Phonics and decodable readers: A u-turn or not?

Associate Professor Alison Arrow (University of Canterbury) and Professor James Chapman (Massey University)

Recently, the New Zealand Herald ran with a front page article asking if the Ministry of Education had made a u-turn on how children should be taught to read. This was quickly followed by a Ministry media release stating that there is no u-turn; the NZ Herald ran an article in response saying that perhaps they were wrong to say u-turn. A follow-up article this week then revealed some parents’ disappointment at the Ministry’s stance. What on earth is going on? Our own research has been referred to in this discussion, so here we try to unpick some of the issues.

What is the key issue?

The ongoing debate revolves around how children learn to read print and how to teach it to children as they begin formal schooling. There are basically two competing approaches here. The first, meaning-based approach, is based on the view that children use meaning to read print, because the purpose of reading is to get meaning. This appears to be the view of the Education Chief Science Advisor, who continues to advocate for a core programme that is meaning-based, even if children can’t read the words that convey the meaning. The second approach is based on the view that children need to decode the words on the page in order to access meaning. It is this second approach which, although widely supported by research, is most controversial in practice.

What does the research say?

There is overwhelming consensus in the scientific research on how children learn to read. We know that there are two forms of knowledge required for children to become efficient, independent readers: the first is the ability to read and recognise words; the second is the ability to make sense of words and texts. There is also consensus that language comprehension develops from birth and is innate – humans are born to communicate. Accordingly, children begin formal, compulsory, schooling already able to comprehend spoken language.

What the vast majority can’t yet do on school entry is read and recognise words. That is the work of the early literacy teacher; to teach children how to read the words on the page so that they can link that to their oral comprehension. When you are able to read (decode) the print, then you obtain the meaning intended by the author, and link that to your own funds of knowledge. There is an exhaustive amount of research that has found that the strongest predictor of later reading comprehension is children’s early ability to decode words.

Key resource: Emily Hanford from APM (American Public Media) has an excellent podcast that summarises the research and background to the meaning-based approach.

Phonics as a way to teach decoding

If teaching children to decode words is necessary (which the scientific research says it is), then there does need to be a change to the way we teach our beginning readers how to get the print off the page. This requires a more structured approach to the teaching of phonics. Let’s be very clear; there is no such thing as a phonics-only approach. No advocate for the inclusion of phonics would advocate for such a thing. What we do advocate for is teachers to more explicitly, and systematically, teach children how to read the words on the page.

In our recent NZ-based research (commissioned by the Ministry of Education) we found that the best way to support teachers to implement this was to provide a structured sequence of phonic patterns, from single letter-sound correspondences (sounds for a, b, c …) to digraphs (single sounds written using a pair of letters – e.g. the sounds made by ph, ng) to vowel teams (single sounds written using a pair of vowels – e.g. oi, oa, ee) to morphemes (units of language that carry meaning – e.g. come, go, -ly, –ing). Teachers can then identify the learning needs of their children in terms of their mastery of these phonic patterns and identify what they still need to learn.

Key resource: The Early Literacy Project research summary (2019) outlines what we did in this research study (including providing a scope and sequence for phonics knowledge, decoding strategies and high-frequency words) and what we found.

This explicit teaching of phonic patterns shouldn’t happen just in isolation – but this is what happens with many of the 50+ different phonics programmes in use in New Zealand schools. Children learn about the sounds and letters in a part of the day that is separate from their reading time. They don’t have the opportunity to practice what they learn in connected text.

Effective explicit instruction

Based on both international research and our own research, the most effective type of instruction brings together two things that most teachers are already doing separately. We provided a lesson framework that allowed teachers:

  1. to explicitly teach phonics
  2. to integrate that teaching into the reading programme through using decodable texts instead of the natural language Ready to Read texts.

This approach enabled children to practice their new phonic knowledge in the reading of connected text. These decodable texts begin very simply, but increase in text complexity as children’s word reading skills increase. All words in a decodable text are able to be decoded using just the phonics knowledge that children have built up thus far; this is a crucial difference from the Ready to Read and other natural language (sometimes called ‘predictable’) texts which intersperse decodable with non-decodable words. Good quality decodable texts can be used as the basis of discussion, and can be culturally relevant as much as natural language guided reading texts.

In our own research we found that increasing the amount of explicit phonics instruction in small-reading group time led to better outcomes for children. In the lowest-decile schools, when children received more explicit instruction, they made considerably more progress compared to children whose teachers continued in their business-as-usual instructional approach (which typically involved guided reading with natural language resources such as Ready to Read texts and most likely with an add-on, decontextualized ‘phonics’ programme). Although we only measured increased explicitness in the small group reading programme, we also provided teachers with guidance on explicit instruction in vocabulary, syntax and punctuation, and reading comprehension itself.

Key resource: Kerry Hempenstall provides an easy-to-read summary of research findings on explicit reading instruction, and instruction across the core reading skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension).

So what about the RFP for Decodable Readers?

Since the Education and Science Select Committee report on teaching reading in 2001, the Ministry of Education has stated that phonics is necessary. What they have not done is provide specific resourcing for supporting the teaching of phonics, hence the 50+ programmes in place in New Zealand schools. The current use of decodable texts for phonics implementation is also based on a school’s ability to self-fund them, since none are provided free to schools by the Ministry. To have some schools with these resources and some without creates an equity issue.

The recently-launched RFP for decodable readers is, therefore, a step in the right direction. Developing decodable early readers in the Ready to Read series that are available free to all schools at a national level will ensure that all students will be able to access the type of instruction they need. Such texts are a means to an end, recognising that once children can decode a wide range of words reliably, they no longer need to use these decodable texts, and can quickly move on to the rest of the Ready to Read series.

As many of our teachers noted in our workshops, “You need to slow down the learning to speed it up.”

57716102592__5CAD4DB9-0D1B-4F6D-949D-8BB9A0DC435E (2).jpgAlison Arrow is an Associate Professor in Literacy at the University of Canterbury. She has an MA and PhD from the University of Auckland. She teaches into the Initial Teacher Education programmes at the University of Canterbury and has carried out research on literacy development from early years through to adolescent learners. Alison has also carried out research on teacher knowledge and practice for literacy teaching, as well as early digital technology use for literacy.

JWC (1)James Chapman is Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at Massey University and a former secondary school teacher. He has a MA (with distinction) from Victoria University of Wellington, and a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alberta. In addition to being Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Massey University College of Education from 2003 to 2012, he has researched and written extensively on Reading Recovery as well as on motivational factors in learning and reading difficulties.




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