Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A phonics focused approach to teach reading: Equally beneficial for all?

In the UK at present, a synthetic phonics approach to reading instruction is used widely (see earlier blog for a description of this method).  This is a phonics focused approach to teach reading, with little teaching of other word recognition strategies (e.g., flashcards to teach whole words, recognising words in books using picture and context cues etc).  An alternative mixed method approach, which I refer to as an eclectic approach within my research, often includes phonics teaching, but the emphasis on phonics is less and it is taught alongside other word reading strategies.

I have carried out research into phonics teaching (and learning) for 10 years now and believe there is strong research evidence to suggest that a phonics focused synthetic phonics method to teach reading is effective.  However, I don’t believe it is equally beneficial for all children.  For example, I believe that a synthetic phonics approach will most benefit those children who start school with weak pre-reading skills, that is, children with little-to-no knowledge of letter-sounds, letter-names or words, and with poor language skills.  That is not to say that this approach is not effective for the majority of children, but rather the benefits are particularly marked for children starting school with this weaker reading/language profile.

In two longitudinal studies which my colleagues and I have carried out, children taught by an eclectic (mixed method) approach were compared with children taught by a synthetic phonics approach (Study 1 - McGeown, Johnston & Medford, 2012) or children taught by a synthetic phonics approach were studied only (Study 2 - McGeown & Medford, 2014).  In the first study, children taught to read by a synthetic phonics approach were less reliant on their language skills for reading (i.e., their vocabulary knowledge was a weaker predictor of their later word reading success) and their pre-reading skills were also a weaker predictor of their later reading success.  In the second study, with a larger sample of children studied over a longer period of time, children again were relying less on their language skills to read and more on a different cognitive skill (short-term memory).

These results were in line with our initial predictions.  After observing children learning to read in the eclectic group, where whole word learning (flashcards) and big book/story time activities were a considerable part of their reading instruction, it was clear that those children with superior language skills and knowledge of letter-sounds/names were better able to learn the words taught through flashcards and were better able to use context cues within stories to learn words. 

On the other hand, observing children learning by a synthetic phonics approach, where children synthesise sequences of letter-sound correspondences to read words (e.g., c-a-p, c-a-m-p, c-r-a-m-p) led to a reliance on their short term memory, as they had to retain the sequences of letter-sounds to be blended together.  Language skills were a far less important predictor of their reading success. 

Both studies provide insight into the influence of instructional approach on children’s initial reading development and the skills children rely upon as they learn to read.  On the basis of this research, I believe that for children with weaker language skills and weaker reading readiness skills (i.e., poorer letter-sound knowledge), a synthetic phonics approach is particularly important. 

McGeown, S. P., & Medford, E. (2014).  Using method of instruction to predict the skills supporting initial reading development: insight from a synthetic phonics approach.  Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27, 591-608. DOI 10.1007/s11145-013-9460-5

McGeown, S. P., Johnston, R. S., & Medford, E. (2012).  Reading instruction affects the cognitive skills supporting early reading development. Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 360-364. 



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