Reading & Literacy

Analysis Calls Phonics Findings Into Question

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 21, 2003 4 min read
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The National Reading Panel, whose 2000 report has served as the basis for President Bush’s Reading First initiative as well as state and district policies around the country, gave too much credit to the importance of phonics instruction in teaching young children to read, argues a new study published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“Teaching Children to Read,” the NRP report, also discounted other critical experiences, such as language activities and tutoring, the article in the May 8 edition of the online Education Policy Analysis Archives maintains.

The study, “Teaching Children to Read: The Fragile Link Between Science and Federal Education Policy,” is available from the Education Policy Analysis Archives.(Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Consequently, policymakers may be limiting educators to instructional approaches that may be insufficient to teach children to read, according to Gregory Camilli, the lead researcher for the study.

“These research findings indicate that more than one dimension needs to be considered when developing reading programs for young kids,” said Mr. Camilli, a professor in the graduate school of education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “The data suggest that if you combine language activities with tutoring and systematic phonics instruction, you come up with much larger effect sizes than the National Reading Panel found” for systematic phonics alone, he said.

Research Reassessed

To determine its effectiveness in developing proficiency in beginning readers, the reading panel reviewed 38 experimental studies on phonics instruction. From those studies, the panel concluded that explicit, systematic phonics instruction was more effective than instructional strategies that teach the sounds of letters and letter blends in a less structured fashion, or those that do not incorporate the basic skills at all.

Mr. Camilli and co-authors Sadako Vargas and Michele Yurecko tried to replicate the reading panel’s meta-analysis. The researchers, however, chose to eliminate one of the original studies that did not use a control group. They added three others that the panel had considered but rejected, because the Rutgers researchers believed the studies had some valuable findings.

From those 40 studies, Mr. Camilli said, it was clear that phonics instruction, by itself, was not as powerful a tool as the NRP maintained. In fact, he said, phonics in combination with language activities and tutoring was three times more effective than phonics alone.

The NRP report has been used as a framework for federal and state reading policies since 2000, including Reading First. Part of the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, the federal program which is expected to pump more than $5 billion into states over six years, outlines five required instructional elements highlighted by the panel, including phonics.

The U.S. Department of Education has approved 31 state applications under Reading First that met more than two dozen review criteria. Some of those applicants had to revise their proposals to satisfy the requirement for explicit, systematic phonics instruction.

Those states, Mr. Camilli said, may have been misguided in drafting their own policies if they interpreted the NRP report as supporting only systematic phonics instruction. And, he added, the new study could have implications for the implementation of federal and state reading policies, which were largely drafted in accordance with the narrower conclusions of the federal panel.

Federal officials declined to comment on the study, according to David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

But according to Timothy Shanahan, a member of the reading panel, the new findings are consistent with those of the NRP.

“I am very pleased that in spite of making important changes in the analysis itself, the authors came to the same general conclusion that we did (albeit with a lower effect size),” Mr. Shanahan contended in an e- mail. “Phonics instruction clearly gives kids a benefit.”

A Starting Point

Reading-panel member Linnea Ehri, a professor of education at the graduate center of the City University of New York, praised Mr. Camilli for using “science and evidence rather than rhetoric to conduct his critique of the NRP phonics report, unlike other critics.”

The report has come under harsh criticism in the three years since its release because of its narrow focus on quantitative research—studies that have measurable results, are replicable, and have undergone peer review.

Ms. Ehri, who was the chairwoman of the NRP committee on phonics, said the panel intended its work to serve as a starting point for other researchers.

Moreover, she wrote in an e-mail to Education Week, the reading panel considered language development to be a natural component of phonics instruction. “This is consistent with our claim that phonics is not the only important ingredient in instruction to teach reading effectively.”

Mr. Camilli, who is not a reading expert and says he has never taken a position on the issue, said his team did not set out to discredit the reading panel. He said they sought only to replicate the findings, a key criterion for judging the validity of research.

Policymakers have not necessarily gotten the message that phonics instruction is just one component of an effective reading program, Mr. Camilli said.

“This meta-analysis does reaffirm lots of things that were said in the report,” he said. “But the way it’s been translated into practice is much more of a unidimensional reading of the report.”

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