by Dr. Patrick Groff
Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus
San Diego State University, has published over 325 books,
monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known
expert in the field of reading instruction.
NRRF Board Member & Senior Advisor
Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus San Diego State University, has published over 325 books, monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known expert in the field of reading instruction.
The widespread use of the "Whole Language" (WL) approach to reading development in California during the past decade resulted in its students becoming the least competent readers in the nation. As a consequence, the California legislature recently passed laws that make illegal the conduct of WL practices in public schools.
Among the stipulations of these laws is that "systematic, explicit" phonics instruction (teaching children the speech sound-letter relationships in a direct and systematic way) be provided in grades K-3. Whole Language expressly was created to persuade teachers to abandon this kind of instruction. It proposes that children learn whatever phonics skills they personally need simply "by reading."
Another requirement of the new reading laws is that stories in learning-to-read textbooks in grades K-3 provide children practice in applying phonics information (knowledge of letter-speech sound correspondences) that students are taught. Controls over the kinds of words furnished children to read thus are necessary. Whole Language contends that no such controls on vocabulary are needed.
In contradiction to WL, the new California state mandate on reading instruction means that words in stories in reading textbooks furnished primary grade children in that state now must be "decodable." A word is decodable if a child has been fully prepared, ahead of time through phonics instruction, to correctly sound-out each of its letters (i.e., to attach a speech sound to each letter in a word). Therefore, if a child encounters a word in a story, and cannot sound-out all its letters, that word is not decodable.
As noted, WL authorities strongly disapprove of the idea that the words beginning readers find in stories they read must be decodable. There are several reasons, however, why WL advocates are wrong in their opposition to making sure that these students' reading materials be composed of decodable words.
One, the experimental research consistently has revealed that providing beginning readers decodable words is an integral part of superior reading instruction. Children given this kind of instruction invariably develop more reading skill, in a shorter period of time, than otherwise is possible.
Two, children who come into contact with reading materials made up of decodable words experience much less frustration when reading, and thus develop more self-assurance and more positive attitudes about this process. They enjoy reading more than do children who are not provided decodable words.
Three, the presence of decodable words in stories they read emphatically proves to children that the phonics information they are taught has a direct and relevant purpose. When children understand that what they are taught in reading lessons will have an immediate, pleasureful usefulness for them, they tend to be more attentive to teachers during those sessions.
Four, the presentation to children of decodable words in their stories also results in their rapid realization that application of phonics skills is the most effective way to recognize words accurately and quickly (automatically). Nothing relates more closely to reading comprehension than does automatic word recognition, the experimental evidence indicates. The provision of decodable words in stories therefore makes a direct contribution to the ultimate goal of reading for childrentheir effective comprehension of what authors intended to convey.
Five, the principle that stories for beginning readers should consist of decodable words helps resolve the question, "How much phonics information should be taught, in what sequence should it be presented, and how fast should instruction proceed?" After children have learned only a few letter-speech sound correspondences, they are ready to decode words that represent these correspondences.
For example, as soon as children learn the phonics rules that the letter f represents the speech sound /f/, that a = /a/, that h = /h/, b = /b/, s = /s/, o = /o/, and m = /m/, they can read sentences such as, A fat rat sat on a mat; or, A man has a tan hat. They can read to answer questions such as, Which sentence probably is not true? A tan rat has a hat; A man has a bat; A man sat on a hot mat. Each additional letter-speech sound correspondence that children learn increases, at a geometric rate, the number of words they are ready to decode successfully.
This example illustrates the rule that effective teachers develop children's knowledge of only as many letter-speech sound correspondences, in advance of furnishing children sentences to read, as are needed. These teachers make sure that the presentation of words in isolation for children to read is kept to the minimum found necessary. Thus, very soon they have beginning pupils engaged in reading words in sentences. The words in these sentences are carefully selected so as to provide students practice in successfully applying their previously learned phonics knowledge. Instruction in letter-speech sound correspondences proceeds at the fastest pace that selectively arranged groups of children can tolerate. In this fashion, children are prepared to read almost exclusively in sentences in a relatively short time.
Six, children's guessing at the identities of words is discouraged and becomes unnecessary when stories are made up of decodable words. Instead of urging beginning readers to guess at words, they are directed to pay close attention to all the letters in words to read themwhich able readers also do. The WL practice of having children guess at words, using sentence context, is not supported by experimental studies on reading. This discredited procedure is avoided when decodable stories are arranged for children to read.
Seven, the reading instruction programs that provide students with stories that consist of decodable words, also present teachers (and parents) with a simple, yet remarkably effective way in which to test children's phonics abilities. As noted above, these phonics abilities relate very closely to automatic word recognition skill and thus to reading comprehension.
Children's abilities to correctly pronounce "pseudowords" are strong predictors of the progress they are making in attaining phonics knowledge. A pseudoword is a nonword (it has no meaning) that is spelled in the same pattern as a real word. For example, nup, plin, tipe, jeap, moy, dasmite, and aptid are pseudowords. If children can pronounce them according to phonics rules (/nup/, /plin/, /tp/, /jp/, /moi/, dasmt/, and /aptid/) this indicates they have acquired phonics knowledge.
The percent of decodable words in beginning reading instructional textbooks thus is a highly pertinent consideration in deciding which of these textbooks will develop children's reading skills the best. The NRRF has developed a set of instructions for determining the percent of words in these various textbooks that are decodable (Decodability Protocol). This Protocol is now available at no cost on this Web site. We all have a great stake in determining how much phonics information children are learning.
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