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Phonics
Definition:
Phonics is letter-sound correspondences. The units of sound can be syllables, onsets & rimes, or phonemes.
  • Onsets are any consonants before a vowel in a syllable (e.g., /dr/ in drum). Rimes are the vowel and any consonants after it in a syllable (e.g., /um/ in drum).
  • Phonemes are the smallest unit of spoken language that make a difference in the meaning of a word, as the /d/, /r/, /u/, and /m/ in drum.
Seminal research:
Clymer found that most letter-phoneme generalizations are unreliable. He looked at four popular reading programs for children and chose forty-five of the most clearly stated phonics [letter-phoneme] generalizations in these programs. He then compared these phonics generalizations with the words used in the stories in these reading programs.

Clymer found that most letter-phoneme generalizations do not work much of the time. For example, of over thirty vowel generalizations tested, only half of them worked at least 60 percent of the time.

    Clymer, T. (1963). The utility of phonic generalizations in the primary grades. The Reading Teacher, 16, 252-258.
Replication research:
  • Bailey (1967), Burmeister (1968) and Emans (1967) did similar studies and had similar findings.
    • Bailey, M.H. (1967). The utility of phonic generalizations in grades one through six. The Reading Teacher, 20, 413-418.
      Burmeister, L.E. (1968). Usefulness of phonic generalizations. The Reading Teacher, 21, 349-356.
      Emans, R. (1967). The usefulness of phonic generalizations above the primary grades. The Reading Teacher, 20, 419-425.

Related research:
Berdiansky, Cronnell, and Koehler found the English writing system is a complex maze of over 211 overlapping letter-phoneme correspondences. They analyzed over 6,000 one- and two-syllables words within the comprehension vocabularies of children ages six to nine years old.

Berdiansky and her colleagues found 69 letters and digraphs (letter pairs that represent a single phoneme) used to represent 38 phonemes, but the letters and digraphs were related to the 38 phonemes in 211 overlapping ways. To illustrate the complexity they found, the letter o is pronounced one way in no, another way in to, another way in won, and yet another way in woman. The letters ow are pronounced one way in now and another way in snow (which is the same as the o in no). The letters oe are pronounced one way in shoe, another way in does (when does is a verb, not a noun), and yet another way in doe (which is the same as the o in no and the ow in snow).

    Berdiansky, B., Cronnell, B., & Koehler, J. (1969). Spelling-Sound Relations and Primary Form-Class Descriptions for Speech Comprehension Vocabularies of 6-9 Year Olds. Technical Report No. 15. Los Alamitos, CA: Southwest Regional Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.
Learning phonics
  • Manning, Manning, Long, and Kamii found that as children develop they are able to use their knowledge of word order to figure out unfamiliar print words in written sentences before they are able to use their knowledge of phonics to figure out unfamiliar print words. They studied 38 three-, four-, and five-year old children's untaught understandings of sentences that are written in front of them and read to them.

    Manning and her colleagues found children who were not yet able to use phonics (letter-sound correspondences) to figure out print words in sentences were able to use word order to figure out print words. This finding suggests that children can learn to read using shared reading (a technique where the teacher points to the words in full view of the children as he/she reads to the children) before they can learn phonics

    • Manning, M, Manning, G., Long, R., & Kamii, C. (1993). Preschoolers' conjunctures about segments of a written sentence. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 8, 1, 5-11.

  • Goswami found that children who have begun to read use analogy between familiar and unfamiliar print words to figure out how to pronounce unfamiliar print words. She showed children in the U.K., in grades equivalent to U.S. kindergarten, first and second grade, pairs of print words with similar letters such as hark & lark and hark & harm. She told each child one of the words in the pair and then asked the child to tell her the other word in the pair if the child did not know it in the pretest.

    Goswami found that children who had begun to read were able to use the word she read to them to figure out how to read the second word in the pair when the letters represented similar rimes (e.g., the -ark in hark & lark) but not when the letters represented similar phonemes within rimes (e.g., /a/ and /r/ in hark & harm) (p<.01).

      Goswami, U. (1986). Children's use of analogy in learning to read: A developmental study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 42, 73-83.
      Goswami, U. (1988). Orthographic analogies and reading development. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 40A, 239-268.
      Goswami U., & Mead, F. (1992). Onset and rime awareness and analogies in reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 27, 150-162.

  • Moustafa found children's knowledge of analogous print words better explains their correct pronunciations of unfamiliar print words than their knowledge of letter-phoneme correspondences (p<.001). She showed 75 first grade children common words such as green and black and analogous unusual words such as grack created from letters representing the onsets and rimes in the common words.

    Moustafa found that 95% of the time children could pronounce the unusual words, they could also pronounce the analogous common words used in the study. In contrast, only 64% of the time the children could pronounce the unusual words, they could correctly identify letter-phoneme correspondences used in the words.

