Houston Phonics Study: A Response to Criticism

April 23, 1997 8 min read

To the Editor:

I read with interest, albeit disappointment, the letter from Gerald Coles concerning the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-supported study of reading development in Houston, directed by Barbara Foorman (“Phonics Findings Discounted as Part of Flawed Research,”Letters, April 2, 1997). As the chief of the NICHD branch that developed the overarching scientific framework for the network of eight reading-development and -intervention studies, of which the Houston study is one (the other sites are Tallahassee, Fla.; Boulder, Colo.; Albany, N.Y.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Seattle; Atlanta; Boston; and Toronto, Canada), I feel it necessary to provide information to Mr. Coles and your readers that could address his concerns.

Mr. Coles apparently believes that Ms. Foorman’s study investigating the effects of literature-based instruction, embedded (contextualized) phonics instruction, and a combined teaching approach (instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, and textual reading) found that all groups performed equally well (on average) in the area of reading comprehension. This is an incorrect interpretation of the findings. Ms. Foorman’s study found that youngsters receiving direct instruction in the alphabetic code as well as text comprehension in literature-based contexts had significantly greater reading comprehension than children in the literature-based-only groups when assessed by a measure reported to have excellent construct validity by the National Academy of Sciences.

The groups did not differ significantly on a second and more complex measure of reading comprehension that required the child to respond to multiple-choice questions following the reading of each of two passages. Unfortunately, the lack of differences between the groups on this measure was not because all children did well. In fact, the null findings were because the measure was too difficult for all children, resulting in floor effects and a predictable lack of difference.

Mr. Coles is also concerned that the training and monitoring of the literature-based teachers was not “objective” and could have been influenced negatively by Ms. Foorman’s earlier reading research, which found that whole-language approaches were not the best method for children who did not learn to decode and recognize words in an accurate and fluent fashion. This is also an incorrect observation. Ms. Foorman had no direct role in the training of teachers for each condition. The teachers taking part in the literature-based reading condition were all experienced whole-language teachers from a district judged by language arts coordinators in Texas to be a model of implementation for whole-language instruction. The reading professionals who provided 30 hours of training and who monitored the quality of the literature-based instruction held doctoral and master’s degrees in reading with specializations in literature-based instruction.

It is also important to note that the children in the literature-based groups were taught and assessed according to whole-language philosophy and principles. The teachers were expected to use the principles and tools of the literature-based approach in an expert manner and were monitored for that purpose. Portfolio assessments were carried out frequently during the year, as were continuous observations of oral reading of predictable texts. Instructional modifications were made on the basis of information derived from these activities.

The explanations offered by Mr. Coles--that the literature-based teachers failed the children because of insufficient monitoring or because of a fear of contaminating the study--are inaccurate. These teachers did everything reasonably possible within the context of their training and teaching philosophy to develop reading skills in the youngsters they were instructing. I suppose the safest interpretation of the poor reading performance of the whole-language-instructed children at the end of the year suggests that assessment, observation, and reapplication procedures advocated by literature-based teachers may not lead to robust reading skills for many economically disadvantaged children.

For Mr. Coles, teacher inadequacy, rather than holistic instruction, appears to serve as an interpretation for the ineffectiveness of literature-based instruction for economically disadvantaged, low-achieving 1st and 2nd graders. I am in complete agreement with him that we must ensure that literature-based instruction, as with all types of instruction, is applied competently in any study of reading development and difficulties.

But surprisingly, this issue of limited competence in the delivery of literature-based instruction by poorly prepared whole-language teachers has been persistently and now predictably raised by advocates of holistic reading methods in California, Texas, and many other states where reading is taught predominantly by whole-language teachers and where reading scores are of great concern to legislative authorities because of unacceptably high failure rates. It is surprising because the professors of education in these states feel that they are doing a splendid job of preparing teachers to impart literature-based reading instruction. Moreover, many of them are considered leaders in the study and application of literature-based instruction, and many have trained hundreds, if not thousands of teachers in those states where holistic reading instruction is prevalent and where declining reading scores have become an issue of widespread concern and anguish.

One alternate possibility, vis-…-vis teacher knowledge and competence, that could account for the failure of the whole-language approach to enhance reading-skill development in the Houston study is that many college of education professors may themselves not be fully prepared in their understanding of reading development and reading disorders, and that the information passed on to their students is equally limited and fragmentary in theory, content, and application. In short, the conventional wisdom imparted to whole-language teachers during their preparation may not be very wise and is sadly conventional. While this may seem to be a harsh interpretation, our studies of teacher-preparation practices indicate that it is accurate.

Elementary teachers report with alarming frequency that they have not been prepared to adequately teach reading; that many have only had, at most, two reading courses throughout their reading careers; that theory is never directly related to teaching practice with children and demonstrated explicitly by professors; that student-teaching and practicum experiences are rarely thoughtfully integrated with college coursework; that they have never observed a professor model and demonstrate teaching approaches with children of differing abilities in laboratory or classroom settings; and that their knowledge of individual differences in children is limited. Thus, any of the teachers that Mr. Coles assumes are well trained may not be by objective standards.

As someone who received training in education and has taught youngsters in the 3rd grade as well as children with learning disabilities, I know firsthand the limitations of educational preparation programs at one university. And I know through my own studies of teacher preparation how dismal teacher preparation is at many other institutions.

I take exception to Mr. Coles’ statement that Ms. Foorman’s study reflects “a ‘garden variety’ investigation commonly found in professional journals.’' In fact, research conducted under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health in general, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in this particular case, must meet the highest levels of scientific integrity, review, and application. All NICHD-supported researchers engaged in reading-intervention research have submitted a proposal for their study that must pass two levels of extensive review by highly accomplished scientists--scientists who, by law, cannot be affiliated with the research team they are evaluating.

Yes, the science supported by the NIH adheres to traditional scientific standards: The work must be theoretically guided. If multiple theories of a phenomenon exist (as in reading development and disorders), there should be a robust test of these competing theories. The theories must drive the hypotheses to be tested. The measurements used to test the hypotheses must meet established standards of reliability and validity. The study must be designed to account for alternative explanations of the data. The study, and those conducted to replicate the findings, must attempt to falsify the hypotheses and refute the theories that guide the investigation.

In addition, the NICHD reading-intervention studies must investigate reading development and disorders within a longitudinal perspective that begins with children before they enter the 1st grade and follows them for at least five years. A longitudinal design is employed because we are aware that different types of reading skills are more important at different stages of reading development. We also are aware that children may respond to different types of instruction at different points in the developmental reading process, and that different reading approaches may be more efficacious at different points as well. As such, the early findings obtained in Ms. Foorman’s study will continue to be evaluated in terms of subsequent findings, and formal published reports of these reading-skill interactions will be provided.

While I feel that Mr. Coles’ concerns about the Houston study are part of a scientific dialogue, I wonder why he and other advocates of literature-based instruction have not contacted Barbara Foorman, her colleagues, or myself to discuss their concerns. It will be through this type of collegial interaction that our attempts at building the most informed scientific understanding of reading development and difficulties will be most fully realized. As researchers, we have a lot to learn about how best to study reading development and what we can do about reading difficulties. Let’s get on with it--the children are depending on us.

G. Reid Lyon
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, Md.


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