February 11, 2008

Phonics: Is It Time to Move On?

Apparently it is.

Or at least that's what the International Reading Association, a whole language support group, would have us do:

Phonics’ arrival on the “not hot” list may surprise many teachers and policymakers who recognize it as one of the five so-called pillars of reading instruction. Explaining its shifting status, Jack and Drew Cassidy point out that many literacy leaders have expressed concern that phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension could be viewed as equally important. “Comprehension and vocabulary instruction are more important than the other three,” Cassidy notes. Debate over phonics instruction fueled the “reading wars” in the 1980’s, leading one unnamed respondent to comment that phonics’ move to the “not hot” list signals that “it is time to move on.” [Emphasis added]

Maybe comprehension and vocabulary are "more important" than phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency once the student is proficient in decoding, i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency. But, vocabulary and comprehension aren't going to do much good before the student the student is a proficient decoder.

Here's my favorite demonstration of this inconvenient fact. If you're reading this blog you're no doubt a skilled reader with good decoding, vocabulary and comprehension skills. Here's a passage that's only about 80% decodable, let's see how well you comprehend the passage with your decoding skills crippled.

He had never seen dogs fight as these w__ish c___ f____t, and his firs ex__________ t____t him an unf________able l_____n. It is true, it was a vi_______ ex_________, else he would not have lived to pr_____it by it. Curly was the v_________. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friend__ way, made ad_________ to a husky dog the size of a full-______ wolf, th____ not half so large as _he. __ere was no w_____ing, only a leap in like a flash, a met_____ clip of teeth, a leap out equal__ swift, and Curly's face was ripped open from eye to jaw.

It was the wolf manner of fight__, to st___ and leap away; but there was more to it than this. Th__ or forty huskies ran _o the spot and not com______d that s_____t circle. Buck did not com______d that s_____t in_______, not the e___ way with which they were licking their chops. Curly rushed her ant________, who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush with his chest, in a p________ fash___ that tum___ed her off her feet. She never re_____ed them. This was __at the on______ing huskies had w______ for.

This is, of course, what reading looks like to a kid who can't decode very well. It's a lot of fun isn't it? I bet you wish you could do that all day long. I'm sure you'd just gobble up books one after the other.

And we wonder why some kids aren't motivated to read.

Thank you, International Reading Association, for all your crackpot schemes.


CrypticLife said...

I've wondered about the validity of this demonstration since I saw it more than a year ago on your blog, Ken.

In an attempt to replicate more closely what kids might see if they had decoding ability but not vocabulary, I created the below from the paragraphs (incidentally, you have a transcription error towards the beginning of the second paragraph). I didn't check that it has the same level of percentage incorrectness. I think, however, it shows that if you don't have the vocabulary you can build it if the decoding skills are available, but if you don't have decoding the text will be almost intractable.

He had nevip seen dogs fonpt as these weygish croutures fought, and his first expipience taught him an unforgettable lesson. It is true, it was a vicarious expipience, else he would not have livkt to profit by it. Curra was the victim. They wipe campkt nour the log store, whipe she, in hip friendra way, made advances to a hotvy dog the size of a full-grown weyg, though not half so large as she. Thipe was no warning, onra a loup in like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a loup out equalra swift, and Curra's face was rippkt open from eye to jaw.

It was the weyg mannip of fonpting, to strike and loup away; but thipe was more to it than this. Thipny or fipny hotvies ran to the spot and surroundkt the combatants in an intplo and silplo circle. Buck did not comprehend that silplo intploness, nor the ougip way with which they wipe licking their chops. Curra rushkt hip antagonist, who struck again and loupkt aside. He met hip next rush with his chest, in a peculiar fashion that tumblkt hip off hip feet. She nevip regainkt them. This was what the onlooking hotvies had waitkt for.

Liz Ditz said...

The "hot or not" list is also a sign of how pathetic the state of research is, in education.

