Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Otago

Ways of learning to read in phonics and New Zealand text-centred teaching

G. Brian Thompson (adjunct associate, Faculty of Education, Victoria University) and Claire M. Fletcher-Flinn (associate professor, College of Education, Otago)

For learning to read, as in learning any skill, a commonly-invoked principle of learning is the child uses what is already known; that new learning be built on this and on new knowledge as it is acquired. The logic of this principle is impeccable. However, is this how it actually works in children who start with either a text-centred teaching approach without explicit phonics, or an approach which includes such phonics in the form of sounding out the successive letters of words for blending into word pronunciations? Do different ways of learning in fact result from these different teaching approaches?

Expanding the Research Horizon

There is research that is widely quoted internationally in support of the claim that explicit phonics instruction from the beginning of teaching facilitates children’s learning to read new words. It should be noted, however, that in this research the words are usually presented in lists and not often in text. Surprisingly, too, the research does not report the extent to which the children sounding out actually works to give any accurate reading of words in text. Nor is there reporting on how much time the child takes to read passages of text at a given level of word accuracy
All this was included, however, in a recently-published collaboration between researchers in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand (the authors). There were comparisons between initial teaching with explicit phonics and text-centred teaching without phonics. The results showed that with a high level of teaching of explicit phonics, six-year-olds’ use of sounding out made only a very small contribution to their overall word accuracy in reading text, when accuracy was matched across the teaching approaches. Moreover, the children who commenced with phonics were much slower at reading text than those with text-centred teaching.
This is the first study to make these comparisons with this wider range of measures. Hence, it is not so surprising that it gives a different picture of children’s learning than the widely-quoted previous research.

The New Zealand text-centred approach and the ways of learning

What explains the new picture obtained? The text-centred teaching approach gives more opportunity for children to use what they already know of the vocabulary and grammatical structure of the spoken language. Nevertheless, while children build on this previous learning they must also learn many new features, such as the distinctions between different letters within words, and that the letters often distinguish different sound components of the words and different word meanings. All of this would seem necessary for children to learn new reading vocabulary on their own.

Can this be achieved effectively without explicit phonics? Published research has documented that New Zealand children with a form of text-centred teaching have done so, despite low explicit knowledge of the most common sound for each of the alphabet letters in the initial year of instruction and subsequently; and also despite low levels for oral reading of “new words” (e.g. lom, teep, yaik) in the first three years of instruction.

Moreover, it is shown in theory and research evidence that children’s new learning about patterns of letter-sound relations among words is achieved non-consciously (implicitly) by continuously building it from their previously learned reading vocabulary as this accumulates. Children use the acquired implicit knowledge of these letter-sound patterns to assist themselves to learn yet more new reading vocabulary. To get the process started, children usually need some exemplars within the first several weeks of initial teaching. In the New Zealand text-centred approach, children would be shown, for example, the words book, bus, big…, and that the common initial-position letter of the words has a common sound in the corresponding spoken words. Final-position letters might be similarly demonstrated

Children’s building of implicit letter-sound knowledge from their reading vocabulary is not available in the procedures of explicit phonics, which depend upon sounds explicitly taught for each letter and letter combination. Nonetheless, it is expected that all children making normal progress in learning to read will to some extent build implicit letter-sound knowledge from their reading vocabulary.

Different ways of learning in the long-term effects of explicit phonics

There is evidence that individuals taught explicit phonics subsequently use implicit letter-sound knowledge from their reading vocabulary less than those with text-centred teaching. For example, this is shown in a recent published collaboration between researchers in the United Kingdom and
New Zealand (the authors). The ways in which adults read new words was examined. Those who had been taught with explicit phonics in their initial school year made less use of letter-sound patterns built from their reading vocabulary. For example, a new word, thild, was pronounced with the i as in “it”, showing a strong trend toward the regular pronunciations inherent in explicit phonics. Adults taught with the text-centred approach made more use of letter-sound patterns from their reading vocabulary. For example, thild was pronounced to match the pattern as in “child”, “wild”, “mild”. Similar long-term effects were indicated also for real words that were not so familiar to adults.

What are our conclusions? The widely-quoted past research on the effects of starting teaching with explicit phonics has not adequately represented what happens in children’s reading of text, where children can take advantage of what they already know of the spoken language. Moreover, it has not taken into account different ways of learning. There is implicit letter-sound knowledge that children can continuously build up from knowledge acquired in their accumulating reading vocabulary. Also, past research has not examined the long-term effects of teaching phonics on the ways in which adults attempt the reading of new or unfamiliar words. With all this considered, up-to-date theory and research evidence does not show an unequivocal advantage for explicit phonics teaching.


