Research shows phonics not always the best reading tonic

July 4, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Ground-breaking research in learning has found that children are primarily geared towards learning to read through storing words in the brain, and that phonics, used for “sounding out” words, is not necessary past the initial stages of learning to read.

The results of two research projects, conducted by Dr Brian Thompson, of Victoria University, and Associate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flinn of the University of Otago College of Education, will be announced at the 17th Biennial Australasian Human Development Association (AHDA) Conference, which starts in Dunedin today.

The AHDA is the preeminent think-tank in the area of developmental psychology in the Australasian region.

In the first research finding, Dr Thompson, and Associate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flinn, and colleagues found that six-year-old Scottish taught through phonics at a much slower speed than comparable children taught through New Zealand’s more book-centred approach.

They also performed more poorly in deciding whether words were real or not at ages eight and 11, with non-words such as ‘blud’ being picked more often as real words, for example.

The researchers also found that Scottish university students who had been taught through phonics as children were worse at reading new or unfamiliar words that do not follow regular taught letter-sounds than their New Zealand counterparts.

It is becoming clear that explicit phonics instruction leaves a ‘cognitive footprint’, resulting in a long-term disadvantage when the reader attempts new words.

“These findings suggest that educators and policymakers need to look beyond any claimed short-term advantages of particular teaching methods, and take into account longer-term effects when considering the merits of different approaches to teaching reading,” says Associate Professor Fletcher-Flinn.

The second finding stems from a study of Grade 1 Japanese Kindergarten children, Japanese adults learning to read and New Zealand students taking Japanese in high school as a second language.

Associate Professor Fletcher-Flinn, Dr. Thompson and colleagues found that the same cognitive processes in learning to read words in a writing system based on the alphabet (letters), such as in English, occur in children learning to read a writing system based mainly on characters for syllables, called Japanese Hiragana.

This means that the same process of learning to read occurs in both children learning English and those learning Japanese, despite these being two different writing systems.

“This is a very important finding which suggests a general learning process for to read, regardless of the way the language is written,” says Associate Professor Fletcher-Flinn.

Both researchers agree that from the beginning, teachers should strongly support the child’s storage of vocabulary of print words, which have been connected to in their spoken vocabulary.

This is already a feature of the Japanese teaching of beginning reading, and it is an important consideration for teaching here.

More information: Dr Thompson and Associate Professor Fletcher-Flinn will present papers on their research at this week’s AHDA Conference, which finishes on Wednesday.

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5 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2011
Two advocates select and misinterpret studies favorable to their conclusions and present this not in a peer review paper but a conference. They misunderstand Japanese writing: Hiragana is a phonetic script though for the minimal sound units of syllables--the Japanese language being unusual in that its words can be separated up into a hundred plus syllables unlike most languages such as English in which this number in the thousands. Should press releases for conferences appear here?
not rated yet Jul 04, 2011
On what planet does testing to see if phonetic children can pick out real words from deliberately phonetically similar but misspelled words prove anything? It's the scientific equivalent of teaching one group of people to lip-read, and another to listen to spoken words to understand conversation, then testing them both on conversational comprehension in a room with lots of people shouting at the same time. Did you really have to do an experiment to work that out?

They also seem to ignore the fact that while it's well known you can carry out a phone conversation with a 1000 word vocabulary, those of us entering tertiary study are likely to come across new vocabularies encompassing 50,000 new words or more. Some very complex. So it's rather useful to be able to sound them out since you will never have seen them before.
not rated yet Jul 04, 2011
Unless the Scottish are just slower (which was not controlled for) it's highly likely that the slowness in speed is due to more sub-vocalisation going on. This is a common reason for educated people with slow reading speed, and more likely with a phonics background.

This is fixable with brief training. Any of the various speed-reading courses cover this.

I agree with Squirrel. Non-peer reviewed bollicks to suit a particular educational agenda.

In the spirit of doing pointless experiements for pre-determined results, why didn't they ask the "book-centered" children to pronounce correctly:
narcissism, prosthesis, methionylglutamine, spondylolisthesis, anesthetic, gammaglobunemia, onomatopoeia, acetaminophen, arcametiourologist, amphitheater, baccalaureate... etc etc

- From a Pissed off Kiwi who has an excessively large vocabulary, has personally found phonics to be incredibly useful and is really tired of the almost fanatical fervor of the anti-phonics hysteria league here.

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