NRRF - Frequently Asked Questions About Reading Instruction
Frequently Asked Questions About Reading Instruction
by Dr. Patrick Groff
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.
- Q: What Do Children Need To Learn In Order To Read Well?
- A: Four main things: 1) phonics information and how to apply it to recognize
words; 2) familiarity with the meanings of words; 3) the literal
comprehension of what authors intended to convey; and 4) a critical attitude
toward what is read.
- Q: What Is Phonics Information?
- A: The relationship or correspondences between how we speak and spell words.
The individual speech sounds in our oral language generally are represented
regularly by certain letters, e.g., the spoken word – rat – is spelled r-a-t.
- Q: What Is A Phonics Rule?
- A: The rule that a speech sound is spelled frequently by a certain letter
(or cluster of letters), and in no other way. For example, the speech sounds
/r/ - /a/ - /t/, in this order, are spelled r-a-t over 96 percent of the
time. Children apply phonics rules to gain the approximate pronunciations of
written words. After this, they usually can infer the normal pronunciations.
- Q: How Does The Application Of Phonics Information Work?
- A: The child first perceives the individual letters in a word, e.g., rat.
He or she then "sounds out" this word by saying its three speech sounds,
/r/-/a/-/t/. As children’s skills grow in phonics application, they can
quickly recognize frequently occurring letter clusters such as at (as in fat,
cat, mat, etc.).
- Q: How Is Phonics Information Best Taught?
- A: In a direct, systematic, and intensive fashion. Here both teacher and
pupil know precisely what are the instructional goals, the skills to be
learned are arranged into a hierarchy of difficulty, and adequate practice
for learning to mastery is provided.
- Q: What About Children Who Can Recognize Individual Written Words, But Whose
Reading Comprehension Is Relatively Poor?
- A: These children are lacking in one or all of the following: 1)background
knowledge in the topics they attempt to read; 2) knowledge of the meanings of
words in these topics; 3) ability to make inferences about the content being
read; and 4) ability to follow the organization or structure of the text that
is pursued. Teaching for these children should concentrate on these matters.
- Q: What Is The Relationship Of Knowledge Of Phonics Information And Reading
- A: Nothing develops the quick and accurate (automatic) recognition of
written words better than does proper phonics instruction. Then, nothing
relates more closely to reading comprehension than does automatic word
recognition. The ability to recognize words automatically allows children to
direct their mental energy when reading toward the comprehension of written
- Q: My School Tells Me That My Child Has Been Taught To Apply Phonics
Information. But He/She Still Has Difficulty Recognizing Words. What Is The
- A: It is highly probable that your school actually teaches phonics
information in only an indirect, unsystematic, and non-intensive manner.
Since many of today’s schools do not teach phonics skills sufficiently nor
suitably, home instruction often becomes necessary.
- Q: Isn’t The Spelling Of English Too Unpredictable Or Irregular For The
Application Of Phonics Information To Work Well?
- A: No. True, there are notable exceptions to some phonics rules, e.g., the
pronunciation and spelling of tough. Nonetheless, the notable successes of
direct and systematic phonics programs disprove the above charge.
- Q: My Child Reads Slowly, But Accurately, At The Same Speed Both Orally And
Silently. Is This A Matter Of Concern?
- A: Accuracy in reading almost always is a more important goal than rate of
reading, especially with beginning readers. Very high rates of speed in
reading, in fact, are illusionary. They inevitably are simply scanning or
skimming, rather than true reading. Even the average university student
actually reads around the same speed, orally and silently.
- Q: Isn’t It True That Many Children Cannot Learn Phonics Information?
- A: To the contrary, rarely is this so. Only the small number of children
with genuine central nervous system dysfunctions experience significant
difficulty learning properly taught phonics information.
- Q: My Child’s Teacher Says That "Sight" Words, Recognized As "Wholes," Must
Be Learned Before Phonics Instruction Is Begun. Is She Correct?
- A: No. The Assumption that children recognize words by "sight," that is,
without using their letters as cues to their recognition, is not
substantiated by the experimental research. Individual letters are the cues
all readers use to recognize words. For example, we know cat and rat are
different words because we see that their first letters are not the same.
