Section Two--Misrepresentation of the NRP Findings in Government Documents: The NRP Summary Booklet and Put Reading First

The Summary Booklet vastly exaggerates the phonics subgroup’s conclusions on who benefits from phonics instruction.

The NRP Summary Booklet claims that the analysis of 38 studies on teaching phonics “revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read” (p. 9). This statement grossly misrepresents the actual findings stated in the full report. In fact, data from the subgroup report on phonics demonstrate growth only in isolated skills, and only for limited populations. The teaching of phonics facilitated progress in isolated word reading skills for “at risk” first graders and kindergartners, for a small sample of normally achieving first graders, and for a subgroup of “disabled” readers in grades 2 through 6, but not for “low achieving” readers. Moreover, the sample of normally achieving first graders was so small (only 14 comparisons) that the effects can hardly be generalized to this population, much less generalized to first graders of limited English proficiency or gifted students (Subgroups, phonics, Appendix E, p. 2-160). Furthermore, the only other group for which there were more than 10 comparisons was the reading disabled group in grades 2–6 (Subgroups, p. 2-160).

The Summary Booklet overstates the benefits of phonics for comprehension and spelling.

Only at-risk and normally achieving first graders showed greater effects for comprehension when phonics was taught systematically. Even then, the results are not impressive: not only because there were so few studies at the first-grade level, but because standardized comprehension measures at the first-grade level are usually limited to short, one-sentence passages (Subgroups, p.2-115). Systematic phonics instruction produced no significant benefits above first grade in comprehension or overall in conventional spelling (Subgroups, p. 2-116). For example, for second graders in the one study involving the Open Court program, results for comprehension and spelling were actually negative in comparison with whole-language students in that year-long study. The negative findings show a large drop from the first-grade results (Subgroups, phonics, Appendix G, p. 2-170; regarding the currently popular Open Court, see also Moustafa and Land, 2002).

The Department of Education–sponsored booklet Put Reading First falsely claims that children must become aware of how the sounds in words work before they learn to read print.

This claim (p. 2) that children must develop phonemic awareness before reading is not supported by the NRP data nor by any other research. The NRP subgroup on phonics observes that many children learn phonemic awareness while learning to read, even if they are not taught phonemic awareness (Subgroups, p. 2-33). The Put Reading First claim about the need for phonemic awareness first is contradicted by a great deal of other independent research.

Put Reading First misrepresents the status of research on silent reading.

The booklet claims boldly that “No research evidence is available currently to confirm that instructional time spent on silent, independent reading with minimal guidance and feedback improves reading fluency and overall reading achievement” (Put Reading First, p. 25). However, “No research” simply means no body of experimental research; the panel found only 14 studies that met their criteria (Subgroups, p. 3-24). As the NRP noted, there are hundreds of correlational studies showing a connection between independent reading and reading ability (Summary Booklet, p. 12).

Go to Section Three: Cautions Regarding the Teaching of Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

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