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Phonics and beginning reading

One of the earliest efforts in the recent trend to synthesize what we know from reading research, Marilyn Adams’ 1990 book, “Beginning To Read” was a landmark review of the research on phonics and reading acquisition. Read her description of what she did and what she learned as she went through the process of producing this report.

In 1984, under the auspices of the National Academy of Education, the Center for the Study of Reading produced a report on the status – the strengths and shortcomings – of research and instructional practice in reading education.

Following this report, which was entitled Becoming a Nation of Readers, Congress asked the U.S. Department of Education to compile a list of available programs on beginning reading instruction, evaluating each in terms of the cost effectiveness of its phonics component. In partial response to this requirement, I was asked by the Department of Education – through the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois – to produce a report on the role of phonics instruction in beginning reading.

Specifically, my charge was to address the following questions: Is phonics a worthwhile component of beginning reading instruction? If so, why? How might such instruction be most effectively realized?

It should be recognized that the word “phonics” is a red flag to some in the field of reading education. Because of this, the report has been and will be associated with a certain amount of controversy.

What is phonics?

Phonics is instruction intended to help children to understand the fundamentally alphabetic nature of our writing system and, through that understanding, to internalize the correspondences between frequent spelling patterns and the speech patterns – the words, syllables, and phonemes – that those spellings represent.

The debate over phonics centers on whether its instruction promotes or impedes development of the attitudes and abilities required for reading comprehension. Given that the goal of reading instruction is to foster not only a willingness to read but to further the skill and disposition to do so purposefully, reflectively, and productively, I did not dismiss this debate. Instead I centered the report on it.

The review process

To produce this report, I spent a year reviewing the history of the debate, the literature on the relative effectiveness of different instructional approaches, the theory and research on the knowledge and processes involved in skillful reading, and the various literatures relevant to reading acquisition.

What made this task especially challenging and especially worthwhile is that the relevant information and arguments are scattered across so many fields. More specifically, the relevant research literature divides itself not only across fields of education, psychology, and linguistics, but also the fields of computer science and anthropology. I am gratified to report that across disciplines, and despite differences in terminology and perspective, I found considerable overlap in both issues and answers. Still more valuable, I believe, were the ways in which these literatures complemented one another. Collectively presented and interrelated, they support a much richer and more refined understanding of the issues and challenges we face in designing, delivering, and evaluating our students’ reading education.

Findings about teaching phonics

Perhaps the most influential arguments for teaching phonics are based on studies comparing the relative effectiveness of different approaches to teaching beginning reading. These studies can be sorted into two categories.

Those in the first category consist of small but focused laboratory studies.

Those in the second category have compared the effectiveness of instructional approaches in real classrooms. Many of the classroom studies have been large scale, involving hundreds or thousands of children; they include, for example, the research conducted in the 1960s by Jeanne Chall under the sponsorship of the Carnegie Corporation, the 27 studies of the U.S.O.E. Cooperative Research Program in First-Grade Reading Instruction (1964-1967), and the 22 instructional models evaluated by the Office of Education through the Follow-Through project in the 1970s.

In the quest for answers about instructional effectiveness, these studies offer both good news and bad.

The good news is that they suggest, with impressive consistency, that instructional approaches that include systematic phonics lead to higher achievement in both word recognition and spelling, at least in the early grades, and especially for slower or economically disadvantaged students.

The bad news is that the studies do not permit precise identification of the factors underlying the phonics advantage. Whereas the laboratory studies provide clean contrasts of whatever variables they were designed to assess, they leave one wondering about the would-be influence of all those factors that were controlled or absent.

Conversely, whereas the classroom studies offer real-world validity, they leave one wondering about the many factors that, though unavoidably present, were uncontrolled or unmeasured. Last but hardly least, the overall advantage of phonics instruction across the studies that compare methods of instruction is relatively small.

By: Marilyn J. Adams