"Sight" word advocates never answer the question: "If children recognize words as
wholes, how are the wholes recognized?"
- Q: What Is A Reasonable Time Schedule For Children To Develop The Ability To
Recognize Words Independently, Without Someone Else’s Help?
- A: With proper phonics teaching it is justifiable to expect the normal child
to reach this state by the end of grade two. More apt pupils can become
self-sufficient in reading at even an earlier age. Reading independently
means the ability of children to read without help any topic they normally
can talk about or otherwise understand.
- Q: I Have Heard About The "Look-Say" Method Of Teaching Reading – Is This A
- A: No. "Look-Say" methodology assumes that if children are given enough
repeated exposures to words as "wholes," they will learn to identify them as
"sight" words. Phonics teaching is de-emphasized and delayed. "Look-Say"
suffers the same basic weakness as any other "sight" word method.
- Q: What Are The Best Ways To Test My Child’s Reading Abilities?
- A: First, listen to him or her read aloud. If he or she guesses at words,
some additional direct and systematic phonics instruction is called for.
Then, jot down critically important parts of the story your child reads
aloud. Have him or her retell the story. How many consequential points were
omitted? If this is more than 20 percent, discuss ahead of time with your
child the topic and the special words of the next story he or she reads.
Unfamiliar words and topics are the greatest handicaps to reading
- Q: Is The "Language Experience" Method Effective For Reading Development?
- A: In this approach children dictate sentences to teachers, who transcribe
them on large sheets of paper as children watch. It is theorized here that
anything children can so "write" they also easily can read. Since most LE
programs do not teach phonics directly, systematically, and intensively, they
do not prove to be a superior way to teach children to read.
- Q: I Have Heard That Children’s Guessing At Words, Using Sentence Contexts
As Cues To Word Identities, Can Substitute For The Application Of Phonics
Information. True Or False?
- A: False. The use of context cues is a relatively immature and crude means
of word recognition, utilized extensively only by beginning readers. Able,
mature readers generally recognize words automatically, not through the use
of context cues.
- Q: Won’t The Intensive Teaching Of Phonics Information Cause Reading
Comprehension To Be Largely Ignored Or De-emphasized In Schools?
- A: This is an unverified apprehension. Intensive phonics instruction simply
develops a necessary tool for the expeditious realization of the ultimate
goal of reading: to comprehend literally, critically analyze, and enjoy and
appreciate written material. In fact, intensive phonics teaching is the most
felicitous and quickest way to create independent readers, i.e., children who
can readily comprehend any written topic about which they can talk or think.
- Q: Does Teaching Children To Syllabicate Long Words Help Them To Recognize
- A: Yes, with proper teaching. Children readily can identify the number of
syllables in a spoken word. Thus, they correctly will say there are four
syllables in interesting. Teaching the dictionary syllabication of words to
help children read them is not the most productive practice, however. A
better procedure is to teach children to first identify the vowel letters in
long words, and then to attach the consonant letters that follow. The
syllabication of interesting thus becomes int-er-est-ing. Manipulate becomes
- Q: Books Called "Basal Readers" Are Widely Used In Schools. Are They The
Best Means By Which To Teach Phonics Information?
- A: These books, given grade-level designations, are accompanied by
instructional manuals for teachers. Unfortunately, they generally do not
teach phonics information adequately. With rare exceptions, they do not
teach enough phonics information to prepare children to recognize quickly and
accurately the words they present in their stories. It has been found that
almost any basal reader system is improved by the addition of intensive
- Q: Many Schools Now Tell Children To Use "Invented Spelling." Are There Any
Dangers In This Practice?
- A: Yes. To avoid frustrating these young pupils, they should be provided
words to read that their phonics training has prepared them to recognize.
Also, long and convoluted sentences should be avoided. As children’s reading
abilities grow, these controls can be relaxed progressively.
