To the Editor:
Education Week’s special report on the science of reading lays out well the current condition of reading education (“Getting Reading Right,” Dec. 4, 2019). A thesis from one of the articles, however, that “there’s a settled body of research on how best to teach early reading,” is missing an essential facet: vowel knowledge. In 1971, researchers Isabelle Liberman and Donald Shankweiler studied linguistic aspects of error patterns in reading and speech for both consonants and vowels under the auspices of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as part of a concerted effort to determine how reading is accomplished. They found that vowels “are seldom misheard but often misread,” identified the need for explication, and even proposed a method of study.
My colleagues and I discovered the study and ascertained that their recommendation was not undertaken when we searched the literature for an explanation of how mastering the vowel system improved the trajectory of learning to read and write for virtually all of the students with whom we worked. The gains derived from vowel mastery were comparable to those derived from mastering the alphabetic principle, both for young students with learning difficulties and older, high-achieving students reading inefficiently.
In a three-year project in a New Hampshire elementary school, we have collected data showing that vowel sound-spelling correspondences are less easily learned and maintained than those of consonants. We also found that increases in vowel knowledge correlate with improved word learning in whole-class instruction across grade levels.
In our opinion, an incomplete “settled body of research” has resulted in an imperfect lens through which educators and researchers are looking at the problem we are all so desperate to fix. Research to correct the lens through which we see early-reading instruction would help to create more effective programs.
Jean C. Tucker
Speech Language Pathologist, Reading Specialist, and Author
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Don’t Overlook Vowels in Reading Research