Learning to read is a challenge for many students. According to the US Department of Education 1/3 of students cannot read at a “basic” level and only 1/3 achieve proficiency. And a 2020 Gallup analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that more than half of Americans ages 16-74 read below a sixth-grade level.
How come learning to read is such a challenge and what should we do about it?
You’ve probably seen references to the “Science of Reading” in news stories about how America’s kids are failing in reading because they are not being given systematic and explicit instruction in “phonics.” This idea is best summed up by a quote from journalist Emily Hanford, one of the loudest voices on this subject. She wrote: “According to all the research, what you should see in every school is a heavy emphasis on explicit phonics instruction in the early grades.” At this point, the term “science of reading” has become synonymous with a heavy emphasis on phonics instruction.
What the media means by “phonics” is a set of skills that teach students how letters combine to form sounds that represent the words of our language. Since written English is an alphabetic, phonetic language this makes sense. Kids do need to learn this.
So “explicit phonics instruction” should be all kids need, right? Unfortunately, there are significant issues with this approach.
The biggest problem is that English, though phonetic, is more irregular than any other Latin based language. For example, Italian is nearly perfectly phonetic. And that’s why children in Italy learn to decode their language in only 3-6 months.
As neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene notes:
“One may wonder why English sticks to such a complicated spelling system. Indeed, Italians do not meet with the same problems. Their spelling is transparent: every letter maps onto a single phoneme, with virtually no exceptions. As a result, it only takes a few months to learn to read. This gives Italians an enormous advantage: their children’s reading skills surpass ours by several years, and they do not need to spend hours of schooling a week on dictation and spelling out loud. Furthermore, dyslexia is a much less serious problem for them.”
Dehaene’s observation should not be surprising. English spelling has been studied by many researchers who have recorded just how irregular it is. For example, Dr. Godfrey Dewey, professor of orthography, conducted a detailed study of English used in books for elementary school students and found that only 1 in 5 words is spelled phonetically. And a landmark study conducted by Professor Paul Hanna funded by the US Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare found that 203 rules were required for a computer to obtain 50% accuracy in spelling.
ghoti = fish?
English spelling is so irregular that dreaming up hypothetical spellings for words has become a kind of pastime. For example, Professors Dorothea Simon and Herbert Simon found that the word “she” could be spelled 36 different ways (the “sh” sound can be spelled 9 ways – TI, SH, CI, SSI, SI, C, CH, T, S – and the “e” sound in 4 ways E, EA, EE, IE). Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College found 1,768 ways of spelling 40 English phonemes – an average of 44 per sound. For instance, the “u” in the word “nut” can be spelled 60 different ways. And in what is probably the most famous example of orthographic gymnastics, in 1855 publisher Charles Ollier spelled the word fish as “ghoti” – taking gh from rough, o from women and ti from nation. (This example is frequently misattributed to George Bernard Shaw.)
But while these examples are amusing, just consider how confusing it must be for a child first learning the written language.
Professor Nyikos summed up the issue by writing, “It would be both ludicrous and tragic if it took lawsuits to jolt us into the realization that neither the teachers, nor the schools should be faulted as much as our orthography, which is incomparably more intricate than that of any other language. If English is not the absolute worst alphabetic spelling in the world, it is certainly among the most illogical, inconsistent, and confusing.”
To get an idea of how complicated learning to “sound out” English is for a beginning reader, consider this one sentence where the very common “ea” vowel combination can be pronounced 13 different ways.
That English spelling is highly irregular is simply a fact teachers and students have to deal with. That’s why, throughout history, a veritable who’s who of English speakers have promoted the idea of reforming English spelling. These include Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Andrew Carnegie, Charles Dickens, John Milton, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Asimov, etc. But the spelling reformers have yet to succeed, and to this day English spelling is incredibly challenging for children (and adults).
It’s because English spelling is so difficult to master that English is the ONLY language that has “spelling bee” competitions and a pronunciation guide in the dictionary.
But many of the proponents of the “Science of Reading” state that teaching students phonics is a proven method to solve the problem. As Emily Hanford, stated emphatically “One of the most consistent findings in all of education research is that children become better readers when they get explicit and systematic phonics instruction.”