- Q: It Is Said That Literacy Instruction Should Be "Integrated." What Does
- A: Literacy consists of writing as well as reading ability. It greatly
reinforces a child’s ability to recognize a word if he or she learns to spell
and handwrite it immediately after learning to identify it. Urging children
to write this word at this time in original sentences has the same desirable
- Q: My School District Has Adopted The "Whole Language" Approach To Reading
Development. What Are Its Views On Phonics Teaching?
- A: Whole Language advocates insist that reading instruction must not be
broken down and taught as a sequence of subskills, ranging from the least to
the most difficult for children to learn. They assert that all reading
skills of every kind must be learned coinstantaneously. Therefore, whatever
phonics information individual children may need to know they easily will
infer on their own as they read "real books." Since children supposedly best
learn to read simply "by reading," no direct and systematic teaching of
phonics is necessary. It is important to note that there is no experimental
research evidence to support this view of phonics instruction.
- Q: What Is The Whole Language Theory Regarding Reading Comprehension?
- A: The Whole Language (WL) approach urges children to omit, substitute, and
add words – at will – in the materials they read. It also encourages
children to "construct" idiosyncratic versions of the meanings that authors
intended to communicate. It is a "pernicious" practice to expect children to
give "right" A: s regarding word identities and the meanings of written
text, a leader of the Whole Language movement admonishes teachers. As with
their views on phonics instruction, the proponents of Whole Language offer no
empirical verification for their opinions about how reading comprehension
should be developed. The most unfortunate consequence of Whole Language
teaching is that children are not made ready by it to read critically. Since
children in Whole Language classes are not always expected to gain the exact
meanings that authors intended to impart, they are not prepared to examine
- Q: Shouldn’t Children Who Speak Nonstandard English (e.g., "I Ain’t Got No
Pencil. They Be Havin’ My Pencil.") Learn Standard English Before Being
Taught To Read?
- A: While mastery of standard English is required in many jobs, it is not
expedient to wait until children who speak nonstandard English learn the
standard dialect before teaching them to read. Moreover, there have been
successful reading programs with nonstandard speakers, who usually are
children from low-income families. Taking time out of reading programs to
deliberately try to change children's dialects neither is an economical use
of this time, nor particularly effective in developing reading skills.
Learning to read standard English, fortunately, does have the desirable side
effect of teaching children how to speak standard English.
- Q: Some Schools Say They Are Teaching "Metacognition" In Their Reading
Programs. Is This A Necessary Or Valuable Practice?
- A: Metacognition refers in part to children’s conscious awareness of how
well they are progressing, during the actual time they are reading. For
example, children would ask themselves, "Does what I am reading make sense to
me? If not, why not?" Schools that emphasize this overt self-examination by
children of their reading and performances find that pupils learn to
comprehend reading material better than otherwise is possible.
- Q: What Is An Effective Way For Parents And Other Interested Parties To Find
Out If Their Schools Are Teaching Reading Properly?
- A: The first question to ask of schools is, "Have you adopted the Whole Language
approach to reading development?" If so, describe how it is conducted." If
the answer: is yes, it usually will be the case that pupils are not being given
proper instruction in word recognition nor reading comprehension. Then, ask
to see the syllabus for teaching phonics information that teachers are
required to follow. Determine if phonics information is being taught
directly, systematically, and intensively. Calculate how adequately children
are prepared, through phonics lessons, to recognize the words in the stories
they are given to read.
- Q: I Have Discovered That My School Teaches Reading Improperly. Now What Do
- A: The policies for reading instruction ordinarily are set by the central
office staff of the school district. It is delegated to do so by the school
board. Ask these officials to defend in writing the defective reading
program they have sanctioned for use by teachers. Particularly, request
citations of the experimental research on which this unsound reading program
is based. If you have found that the unsatisfactory reading program is the
Whole Language approach, you will receive no such list of experimental
research studies, since the empirical research does not support Whole
Language. In this event, demand that your school board make a public policy
statement as to whether the district’s reading programs must be based on
experimental research evidence. Few, if any, school boards will say
otherwise. Then, remind the board that it logically cannot continue to
authorize the use of the Whole Language scheme. Your appearances at board
meetings, and letters to the media will give you added opportunities to
convey this message.
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