A History of Failure
Despite the tremendous amount of time, money and energy spent on teaching reading, the need for improved reading performance could not be stronger. According to government figures, assessments conducted since 1992 show over 30% of fourth grade students consistently performing at “below basic” levels. Research has clearly demonstrated failure in the early years is devastating to future progress. However, as the government figures indicate, little has changed and the failure continues. The separate domain into which the field has been compartmentalized has contributed greatly to this state of affairs.
The Dominating Force of Phonics
The specialists who concentrate on reading performance arethe ones who generally determine the curriculum children are offered. That curriculum is, as it is for almost all the children in the nation, grounded in phonics. Those specialists have played a dominant role, particularly since the 1960’s following the publication of Jeanne Chall’s now classic book - Learning to Read: The Great Debate. After extensive analysis of phonics instruction versus whole word teaching, Dr. Chall strongly backed phonics as the only effective path to reading.
Since then, there has been a wealth of research reinforcing and extending this position by showing that children who read effectively have skills in phonology, phonemic awareness and other abilities related to analyzing the sound properties of words. Accordingly, in an effort to develop effective reading in all children, the curriculum emphasizes the relationships between the sounds of letters, letter combinations and words.
As is well known, English does not lend itself to a simple phonics system whereone letter is associated with one sound. The 44 sounds of our language can be spelled 1768 different ways! Even the simplest sentences in early readers contain only small percentages of words that can be sounded out.
To deal with these complexities, children are given a variety of word analysis techniques—with the major ones beingcomplex verbal“rules” for the decoding of words (rules such as the “silent e,” the double vowel, the consonant blends and on and on). There is considerable disagreement as to the number of rules needed –with the estimates ranging from highs in the 600’s to lows of 60. Even at the lowest number, however, the rules turn reading into a slow process where words have to be dissected and analyzed before they can be recognized. These are the sorts of processes that have been center stage for the past several decades as schools have worked to improve reading performance. However, as the government figures show, the effort has not paid off.
A Different View
If we turn to the specialists who study the language/cognitive skills of the children, the reason for the continued failure become clear. Children in academic difficulty are categorized under various labels including hyperactive, learning disabled, language disabled, dyslexic, inattentive, poor executive control, etc. The extensive body of research on these children shows them having a range of problems that directly impact their ability to use the curriculum they have been given. Specifically, they show
1. difficulties in language that limit their ability to comprehend and produce verbal content--so that they cannot effectively process many of the rules
2. impulsivity that interferes with their ability to delay--so that they do not have the patience to call up the rules
3. disorders of memory--so they cannot recall the rules which are applicable
4. problems with attention--so that they cannot remain on task for the streams of cognitive analysis that phonics requires of them
5. Perceptual-motor impairments--so that they do not have clear images of the words.
All this means that children with reading difficulties are not able to carry out the sequence of language, memory and attentional demands that current phonics instruction entails. The findings from the cognitive/linguistic specialists show that the dominant practices aimed at developing phonic abilities drowns the children in the very complexities they cannot manage, thereby rendering the system untenable.
This does not mean that the situation is hopeless. Currently used methods are not suitable for the children in question, but those methods are not the only ways to teach reading. Research from the phonics proponents themselves offers evidence for the value of alternative pathways. It has demonstrated that writing plays a powerful role in learning to identify and retain words. For example, research in the Netherlands found that requiring a child to write a word accurately only two times is as effective in facilitating word recognition as is reading the same word nine times. In other words, better reading is attained much faster via experiences in spelling (i.e., writing the word) than via far more extensive encounters in reading.
Although the linkages between reading words and spelling words have not received the attention they merit, it appears that both activities foster the same types of underlying word knowledge necessary for effective reading. At the same time, writing avoids many of the demands that are so problematic for struggling readers. For example, children can be shown words that they then have to copy from memory. That places no need on them to apply any of the heavy verbal content that has typically accompanied the decoding of words. Instruction in systematic, sustained writing holds enormous promise.
The specifics of what can, and should be, carried out need to be determined. They will require time and effort. What is central at this time is recognizing the need to establish communication among the different specialties so that it will be possible to develop a more holistic approach to reading instruction that empowers us to get past the decades of failure that have stalked the children and the nation.