But is this really true?
The answer is, sadly, not really.
What the research has shown consistently, is that when you give students explicit and systematic instruction in phonics, their scores go up on tests of phonics abilities. But the “science” does not show that students’ scores significantly increase on tests designed to assess students’ ability to read – that is fluently decode and comprehend text – especially over time.
This is why Professor Jeffrey S. Bowers, after conducting an exhaustive and systematic review of 12 meta-analyses that assessed the efficacy of phonics, observed: “Systematic phonics did provide a moderate short-term benefit to regular word and pseudoword naming.” But, he concluded:
“There is little or no empirical evidence that systematic phonics leads to better reading outcomes … There can be few areas in psychology in which the research community so consistently reaches a conclusion that is so at odds with available evidence.”
(If you are interested in this subject and have not read this study, I urge you to. You can find the link to this research paper and every other paper cited in this article below.)
So while kids do need to learn how our written language represents our spoken language, the use of explicit phonics instruction to teach them to read with fluency and comprehension has limited success – hence the perennial stories of a literacy “crisis.”
What about all the “miracle” stories Science of Reading proponents like to cite? The simple answer is that they don’t hold up to scrutiny. Typically, these supposed gains result from:
- small improvements resulting from significant but temporary changes in policy such as short-lived increases in education funding;
- anchoring bias where the results only appear impressive because the students started so far behind; and most frequently,
- harmful retention policies that keep the poorest students from appearing in the results. As Kevin Drum, who analyzed the reported Mississippi “miracle” concluded: “In 2013, Mississippi fourth graders are 13 points below the national average if you look at all students. After that year, “all students” excludes all the bottom kids who were held back. What we need to know is what the Mississippi scores would look like if we added them back in. And it turns out that Mississippi scores in 2022 are still about 13 points below the national average. In other words, the 2013 reforms had all but no effect.”
Another problem with the “Science of Reading” is that the phonics texts they require give students a stilted, unrepresentative written language that is completely unlike the kind of text they encounter in real life, and as a result, are less effective at teaching students to read. As Ruth Price-Mohr and Colin Price noted: “Our results demonstrate a statistically significant difference and large effect size for reading comprehension in favor of low phonically-decodable texts. The findings challenge the assumption that children find highly decodable text easier to read.”
“Science of Reading” proponents argue that students are not being taught explicit phonics and this is the problem. But the reality is that kids are being taught phonics and, because of the limitations built into the written English language, it’s just not as effective as we would hope. And the reason teachers are integrating other approaches such as “Balanced Literacy” or “Whole Language” is because using explicit phonics is not working for many of their students.
So what should we do?
We need to take a broader look at the “Science of reading” and incorporate the spectrum of skills that reading research shows are effective. As Professor Timothy Shanahan noted:
“Any real “science of reading” would include all the methods or approaches that have been found, through research, to give kids a learning advantage in reading.”
“Connected phonation is more effective than segmented phonation.” – Professor Linnea Ehri
So we know that it’s essential for kids to learn how letters combine to represent the words of our spoken language. And we also know that English is highly irregular which makes it difficult to reliably sound out. So how do we resolve this?
Since there are only two one-letter words in English (“a” and “I”) letter sounds are always combined. That process requires a skill called “blending” which can be challenging for new readers – especially since English is so irregular. Blending is the ability to combine individual sounds or phonemes to form words and the process of blending parts of words, often referred to as morphological awareness, is an important aspect of reading development. Moreover, blending morphemic units, such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots, can help early readers to derive meaning from unfamiliar words. By mastering blending skills, learners enhance their ability to decode unfamiliar words, improve reading fluency, and foster overall reading success.
Research has shown that phonics blending supports students’ ability to read unfamiliar words because it provides them with a consistent strategy for approaching new words, and blending morphemic units, such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots, helps students derive meaning from unfamiliar words. As Professor Linnea Ehri concluded, “Connected phonation is more effective than segmented phonation for teaching beginning readers to decode unfamiliar words.”
