading, letter knowledge and phonemic awareness tests, but not the rhyme task. The synthetic phonics programme was now complete, whereas the analytic phonics programme continued with letter sound teaching. In March, when the sounds of the 26 letters of the alphabet had been taught to the analytic phonics sample, we compared the two groups again. It was found that the synthetic phonics group now had a reading age of 6 years 8 months on the BAS Word Reading Test, being 16 months in advance of chronological age. They were also ahead in emergent reading, letter sound knowledge, and phonemic awareness, but not rhyme ability. The mean reading age for the analytic phonics group was 5 years 4 months, chronological age being 5 years 6 months.
Ability to read single words is only a part of reading skill, ultimately what is important is that children can comprehend what they read. In a further study we compared a synthetic phonics taught group of children at the end of their third year at school with a group who had learnt by an analytic phonics approach who were also at he end of their third year. They were the same age (7 years and 7 months) and had the same vocabulary knowledge on the English Picture Vocabulary Test (Brimer and Dunn, 1968). Reading was measured using the Primary Reading Test (France, 1981), which uses a cloze procedure to measure comprehension. It was found that the synthetic phonics taught children were nine months ahead of the analytic group in reading on this test. Further more, only 9 per cent of them had reading ages more than 12 months behind chronological age, compared with 31.5 per cent of the analytic phonics taught children. This good performance on a comprehension task may be directly due to the rapid start the synthetic phonics taught children had in learning to recognise words. However, it is also the case that having established a procedure in the children that enabled them to read independently, the teachers could then have more time available in the curriculum for developing their ability to comprehend text.
Prior to doing this research we had believed that it was good to use an eclectic approach to teaching reading from the earliest stages. So we thought that on school entry it was effective to teach children some phonics and some sight words, but also that it was necessary to introduce them to reading books very early on so that they learn that reading is a pleasurable and meaningful activity. What we have learnt is that a ‘phonics first’ approach, whereby children are taught right from the start that letter sounds can be blended together to pronounce words, gives them an excellent start, and the basic elements can be completed in the first term of school if intensive teaching is given. Of course this phonics teaching can alternatively be carried out in the context of reading attractive books from a reading scheme.
However, we have established that it is not necessary to take three years to teach phonics, slowly working through word families and rhyming words, if the children have been shown how to sound and blend letters in order to pronounce words at the start of reading tuition.
Adams, M. J. (1990) Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Brimer, M. A. and Dunn, L. M. (1968) English Picture and Vocabulary Test, Educational Evaluation Enterprises: Newnham, UK
Clay, M. M. (1979) The early detection of reading difficulties. London: Heinemann.
Elliott, C. D., Murray, D. J. and Pearson, L. S. (1977) The British Ability Scales. Windsor: NFER-Nelson.
France, N. (1981) Primary Reading Test : Windsor: NFER-Nelson.
Lloyd, S. (1992) The Phonics Handbook . Jolly Learning: Chigwell, UK.
Acknowledgements We would like to thank the teachers and pupils at the Scottish schools for taking part in our study and are particularly grateful for the assistance of Sue Lloyd in testing the children at Woods Loke School in Lowestoft.