Tuesday, June 10, 2003

A study has confirmed the premise of the Bush administration’s “Reading First” initiative that systematic phonics instruction is essential in teaching young children of all backgrounds to read successfully.

The study, just published by researchers of the National Institute for Early Education Research and Rutgers University in New Jersey, re-examined findings of the National Reading Panel (NRP) in 2000.

The study gives even greater weight than the NRP to the importance of intensive phonics, which is systematic instruction of letter-sound relations in English and how to use them to read texts with controlled vocabulary.

“In our analyses, we found that programs using systematic phonics instruction outperformed programs using less-systematic phonics,” the study concluded, adding that the difference with systematic phonics “is statistically significant.”

The study, titled “Teaching Children To Read: The Fragile Link Between Science and Federal Education Policy,” also confirmed the NRP’s finding that children’s reading ability improves after they have acquired basic “phonemic awareness and letter knowledge” by second grade, when phonics instruction is combined with language activities and tutoring.

“Systematic phonics instruction when combined with language activities and individual tutoring may triple the effect of phonics alone,” concluded the study team led by Gregory Camilli of Rutgers’ graduate school of education in Brunswick, N.J.

The report said the NRP did not focus enough on language activities and tutoring as part of a comprehensive literacy program in elementary schools.

“As federal policies are formulated around early literacy curricula and instruction, these findings indicate that phonics, as one aspect of the complex reading process, should not be over-emphasized,” the report said.

Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who is President Bush’s chief reading adviser, called the study “very strong.”

“The Camilli study does reflect a more mature and scientific approach to understanding particular findings, given that it was a scientific attempt to replicate [the NRP study], which is one of the most crucial things we can do in science,” Mr. Lyon said.

The Camilli study re-analyzed 37 of 38 scientific reading studies over several decades that were used for the NRP report, plus three other studies, and applied a numerical “effect size” for use of “systematic phonics” versus “less-systematic phonics” and “no phonics” reading and language activities.

The Camilli study gave a .514 score to “systematic phonics,” compared with a .41 effect size in the NRP report.

“The National Reading Panel found very clearly what Camilli also found, that phonics is absolutely necessary, it’s non-negotiable, but by itself is not sufficient,” Mr. Lyon said. “Phonics has to be provided in a comprehensive reading program that also includes phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.”

David Francis, chairman of the psychology department and director of the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics at the University of Houston, said the Camilli study looked differently at student outcomes in available reading research to include factors ignored by the NRP that were not relevant to “the phonics versus no-phonics question.”

Language activities, “a real mixed bag,” are “not really articulated very well in the paper in terms of what precisely they meant by a language intervention,” Mr. Francis said, “but it could just mean that there was a focus in improving students’ language development and … vocabulary.”

Mr. Francis, a technical consultant for the NRP and adviser to the U.S. Education Department’s What Works Clearinghouse, said he is in discussions with Mr. Camilli to clarify the language and tutoring findings.

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