This is why Reading Kingdom has developed an innovative approach to teaching sound blending called “bit blends.” Instead of having a student do the complex but usual sound blend (e.g., “buh” + “ay” + “buh” + “ee” to make “baby”) using the bit blending process the program provides the initial or ending blend (e.g., “babe” with the word “baby”) and has the student add only a single sound (e.g., “ee”) to create the word. It’s a way to scaffold learning the blending process. As students’ exposures to letter and word sounds expand, their blending skills flourish.
Additionally, Reading Kingdom supports students’ phonics learning by:
- Reading a variety of texts (both narrative and expository) aloud to students as the words are highlighted on the screen.
- Presenting words with their variations (such as eat, eats and eating) so students learn how words’ sounds change with prefixes and suffixes.
- Allowing students to click on any word they see to hear what it “says.” This prevents guessing and the development of neural pathways for incorrect responses.
- Using writing to reinforce phonemic awareness (more on this below).
High Frequency Words
“Beginning readers need to master a high-frequency vocabulary.” – Professor Edward Fry
English has more words than any other language – over a million and growing. But surprisingly, about 120 of those words constitute 50%-60% of every page of text you will ever read. These are called “high frequency words” and leveraging their ubiquity gives kids a major leg up in both decoding and comprehension. The most common high frequency words are “function words” – articles (e.g., “a,” “an,” “the”), prepositions (e.g., “in,” “on,” “at”), conjunctions (e.g., “and,” “but,” “or”), and pronouns (e.g., “he,” “she,” “it”) – that are essential to English syntax.
Professor Edward Fry, who was a Professor of Education and the Director of the Reading Center at Rutgers University and who is best known for creating the Fry Instant Words list, stated:
“Beginning readers need to master a high-frequency vocabulary. They should be able to read these words “instantly” – without a moment’s hesitation – because these words make up 65 percent of all written material. In fact, more than half of the text of every newspaper article, textbook, children’s story, and novel is composed of these words. It is virtually impossible for students to concentrate on comprehension if they are stuck on a word such as ‘their.’”
Fry’s and others’ research showed that knowing a sufficient number of high-frequency words helps students read more fluently and comprehend text more effectively. Other studies have shown that explicit instruction and practice with high-frequency words significantly improved students’ decoding skills, reading fluency, and comprehension. And knowing words by sight has additional benefits. As Professors Charles Hulme & Margaret J. Snowling observed, “When a reader’s eyes land on a familiar written word, its pronunciation, meaning, and syntactic role are all activated in memory.”
Beyond their ubiquity, understanding the role function words play in English is crucial for reading comprehension. This is because these words are used to:
|the boy, some toys, etc.
|is here, was here, will be here, etc.
|is running, are playing, etc.
|What is? Did she? Are they? Etc.
|Identify singular & plural
|a girl, his home, they ran, these boxes, etc.
|but, not, etc.
|in the corner, on the box, etc.
This is why Reading Kingdom explicitly teaches these 120 high frequency words – including their sounds, spellings, meanings and usages in context – and then leverages their power to help teach students the structure of English. This way, Reading Kingdom teaches students to both decode approximately 60% of every page they will ever read and to understand the relationships among all the other words on that page. This is an incredibly powerful method.
“The evidence is clear: writing can be a vehicle for improving reading.”
– Professors Steve Graham and Michael Hebert
For decades researchers have emphasized the strong connection between reading and writing. Myriad studies have demonstrated that writing is a proven approach for improving reading. By engaging in writing activities, learners develop a deeper understanding of language, phonics, vocabulary, and overall literacy proficiency.
Spelling is one key aspect of writing that is very beneficial for students. As Professor Rebecca Treiman noted, “learning to spell, in addition to its effects on spelling, also benefits children’s reading. The benefits of writing are both motivational and cognitive. In addition, spelling appears to have cognitive benefits. It encourages children to analyze words into smaller units of sound and to link these sounds to letters. In this way, children practice their phonemic segmentation skills. Through writing, children learn to see spellings as maps of phonemic content rather than as arbitrary sequences of letters … The research shows that spelling helps children master the alphabetic principle and also has a positive impact on reading.”
