Friday, April 21, 2017

A "pronounced" victory for phonics!

2 questions:
  • How many phonics rules do you know explicitly and work with with your students?  
  • How fluent (in reading or speaking) are your students expected to become working with you?
The (generally pointless but commercially and academically lucrative) battle between proponents of "phonic" and "whole word" approaches to reading instruction  is (apparently) over, according to new research by "Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit", summarized by our friends at Science Daily, quoting one of the researchers:

"The results were striking; people who had focused on the meanings of the new words were much less accurate in reading aloud and comprehension than those who had used phonics, and our MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading."


Since from the summary we do not get much of an idea as to what the research methodology looked like, we'll just have to trust them--and their conclusions. (I'll access the actual article and report back in a comment to this post, but that is almost irrelevant here.)

What is of real interest is not the link between phonic training and reading comprehension but the connection between training in oral reading fluency and reading comprehension, well established in early literacy instruction for kids. (The current study was with adults learning a new, artificial language but seems to be a good parallel.)

In L2 pronunciation teaching, the relationship between accuracy of individual sounds or words and speaking fluency has not, to my knowledge, been researched--and published. (If you have a good ref on that, please post it for us!)  Part of the reason for that is that intelligibility, rather than accuracy, has become the "gold standard" of instruction in the field, to a large extent creating the understandable lack of interest in "traditional" segmental-focus-based (individual sounds) teaching methods.

The real irony here, if the new research is even close, is that in L2 instruction, downplaying phonetic accuracy and instruction in phonics may ultimately be undermining development of reading (and speaking) fluency. At the very least, the MRI data apparently indicated that the brains of  the adult "whole worders" in the study had to work much harder with word recognition.

Although in haptic work we are certainly not "phonatics" by any means, the method is still based on initial phonetic anchoring and extensive, systematic oral reading practice. If yours isn't, it may be time to get back to basics. To get started, begin by seeing how many phonics rules that you use in teaching you can jot down in less than 1 minute. Anything short of a dozen suggests that your students may be "dys-fluent" as well.

University of Royal Holloway London. (2017, April 20). Phonics works: Sounding out words is best way to teach reading, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 21, 2017 from

The source article:

Taylor, J. S. H., Davis, M. H., & Rastle, K. (2017, April 20). Comparing and Validating Methods of
Reading Instruction Using Behavioural and Neural Findings in an Artificial Orthography. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.

1 comment:

  1. Did get access to the (long/extensive) Taylor et al. research article.(See full citation above.)Seems to be a very compelling case for more phonic-based approach to both early literacy and reading. The MRI data is especially striking. Highly recommended.