Systematic, explicit phonics should be a routine part of reading instruction for all elementary students, but teachers must be trained to teach such skills in a “vibrant, imaginative, and entertaining fashion” and to tailor their instructional strategies to student needs, a congressionally mandated panel has concluded.
But the long-awaited report by the National Reading Panel is unlikely to settle the rancorous debate over teaching strategies and could add to the discord.
Released last week, the report suggests that teaching all children phonics—how the sounds that make up speech are linked to letters of the alphabet—beginning in kindergarten can help them read more proficiently later on. The report also concludes that helping children develop fluency in reading words and build their comprehension skills is critical for them to become successful readers.
The panel, appointed in 1997, based its findings on some of the 100,000 published studies in five areas of reading: alphabetics, including phonics; fluency; comprehension, including vocabulary instruction; teacher preparation for reading instruction; and the use of computer technology in reading instruction. It analyzed that research to determine the effectiveness of various types of instruction and which findings could be immediately applied to classroom instruction.
“The panel found the charge so daunting at times that it despaired of being able to meet it in a reasonable way,” Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg of the University System of Maryland and the chairman of the panel, said at a press conference here. “But we concluded that some teaching methods are better than others ... and that we must better prepare teachers to judge the scientific literature and transform it into classroom practice.”
The report, which was initially slated for release in November 1998, was praised by education groups for putting a spotlight on the importance of teacher preparation and for emphasizing both phonics and comprehension as critical skills for young readers.
“I agree with them that systematic phonics is critical, but [the panel] also made the point that you have to use [phonics instruction] judiciously,” said Carol Santa, the president of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. “If your students know [phonics], you don’t want to beat it into them. But it takes a highly trained teacher to know when they’ve had enough.”
Although it does not specifically address the balance of instructional methods that might make for effective teaching, the report reflects what many researchers and practitioners in the field have been promoting over the past several years: There is no one teaching method to ensure that all children learn to read well.
Other research is needed, the panel determined, in several critical areas, such as the effectiveness of various types of teacher training and how to teach fluency and comprehension to students with learning disabilities.
Silent on Silent Reading
One surprise emerged from the panel’s work, Mr. Langenberg said. While the research clearly shows that students benefit from guided oral reading—in which they read aloud in class—it is not clear that they can become more fluent or increase comprehension by reading silently to themselves.
The best readers tend to read silently to themselves more frequently than struggling readers do, but it could not be determined from the available research whether the practice actually improves reading skills.
That finding may also surprise practitioners in districts where blocks of time have been set aside for silent reading in the hope of improving reading skills.
The 14-member group included scientists engaged in reading research, psychologists, administrators, a pediatrician, a teacher, a principal, and a parent. Mr. Langenberg is a physicist by training.
The composition of the panel met with early criticism from some experts in the subject, who voiced doubts that the group would represent a sufficient range of viewpoints.
Donald N. Langenberg: Chancellor, University System of Maryland.
Gloria Correro: Professor of curriculum and instruction and associate dean for instruction, Mississippi State University.
Linnea Ehri: Distinguished professor of educational psychology, City University of New York.
Gwenette Ferguson: Reading teacher, North Forest Independent School District, Houston.
Norma Garza: Certified public accountant and member of Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s reading task force.
Michael L. Kamil: Professor of psychological studies in education and learning, design, and technology, Stanford University.
Cora Bagley Marrett: Vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
S.J. Samuels: Professor of educational psychology, University of Minnesota.
Timothy Shanahan: Professor of urban education and director of the Center for Literacy, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Dr. Sally E. Shaywitz: Professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, Yale University.
Thomas Trabasso: Professor of psychology, University of Chicago.
Joanna Williams: Professor of psychology and education, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Joanne Yatvin: Principal, Cottrell and Bull Run Schools, Boring, Ore.
Dale Willows: Professor of human development and applied psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.
Members were selected from 300 applicants and, while representing a variety of fields and backgrounds, were viewed as objective. Applicants who had taken strong stands supporting or opposing any particular approaches to reading instruction, or with a financial interest in commercial reading materials, were not considered, according to Duane Alexander, the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who helped select the panel.
While the members reached consensus on what the research says, at least one member believed the studies selected for review represented too narrow a view of the field.
In a minority report, Joanne Yatvin, the principal of the Cottrell and Bull Run elementary schools in Boring, Ore., said the studies the panel chose agreed with “the philosophical orientation and the research interests of the majority of its members.”
She said she was disappointed that the topics selected did not include language and literature, and argued that the studies the panel looked at were “of limited usefulness to teachers, administrators, and policymakers because they fail to address the key issues that have made elementary schools both a battleground for advocates of opposing philosophies and a prey for purveyors of ‘quick fixes.’ ”
The panel looked only at research that presented what it described as clear scientific evidence that a particular practice was causally linked to a particular outcome. It did not review qualitative research, studies that were descriptive or observational of classroom practice, or those that showed a correlation between practice and outcomes, but not causality. The panel did not study much of the research on whole-language instruction, which teaches phonetic skills in the context of stories.
Panel member Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education and the director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he agreed that the report could have benefited from the insights of some qualitative studies that observe how various methods are applied in the classroom. After an initial review of that research, though, he and others agreed that there were not enough of those that met the panel’s review criteria.
The report recommends that future studies look more closely at qualitative and descriptive research.
Adrienne D. Coles contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Reading Panel Urges Phonics For All in K-6