In addition to spelling, writing also requires the ability to create connected text. Professors Steve Graham and Michael Hebert who conducted a meta-analysis of the impact of writing on reading found that “Teaching students how to write improves their reading comprehension, reading fluency, and word reading; and increasing how much students write enhances their reading comprehension.”24 And in a report they wrote which was published by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the authors concluded “writing instruction had a strong and consistent impact on improving students’ reading fluency.” 25
It is for these reasons that Reading Kingdom explicitly teaches students how to spell each word that is learned in the program through a variety of techniques and repeated exposures designed to stimulate students’ visual mapping and memory and to eliminate guessing. Then the program teaches students to use these words to write syntactically and semantically correct text starting with very simple texts at the beginning level and leading up to multi-sentence texts and story summaries at a Lexile level of 750 by the end of the program.
“Any acquired knowledge must be stored in memory until it is used. Indeed, all learning depends on the ability of human memory to store such knowledge.” – Professor Frederick Reif
While a majority of teaching focus in early literacy education is on sounds, it’s important to keep in mind that reading and writing are visual skills and the development of visual memory plays a vital role in learning to read. Developing visual memory enables students to recognize and recall letter and word shapes, patterns, and sequences – and in linking words to sounds. Literacy experts have long recognized the significance of visual memory in the reading process and its impact on reading fluency and comprehension. Memory is also essential to comprehension, as a student’s ability to remember relevant background knowledge is key to comprehending text.
As Professors Yanling Zhou and Natalie Wong observed, “Children constantly face tasks of differentiating visually similar letters or words. For example, distinguishing “b” from “d,” “a” from “e,” or “book” from “boot” all require visual differentiation. Children’s orthographic knowledge and letter knowledge are causal factors in subsequent reading development.”
Professor Linnea C. Ehri developed a theory of “orthographic mapping” – the process of forming letter-sound connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory.
She notes: “When we have seen and read a word many times, it is stored in long term memory as a unique letter string and can be read instantly.” And “Various studies indicate that having a visual picture of speech in memory is an important part of a person’s information-processing equipment.” 29
Writing is one excellent way of developing memory. For example, it has been found that writing a word accurately two times is as effective in facilitating word recognition as is reading the same word nine times. This is one of the reasons why Reading Kingdom engages students in a wide variety of writing exercises – from individual words to longer connected texts. The program also makes use a number of very effective techniques for improving student’s memory that include matching exercises, puzzles and visualization tasks.
“Modeling can help with decoding, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension strategies, and writing processes.” – Professor Timothy Shanahan
Reading is a challenging activity for young students, one that requires the development of many new skills. A tried and proven approach to teaching new skills is modeling.
Professor Richard Allington in his book on effective reading instruction observed: “The exemplary teachers in our study routinely gave direct, explicit demonstrations of the cognitive strategies that good readers use when they read. In other words, they modeled the thinking that skilled readers engage in as they attempt to decode a word, self-monitor for understanding, summarize while reading, or edit when composing. [Students] need someone to actually teach it to them — someone who can model and demonstrate.”
And Professor Timothy Shanahan wrote: “Modeling can help with decoding, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension strategies, and writing processes, too. Which is why it’s troubling that modeling is used so rarely and so poorly in literacy teaching.”
A computer program cannot offer modeling with the detail, finesse, and attention that a human teacher can. However, there are many ways that well-designed software can use the principles of modeling to help teach kids how to read. This is why Reading Kingdom is designed to model best practices for reading in a number of areas. This starts out with introductory reading skills such as left-to-right visual sequencing, sound blending, and spelling and leads up to more complex processes such as comprehension for which Reading Kingdom has developed an innovative comprehension modeling method called “Gleaning Meaning” that guides students in constructing summaries of both narrative and expository stories they have read.
Reading Kingdom is an online K-3 reading and writing curriculum that teaches a wide array of literacy skills including phonics, phonemic awareness, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing and comprehension. The program makes use of the research from a comprehensive science of reading to implement principles that have been proven to work.
You can read the complete article with footnotes, here.