When it comes to early reading instruction, the gap between what we know and what we do is wide. We have detailed reports (see here, here, here and here) outlining what good early reading instruction looks like, yet these findings are rarely reflected in practice and often denied by those in powerful positions.
There is a significant amount of research on early reading instruction because of fierce disagreement. The reading wars have raged for many years. Whole language advocates favour an approach to early reading instruction that introduces students to language through context (picture books and stories). The approach is aligned with the constructivist philosophy whereby students construct their knowledge with guidance from a teacher. In this approach, phonics instruction is embedded in other experiences. In recent times, faced with the mounting evidence against whole language, the approach has been morphed into balanced literacy. Balanced literacy is still constructivist in nature and does not align with what we know is effective. It teaches phonics through context.
In the last 10 years, a swing back to explicit models of reading instruction has taken place. The shift toward the explicit model has been informed by a large body of research which indicates this approach is most effective. Explicit models of early reading instruction emphasise the systematic, explicit and intensive teaching of the alphabetic code. The National Reading Panel identified 5 elements which need to be taught explicitly to ensure all students gain the most from early reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. The findings are reflected in Australia’s own report, the National Inquiry Into the Teaching of Reading (2005) which says that:
“The incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based reading research is that children during the early years of schooling must first master the alphabetic code via systematic, explicit and intensive instruction in: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies.”
The most controversial element is the teaching of phonics. Phonics teaching in the early years requires special attention as this is the area in which early readers are most deficient. Phonics instruction teaches students about the relationship between letters and sounds. Understanding this relationship is critical because English represents individual units of sound (phonemes) with corresponding single letters and groups of letters (graphemes). Mastery of the relationship between letters and sounds ‘unlocks’ print for early readers.
There are a number of approaches to teaching phonics, and not all are equally effective. Effective approaches to phonics instruction are systematic and the most effective systematic approach is synthetic phonics. Its efficacy is endorsed in the UK’s 2006 Rose review:
“The evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly for those at risk of having problems with reading.”
Synthetic phonics is superior to other systematic forms of phonics instruction. The Clackmannanshire study investigated the relative effectiveness of synthetic phonics and analytic phonics – a form of systematic phonics instruction whereby letter-sound correspondences are embedded in context. At the end of the study, students taught synthetic phonics were reading 7 months in front of the analytic phonics group. When the researchers followed up the progress of the students 7 years later, they found that the students taught synthetic phonics had not only maintained their advantaged but it had increased over time. It is clear that systematic synthetic phonics instruction has benefits for the long term.
The research evidence is clear. Early reading instruction needs to be taught explicitly and not implicitly. Phonics needs special attention in the early years as this is the area in which early readers are most deficient. Synthetic phonics – whereby letter-sound correspondences are taught in isolation from context – is the most effective way to teach phonics. Teachers can choose to ignore the evidence, but they cannot deny it is there. I encourage all teachers to go and review the research and let evidence guide your practice.
I’ve embedded all my references in the post. The reports are large meta analyses with extensive reference lists for further reading.