    Moustafa also found the more print words children learn to recognize, the better they are able to correctly figure out print words they have not seen before (p.<001).

      Moustafa, M. (1995). Children's productive phonological recoding. Reading Research Quarterly. 30, 3, 464-475.

Phonics instruction
Seminal research:
Freppon found children with contemporary literature-based reading instruction are more successful at sounding out unfamiliar words when reading than children with traditional reading instruction. She studied 24 first-grade children in four classrooms, two with a contemporary literature-based reading program that focused on meaning and two with a traditional reading program with skills taught out of context.

Freppon found the children in the contemporary classrooms had a better sense that reading was constructing meaning with print. She also found that the children in the contemporary classrooms needed to sound out words less often, but when they did so, they were almost twice as successful as the children in the traditional classrooms. While the children in the contemporary classrooms were successful 53% of the time they sounded out words, the children in the skills classroom were successful only 32% of the time.

    Freppon, P. (1991). Children's concepts of the nature and purpose of reading in different instructional settings. Journal of Reading Behavior, 23, 2, 139-163.
Replication research:
  • Eldredge, Reutzel and Hollingsworth found that second grade children in classrooms with shared reading learn phonics better than children in traditional classrooms with round robin reading. They studied 78 second-grade children, 39 in classrooms with shared reading (where the teacher points to the words in full view of the children as he/she read to the children) and 39 in classrooms with traditional round-robin reading (where the children take turns reading successive parts of a story out loud). In the shared reading classes the teachers demonstrated words and word parts when they reread stories. In the round robin classes the teachers emphasized correct oral reading and provided letter-level or "sound it out" corrective feedback.

    They found that shared reading typically moved average students from the 50th to the 80th percentile in word analysis (phonics) on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

    They also found that average students in the shared reading group became 20% better in oral reading than the average students in the round-robin reading group.

    They further found that while all students—above-average, average, and below-average—benefited from shared reading, the below-average children especially benefited from shared reading. The below-average students in the shared reading group became 41% better in oral reading than the below-average students in the round robin group.

      Eldredge, J.L., Reutzel, D.R., & Hollingsworth, P.M. (1996). Comparing the effectiveness of two oral reading practices: Round-robin reading and the shared book experience. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 2, 201-225.

  • Cantrell studied 49 children in 8 multi-age primary grade classrooms, four that focused on reading for meaning, the writing process, and skills such as phonics and spelling taught in context and four that did not promote meaning-centered reading or the writing process and taught skills such as phonics and spelling out of context. At least 50% of the student population in each school was classified as low income based on eligibility for free and reduced-priced lunch.

    Cantrell found the children in the classrooms that taught skills in context did better than the children in the classrooms where skills were taught out of context on every measure of literacy achievement including word analysis (phonics), fluency, comprehension, and spelling. They also did significantly better on the Stanford 9 assessment of reading and writing as shown in the following table.

  Percentile Score1
Stanford 9 Skills taught in context Skills taught out of context
Comprehension 67 41
Word analysis 47 37
Spelling 66 38
Language 76 36
1Scores above the 50th percentile are above average nationally and scores below the 50th percentile are below average nationally.
    Cantrell, S.C. (1999). Effective teaching and literacy learning: A look inside primary classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 52, 4, 370-378.
Definitions:
Effect size is the difference between the average of the treatment group and the average of the comparison (control) group. An effect size of 0 indicates that the treatment had no effect; an effect size of .20 is considered small; an effect size of .50 is considered moderate; and an effect size of .80 or above is considered large.
Research review:
  • The National Reading Panel reviewed the findings of 38 published studies on phonics instruction. The Panel noted (p. 2-107) there are four different ways of distinguishing words:
    1. decoding (using letter-sound correspondences, or phonics)
    2. sight recognition
    3. analogy to words already recognized
    4. prediction (using memory for the text and knowledge of language to anticipate words)

    In regards to phonics instruction they found:

    • Phonics programs varied widely in their effectiveness, from a very large effect size of d = 3.71 to a negative effect size of d = -0.47, depending on the program, the unit of instruction (whole class, small group, or tutor), grade level, control group, and reading outcome used to measure effectiveness (e.g., word identification or comprehension) (pp. 2-193, Table 4 on pp. 2-155 & 2-156, and Appendix G on pp. 2-169 through 2-176.)
    • The effect size of synthetic phonics programs that teach letter-phoneme correspondences, larger-unit phonics programs that teach larger subparts of words such as onsets and rimes, and miscellaneous phonics programs did not differ statistically from each other (p. 2-132).
    • Phonics instruction improved reading growth among at-risk kindergarten (d = 0.58) and at-risk 1st grade (d = .74) children but failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades (d = 0.15) (p. 2-94).
 
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