I'm still working up my notes from the Learning & the Brain conference, but Kurt Fischer said something like:

"Most schools of education don't have cognitive scientists or neurolearning specialists on their faculty. How can that be? That has to change.

"Education should be playing a central role in cognitive science and neuroscience" because without robust research in the education field, don't know if laboratory-based interventions actually work in the classroom.

Education has to shape the research questions.

Right now there's a lot of talk about "brain-based education", but most is not research-based.

There is a deep need for sound science, not mere claims (saying you are a "left brained person" or a "right brained person" is just bogus--unless of course you have had a hemisphere removed...)"

Here's the link for the International Mind, Brain and Education Society:


KDeRosa said...

Another modification of the test is to insert a bunch of obscure $3 words for the more widely known words used in the original text. This'll show that vocabulary plays a big part in compehension as well.

If a child understands a passage when it is spoken to him, yet doesn't understand the same passage when he reads it, then this implies a decoding problem, not a comprehension problem, though many mistake the two.

Anonymous said...

Re: liz ditz above

Ed schools can use a few mathematicians in the faculty lounge. How about some dual math department-ed school assignments? Business schools do it with economics department faculty.

Anonymous said...

You mean the I in IRA stands for International? I always thought it meant Irresponsible. My bad.

Allanstr said...

'And we wonder why some kids aren't motivated to read.'
Wonder no longer!
Because English spelling is not holely fonetic, children cannot rely on it for logical coding and decoding. Ultimatly they hav to memorize. Prefrably the hole dictionary!
The basic problem is our spelling!
Italians and Finns, with good spelling sistems, lern to reed by 7 or 8!

KDeRosa said...

Unlike Chinese and Japanese Kana, English is based on a alphabetic writing system in which letters (graphemes) are mapped to elementary speech sounds (phonemes). This association of letters to phonemes is the alphabetic principle and permits the alphabet to be productive because a small set of symbols (letters) can be used to write an indefinitely large number words. Productivity simplifies the learning problem by allowing the child to use the mapping between, for example, four letters and their phonemes /t/, /p/, /s/, and /o/ to read a great many words, such as top, pot, stop, spot, pots, and tops.

However, despite the economy of the alphabetic principle, learning to read an alphabetic writing system like English is not easy. American English, for example, has more than a dozen vowel sounds, but only five standard vowel letters. These vowels do double and triple duty. Thus, English represents economy at the expense of complexity (the mapping between letter and sound is one to many). The trade-off is a good one, however, because the resulting ambiguity is greatly reduced by other regularities in the writing system. English is not as irregular as it is often implied. But, it is more complex than other alphabetic writing systems, such as Spanish that adhere more closely to one sound per letter.

English also exhibits a trade-off between phonological explicitness and morphological transparency. For example, the use of a to represent two different phonemes in nature and natural may be confusing as a guide to pronunciation, but it serves to remind the reader that the two words are morphologically related. This is a common trade-off in English and it greatly complicates the orthography for the beginning reader.

Because of these problems, teaching methods, such as whole language instruction, that make the alphabetic principle explicit, like systematic phonics instruction, result in greater success among children trying to master the reading skill than methods that do not make it explicit.

Anonymous said...

The English alphabetic code is an ‘opaque’ code.

WL advocates would have us give up teaching decoding or continue to do a half-assed job, but we need to do an excellent job of teaching decoding BECAUSE our code is complex.


I think that any successful reading technique has to begin with an understanding of the logic of our alphabet..." -Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University


CrypticLife said...

Actually, the Japanese kana (hiragana and katakana) do map to elementary speech sounds. Kanji (which are imports from Chinese) do not -- one kanji can have several different readings in Japanese, depending on whether it's part of a compound word or on it's own, and on which other characters it's paired with.

"Italians and Finns, with good spelling sistems, lern to reed by 7 or 8!"

Umm, need I point out that's second and third grade? Most American kids should be reading relatively well by then, also.