Massey University

Theory to practice in reading: Different paths to the same outcome

Alison Arrow (Massey University)

Last month, the seemingly age-old debate about phonics versus whole-language teaching reared its head again when the New Zealand media picked up on new research published by Victoria and Otago universities. The recent  media reports made the claim that there was  no place for phonics in New Zealand classrooms because children learn to read without having to learn letter sounds, phoneme awareness (knowing that spoken words consist of small units of sound), or the word attack skills of blending and segmenting the sounds into letters.

The research reported went further in arguing that the teaching of letter-sound connections, past the age of six years, could result in difficulties in reading unknown words into adulthood. This is based on the theoretical position that children learn to read by learning a number of words from parents or the classroom teacher. They then store these words in their internal orthographic lexicon, or internal dictionary. As children develop their reading skills, they make connections between the parts of stored words with the parts of new words.

It follows, of course, that if our brains read unconsciously, simply by the act of reading words, then we don’t need to explicitly teach anyone about letters and sounds. This is, unfortunately, a reflection of the perspective that there is only one way to teach reading to beginning readers.

The long-term evidence from international survey research on New Zealand educated adults (including, but not limited to, university-educated adults, young adults and nine-year-olds), indicates that there are failings in the education system, and the perception that there is only one way to teach reading. For the last 40 years, New Zealand schools have predominantly taught reading using whole language approaches.

We have a long tail of under-achievement in both nine and 15-year-olds, in literacy. We also have over 40 per cent of adults who lack even functional literacy, such as being able to read a workplace document.

Combining these evidence bases, we could tentatively argue that the first step in a well-rounded education, learning to read, has not been achieved in a large proportion of learners. The logical conclusion must be that their participation in a one-size-fits-all model, without phonics, of literacy education was not effective. Beginning readers still need to be given phonics instruction, thus the claim that phonics is not helpful for students in New Zealand classrooms is misleading and perpetuates the achievement gap evident in New Zealand reading and literacy achievement.

There is no disagreement that many children begin to make subconscious connections between letters and sounds, and that no explicit teaching is required to do this. There is a great deal of evidence that supports this claim. The more a child reads, the better a reader they become. The flip side of this, however, is that children still somehow need to learn those first words.

Some theories have explicitly explained that learning first words occurs through phonics instruction; where children learn to sound out words and make approximations, and then use their knowledge of spoken words to make an educated guess as to what the unknown word is. But that does not explain those children who have learnt new words but who have not had phonics instruction, just as claimed by the research from Victoria and Otago universities. What is not recognised in this research, however, is that children must have something that allows them to learn to read those whole words in the first place.

A great deal of research has been carried out into the emergent literacy skills children develop prior to learning to read or spell individual words; skills they have mastered before starting formal school education and the basis of the individual differences between children starting in primary school classrooms.

This research has predominantly found that children who are exposed to, and learn about, how print and books work, the letters of the alphabet, the sounds in spoken words, and have good oral vocabularies, are better able to learn to read and spell words once they are taught them.

Classroom reading acquisition is relative to the starting knowledge children bring to school. The children who come to school with this pre-existing knowledge will not need phonics instruction, as they have the types of skills and knowledge that will enable them to start recognising words. However, a number of children beginning school will come with little emergent literacy knowledge.  These children require instruction that will ‘kick-start’ their attention to print and the connections between the sounds in spoken words and letters in print words.

Phonics, in whatever form, is an instructional approach that teaches children about the connections between sounds in words and print letters. As such, phonics instruction is not necessarily required for children who already have emergent literacy skills, as they will be able to begin making those unconscious connections due to the amount of knowledge about print they already have.

Phonics instruction is required for those children who do not have a great deal of knowledge about print. Rather than waiting for them to catch up to their peers by providing a literate environment, phonics instruction allows them to start making connections between sounds in spoken words and the letters in print, as early as possible. Once they have begun to make the subconscious connections, then phonics instruction is no longer required.

This notion and understanding that children have different needs based on existing knowledge can be seen in the context of the assess-to-learn, or assessment for learning, framework from the Ministry of Education.

If you assess children’s knowledge, then teach to what they need to know. In early childhood education, this means recognising literacy knowledge in terms of emergent literacy skills in particular, and teaching or guiding children towards the next level.

In beginning classrooms, if you identify that children have strong emergent literacy skills and have a number of sight words, then provide a greater amount of meaning-focused, interpretive instruction.  If the beginning classroom teacher assesses children to have weaker, or fewer, emergent literacy skills, combine phonics with teacher-provided, meaning-focused, experience with texts.

At Massey University’s College of Education our research underpins our belief that all children have different needs, and that different forms of knowledge and instruction need to be emphasised based on those needs. Effective literacy and reading instruction makes use of this recognition and does not follow a one-size-fits-all approach.

Ed’s note: Neither party to this debate was given sight of the other’s article. Visit the article online for the opportunity to have your say on this topic.


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