Published Online: March 12, 1997


Study Stresses Role of Early Phonics Instruction

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A new study of predominantly poor 1st graders concludes that direct phonics instruction should be the first in a sequence of methods used to teach some students to read.

But the study, which has stoked the longstanding debate between phonics and whole-language backers even before its publication, cautions that a balanced approach to reading works best, as long as teachers begin with explicit, systematic phonics.

The findings are making their way into circulation at a time when more and more experts are calling for a balance of skills- and literature-based methods in teaching children to read and the debate is shifting to just what that means and when the different methods should be used.

The study by Barbara R. Foorman, a researcher in educational psychology at the University of Houston, suggests that whole-language and less explicit phonics approaches are not as effective in the early, and most crucial, stages of reading.

"The main thing you can take away from this is that what you learn in 1st grade is enormously important to your progress in 1st grade and 2nd grade," Ms. Foorman said in an interview last week. "Our research shows that many children--a majority of children in the inner cities for sure and many in the suburbs--need explicit instruction about how the alphabet works."

The research is based on the progress of 375 mostly disadvantaged 1st graders in the 211,000-student Houston school district, the sixth-largest in the nation. It suggests that children must first have phonological awareness--an understanding of the sounds of letters that make up words--and skill in sounding those words out before they can go on to reading children's literature.

Sharp Dissents

That formula has inflamed supporters of the whole-language approach--who believe that students learn reading skills through textbooks and literature--and even those who prescribe a balanced approach to reading instruction.

"Most kids do not need that kind of phonics instruction," said Regie Routman, a language-arts resource teacher in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the author of Literacy at the Crossroads: Crucial Talk About Reading, Writing, and Other Teaching Dilemmas, released last year. "Kids who come to school without language experience need to have systematic phonics, but the first problem is that they haven't heard stories," said Ms. Routman, a whole-language advocate. Systematic phonics is taught in a prescribed, orderly fashion.

Most of those students need to learn phonics in the context of reading and writing, Ms. Routman asserted. "They need to have someone reading stories to them and playing around with language. Phonics doesn't make sense to them."

Ms. Foorman's study included students who were eligible for federal Title I funding and some 70 teachers. Nearly 60 percent of the students were black; 19 percent were Hispanic. The students were divided into four groups, each taught using a different whole-language-based or phonics-based method. Students were evaluated four times a year through the 1st and 2nd grades and given a series of achievement tests in word recognition, spelling, and reading comprehension each April.

Those students given explicit and sequenced phonics instruction learned more words and scored higher on standardized tests than did students in the other groups. Of the other groups, one used a less direct phonics method; another was designed around the district's whole-language program; and the third used a more formal, research-based whole-language strategy.

Researchers attempted to follow the students through 2nd grade to determine if the sequence of instruction had any effect on their achievement.

In the middle of the study, however, the Houston school board decided that because of the positive results from the direct-phonics group, parents should be able to transfer their children into that program. Another third of the students transferred out of the participating schools.

From the children who remained in the prescribed programs, Ms. Foorman and her colleagues found that students who had direct phonics instruction in grade 1 did better in grade 2 than the others did.

Mixed Reaction

Some reading researchers have praised Ms. Foorman's work, which she presented at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle last month and expects to have published within the next few months. It is an important addition to the literature on how children learn to read, those experts say.

"This is truly an incredibly sophisticated and important study," Maggie Bruck, an assistant professor of psychology and pediatrics at McGill University in Montreal, said at the AAAS conference.

G. Reid Lyon, the director of research for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which paid for this and other research on reading, called Ms. Foorman's work a tremendous contribution to the scientific evidence on how children learn to read.

"The Foorman study shows demonstrably that for [kids who are having difficulty reading] a combined, balanced program with a good sequence of skills is critical," he said.

The Houston school board is so convinced by the findings that it has decided to break away from the district's whole-language course toward what it calls a balanced approach that incorporates more explicit phonics, said board President Don McAdams.

Although many researchers have yet to see the full text of the study, it has been the topic of informal interchanges and debate at conferences and in on-line discussion groups. The initial reactions have been mixed, but even some self-described centrist observers have been critical of the research.

Richard L. Allington, a professor in the reading department at the State University of New York at Albany, called the study "horse-race research," pitting one pedagogical practice against another. That kind of research, he argued, misses the various ways in which teachers blend different instructional methods and cannot determine which balance of approaches is most effective. "This research is such an oversimplification."

Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, said he is fearful that the focus on the success of phonics instruction--and not the need for a balanced approach--will be what supporters of the method will infer from the results."The results are going to be misused by certain groups to fill their own agenda," Mr. Farstrup said. "In society's rush to find a silver bullet, they will conclude that the only answer to reading is phonics."

'Truth in Science'

For critics like Ms. Routman, where the study ends is exactly where the problems begin. She cited research from a decade ago that found that by the time students reach 6th grade, when texts and literature require greater comprehension skills, any lead that phonics-instructed children had in reading in the early years has disappeared.

But Ms. Foorman, who advocates a balanced program of carefully sequenced strategies, insists that the research does not take a phonics vs. whole-language stand.

Mr. Lyon also defends the study, charging that detractors refuse to see the truth in the science. "There shouldn't be a debate. The issue is people need to grow up." But, he added, "I think people will remain fairly foolish in spite of all the evidence."

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Related Stories
Web Resources
  • The Great Debate Revisited. Art Levine, in The Atlantic Monthly, December 1994. Contention between proponents of the "meaning first" and the "phonics first" approaches to literacy goes back more than a century. That the former is now in the ascendant, the author argues, should be cause for concern.
  • 1994 Reading Report Card. A status report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among its findings: The average reading proficiency of 12th grade students declined significantly from 1992 to 1994.

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