A child I’ve been working with has just started reading and spelling four-sound words.
He can read them with and without consonant digraphs (e.g. “shops”, “chimp”, “held” and “ducks”) in games and single word activities.
He can write them slowly but accurately in single word activities.
However, when I asked him to read them in an illustrated decodable storybook recently, his reading accuracy went through the floor.
His eyes kept flicking back and forth between the pictures and the words, instead of focussing on the words, and he was clearly guessing lots of words from pictures, first letters and/or context, rather than sounding them out. For example, he read “a bunch of grubs” as “some worms”.
Then I discovered he’s started having a daily intervention session at school with a Reading Recovery teacher.
I simply can’t compete, on one session a fortnight plus three or four fifteen-minute home practice sessions a week. Sigh.
It’s really not fair to him that adults are teaching him two contradictory things. I teach him to sound out every word, but Reading Recovery encourages sounding out only as a last resort, and teaches children to attempt to read words beyond their decoding level (so of course the only thing they can do is guess).
I wonder whether I should stop my sessions with him till he’s finished his school-based intervention, then try to shift his attention back to where it should be when reading books.
Classroom study: spelling versus literature-based phonics
Thinking a lot about how children’s attentional focus and strategies influence their learning, I found a great article called “Teaching Phonics in the Context of Children’s Literature or Spelling: Influences on First-Grade Reading, Spelling, and Writing and Fifth-Grade Comprehension”.
It’s about a 1990 Californian study in which two classes of children with much the same literacy curriculum were taught phonics via two different methods.
One group studied phonics in spelling activities. The other group had phonics instruction embedded in literature.
The study was carefully controlled to make sure one group wasn’t ahead of the other from the beginning, and that the only difference in the phonics instruction was the way it was presented. For example, they made sure the same sound-spelling correspondences were taught, words were presented the same number of times, the teachers swapped around etc.
At the end of Grade 1, they found that the children who worked on spelling were better at spelling both regular real and made-up words, reading made-up words (i.e. reading word attack) and that they wrote longer stories.
The spelling instruction also got the lower-ability children reading connected text better.
They went back when the children were in Grade 5, to see if there were still differences between the groups. A lot of other things had (of course) happened in between, so conclusions could only be drawn with caution, but at the end of Grade 5, the children who had worked on spelling had significantly better reading comprehension than the children who had worked on phonics in literature.
In their discussion, the authors suggest that the two different ways of teaching direct children’s attention differently, and evoke different strategies. Specifically, in spelling activities, “attention is more focussed on the phonemic properties of words, and phonic strategies are more likely to be employed” (p707).
The authors recommend using spelling activities for systematic phonics instruction, rather than literature activities, particularly since it’s hard to find literature that lends itself to teaching some sound-letter correspondences, and teachers tend to overestimate their own phonics knowledge.
This research fits neatly with recent research suggesting that multitasking makes you stupid. Working on pulling words apart into sounds and mapping letters/spellings onto them can be difficult, and deserves students’ full attention. If they’re also trying to understand and predict a storyline, answer comprehension questions etc. they will have fewer available attentional resources to apply to spelling.
Sounding out words makes your brain light up like a good reader’s brain
A recent Stanford university study suggests that teaching learners to focus on sounds and their spellings when reading “lights up” the parts of their brains best wired for reading.
I won’t paraphrase it too much because there is a very readable summary article here, but essentially the researchers devised a new language and then taught one group of people to sound out the words, and another group of people to memorise the same words as wholes.
Then they got both groups to read the words while they scanned their brains, and found that the ones who learnt to sound out words had more left hemisphere activity (more like good readers), whereas the ones who learnt to memorise the words as wholes had more right hemisphere activity (more like struggling readers).
They concluded that the way a learner focuses their attention during learning has a profound impact on what is learned, and that skilled teachers need to be able to focus learners’ attention on precisely the most useful information.
This sort of research just makes me want to tear up beginners’ sight word lists and throw them all in the recycling, then blockade the Education Minister’s office until he agrees to provide synthetic phonics training and resources to all primary schools. But I suppose that would just get me into trouble. Sigh.