What is scientifically-based reading instruction?
The governments of the United States, Great Britain and Australia have all issued major studies in the first decade of the 21st century defining what constitutes science-based reading instruction. Their separate reports conducted by independent panels of reading experts from their respective countries all reached a common conclusion – beginning reading instruction must teach systematic, synthetic and direct phonics instruction.
Report of The National Reading Panel convened by the National Institute of Health in 2000 released a seminal report defining five “essential components” of effective reading programs. The essential components are as follows:
1. Phonemic awareness: Words are composed of discrete sounds. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that the individual sounds in words are blended in spoken words and can be broken apart (segmented) for purposes of spelling.
2. Phonics: Knowledge of the predictable relationship between letters and sounds. Readers use phonics as a way to sound-out or decode unfamiliar words, to learn to read accurately and automatically, and to spell words correctly. Explicit, systematic instruction in phonics helps children learn to read and spell more accurately and fluently than those who don’t receive phonics instruction. Phonics is critical for preventing reading failure among children who struggle with reading. Students taught to isolate the individual sounds in words (phonemic awareness) and associate those sounds with letters (phonics) experience long-term improvement in both reading and spelling.
3. Reading fluency: Reading text accurately and fluently is vital. Fluency is the bridge that connects the reader’s ability to read words accurately with the ability to read text with understanding. Fluency is achieved through guided and repeated reading of controlled text until a student is able to read the text automatically and with expression. The ability to read with fluency is critical for good comprehension.
4. Vocabulary development: The single most effective way to develop vocabulary is to read. Children who struggle as readers have poor vocabularies in part because they don’t like to read and therefore do not read beyond the minimal amount required in school. A good vocabulary is critical for reading comprehension. Reading comprehension depends heavily on knowledge of the individual word meanings within text. There are many specific techniques for developing vocabulary which have merit, but beyond all techniques, the activity of reading itself, exposure to the written word, is by the far the single most powerful and effective method for an individual to acquire a good vocabulary over time.
5. Reading comprehension: Good readers read with purpose and flexibility and utilize background knowledge and reasoning skills to understand what they are reading. Good readers are able to organize and summarize information as they read. One underlying cause of poor comprehension is the inability among some students to read words accurately and fluently. Thus by focusing learning in the areas of phonics and fluency, students will simultaneously improve in their ability to read with comprehension as well.
Key findings from the Rose Report in the teaching of reading, March 2006, are as follows:
• High-quality, systematic phonic work as defined by the review should be taught discretely. The knowledge, skills and understanding that constitute high-quality phonic work should be taught as the prime approach in learning to decode (to read) and encode (to write/spell) print.
• Phonic work for young children should be multi-sensory in order to capture their interest, sustain motivation, and reinforce learning in imaginative and exciting ways.
• For most children, high-quality, systematic phonic work should start by the age of five.
The English government was so persuaded by the findings of the Rose Report that in 2007 it mandated that all English public schools teach synthetic phonics (systematic phonics instruction) for all four and five year-old children throughout the nation.
Key findings from the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy 2005 are as follows:
• Findings from the research evidence indicate that all students learn best when teachers adopt an integrated approach to reading that explicitly teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension.
• It was clear, however, that systematic phonics instruction is critical if children are to be taught to read well, whether or not they experience reading difficulties.
• The Inquiry found strong evidence that a whole-language approach to the teaching of reading on its own is not in the best interests of children, particularly those experiencing reading difficulties. Moreover, where there is unsystematic or no phonics instruction, children’s literacy progress is significantly impeded, inhibiting their initial and subsequent growth in reading accuracy, fluency, writing, spelling and comprehension.
• The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency.
Three countries, three independent panels, three reports, and yet their conclusions are virtually identical. The science of what constitutes effective beginning reading instruction is clearly established and understood. We now definitively know what works and what instructional elements must be present in any scientifically-based reading program.