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.
Experimental research on children's conscious awareness of speech sounds in spoken words has been carried out for at least twenty years. This manifest sensitivity to speech sounds is called phonemic (or phonological) awareness (PA). It now is well-established that children who have developed PA gain written word recognition skills better than do children who lack PA. Moreover, it is found that PA is best taught in a direct and systematic fashion. We now know that school beginners' lack of PA is far more detrimental to their progress in learning to read than is their lack of experience with print, as preschoolers.
It thus is apparent that PA is a prerequisite to phonics instruction. Phonics information is the relationship between the ways we speak and spell words. Students use phonics information to convert letters in words into speech sounds (e.g., dog becomes /d/--/o/--/g/. It also has become clear the more phonics skill a student acquires, the more acutely conscious he/she becomes of speech sounds.
However, most phonics programs still do not conduct explicit instruction of PA before phonics teaching begins. Some recent books on phonics instruction (e.g., Lee A. Rinsky's Teaching Word Recognition Skills, 1993) make no mention of PA. It is obvious, nonetheless, that adding PA instruction to any phonics program will make it more effective.
Empirical studies also have reported that young children have more native ability to perceive, for example, that (1) big and bit begin with the same speech sound, and (2) big and dig rhyme, than they have the ability to perceive that big and bat do not have the same vowel sounds, nor final consonant sounds.
Some reading instruction specialists refuse to accept the empirical evidence that indicates the more phonics information that students learn, the better. They improperly interpret these findings, on which kinds of PA are easier for children to acquire. They argue that if children are simply taught to recognize beginning consonant speech sounds in words (the "onsets" of words), and are shown that words rhyme, children will pick up on their own whatever other phonics information they need to recognize words.
The advocates of "Whole Language," (WL) as would be expected, do not favor direct and systematic teaching of PA. They do not believe that PA is a causal factor of children's learning to read. They insist, to the contrary, that PA in the most part develops as the result of children's learning to recognize words. They argue in this regard that children's "invented" spellings lead to PA, and not the other way around. The WL movement maintains that "all the good phonemic awareness instruction in the world may be useless unless children have the experiential background to profit from it" (i.e., have experience with literature as preschoolers). Instruction in PA also must "fit" into the overall WL curriculum, it is maintained. The benefits ordinarily gained from PA instruction do not justify any change in the WL curriculum, WL proponents aver.
As usually is the case with assertions by WL defenders, none of the objections above to thorough and explicit teaching of PA is supported by the experimental research. The relevant empirical evidence has ascertained that not teaching PA in a direct and systematic fashion, before phonics instruction is begun, handicaps beginning readers' progress in learning to recognize written words.
If PA is taught ineffectively, children will be hindered in learning enough phonics rules to readily decode (sound-out) written words. In that event, students are inclined to guess at the identities of words, using sentence context cues for that purpose. This is a word recognition procedure children must be prohibited from practicing. Able readers seldom guess at identities of words. To become competent readers, children also must forego this unreliable speculation.
When children are not taught PA in the experimentally verified fashion they are unprepared to sound-out each of the letters in a word, and then to blend these speech sounds together so as to produce a pronunciation of the word. Beginning reader's ability to blend speech sounds in this fashion is developed both through PA instruction, and phonics teaching. This blending skill has been found to be essential to children's ability to recognize words in an accurate and quick (automatic) manner. And nothing relates more closely to children's reading comprehension than does automatic word recognition.
Proponents of Whole Language substitute onset and rime learning activities for instruction in blending of individual speech sounds. By so doing, they do not teach children to blend speech sounds in the experimentally verified manner. Children in Whole Language classes thus are not provided full opportunities as to how to recognize words in the most effective way.
In conclusion, children's recognition of "onsets and rimes" is a useful part of the PA and phonics knowledge that they should acquire (a rime is the ack part of black, for example). It is found that of 286 rimes that appeared in primary grade texts, the vowel letters in 272 of them (96 percent) are pronounced the same way in every word in which they appear. One study discovered that just 37 of these rimes appear in almost 500 primary grade words.
By no means, however, are onsets and rimes all that illiterate children need to learn about to become proficient at word recognition. After a certain amount of sounding-out of letters in words, children come to recognize rimes as familiar spelling patterns. At that point, they can recognize them without sounding them out. This quick recognition of rimes therefore is a natural consequence of sounding-out letters in words. Children's identification of rimes as such, helps them read more rapidly. Knowledge of rimes (and onsets) thus is helpful to children learning to read, but is not sufficient for that purpose.
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