We can read written words because humans have an incredible ability -- the gift of speech. The fact that we can process strings of sounds into meaningful spoken words allows humans to translate random symbols into oral language. Phonics is only a small part of the reading process.
According to the National Reading Panel, the ability to read requires that students are proficient in a number of language domains. The research that went into the NRP report is now a bit outdated and the legislation it inspired, No Child Left Behind, is proving to be not very effective in closing the gap between proficient readers and students that struggle. So let's look at all the pieces that go into learning to read well.
- Auditory skills -- students with auditory processing difficulties often have problems learning to read. It takes a lot of auditory attention and memory to read.
- Phoneme discrimination-- is almost as important to learning to read as phonemic awareness. Almost all the reasons that students have problems learning phonics are related to phoneme discrimination. Think about how hard the "short" vowel sounds for the letters a, e, i, o and u are to discriminate or how close the /m/, /n/ and /ng/ sound are and you will understand how discrimination issues impact reading.
- Phonemic awareness -- regardless of age, students with reading difficulties have difficulties processing (hearing) all the sounds in words. ALL students with reading difficulties should be tested for phonemic awareness issues, using the C-TOPP (Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing. These tests reveal that students with reading problems don't hear and pronounce words accurately. Common phonemic awareness problems are the inability to accurately hear middle vowel sounds (related to the discrimination issue) so they hear bit for bat and pure for poor, or they don't hear all the sounds in consonant blends (yes, this is a phonemic problem not a phonics problem) so they hear bat instead of brat and coat for coast. Phonemic awareness in English requires much more than the simple segment and blend exercises used in some phonics programs. Phoneme manipulation is used in Sound Reading (www.SoundReading.com) and Reading Reflex (http://www.readamerica.net/)
- Phonics -- is essential for reading an alphabetic language like English but shouldn't be a primary reading intervention. The National Reading Panel clearly states that phonemic awareness is essential for learning phonics. Why do some students learn phonics in a few months in first grade while others take years to learn phonics? Simply a lack of phoneme discrimination and phonemic awareness. Letters don't stick until the sound structure of a language is in place. The NRP didn't find any difference between phonics programs. Phonics programs that require massive amounts of training and years of instruction, such as Wilson Language (www.WilsonLanguage.com) are no more effective than brief, intensive programs like Sonday (http://www.sondaysystem.com/).
- Phonological Recoding is an advance on phonics, or decoding, programs. Many noted researchers, including Bruce McCandliss, Donald Shankweiler, DL Share, GB Thompson, CM Fletcher-Flinn and Howlett (in press) are crafting powerful alternatives to systematic phonics. Skilled readers use a lot more information to decode words than just sounds and symbols. We have phonological and semantic information about the word from speech. And English has many homophones and words that are similar in sound, so "contextual checking" is essential. Think about these sentences -- He wound the cloth around the wound. Do you produce produce? Polish men don't polish. Recoding uses all the information we have about a word, or knowledge source, to recode a written word into a meaningful spoken word. McCandliss' Word Building and Sound Reading Solutions are example of recoding instruction. If a student is taking a long time to learn phonics and it is not translating into reading power recoding may be the answer.
- Fluency -- recent research by Good (creator of DIBELS) and Torgesen have found that about 95% of students that read at greater than 110 words a minute pass fourth grade state assessments and about 80% who read at less than 80 words per minute fail to meet state reading standards. Teaching decoding without teaching fluency is of little value. Fluency instruction includes two important parts -- rapid naming practice so students become fluent in the reading of sounds, syllables and words, followed by timed repeated reading of short, easy-to-read passages. Fluency Foundation uses both and Read Naturally is a good program using timed, repeated reading.
- Comprehension is also a two-level system. Most comprehension instruction focuses on higher-level language comprehension and strategies, which are very important. Most of these skills and strategies are taught in elementary school, so older students who were struggling to read will need basic comprehension instruction. They must learn to think about the meaning of print, from predicting to inferring. But many students who struggle with comprehension have overlooked input, or receptive language, comprehension issues. They struggle with accurately reading words, do it too slowly to keep words in memory, with word and sentence meaning. This is often the result of auditory and phonological issues.
- Read, read some more, then read -- This works best when students are reading accurately and fluently. Most students who resist reading are labored readers who struggle with decoding and fluency. Have your child or student read out loud. If the reading is labored at all then reading more may not help. If the student is reading well then encourage reading, even if it is Captain Underpants!