According to Marilyn Jager Adams, reading ability at the end of Grade 1 is an
enormously powerful predictor of future academic success in all subjects, future income,
indeed the probability of leading long, contented lives. This is particularly true for
disadvantaged children, since their parents are less likely to be in a position to
overcome any learning deficits.
Some teachers believe that it is not particularly important for children to learn to
read by the end of Grade 1. They may be afraid to put pressure on kids to learn to read
before they demonstrate their readiness. Others are convinced that some students are
impossible to teach because they are, for example, dyslexic or upset by a turbulent home
environment or not native English speakers.
But theres powerful evidence that virtually all children can learn to read
fluently by the end of Grade 1. This is demonstrated year after year by a few special
schools like Wesley Elementary in Houston, Texas, which draws its students from
Houstons inner city. Most of the kids are from disadvantaged homes and 80 per cent
qualify for free lunches. Nevertheless, they all learn to read and many are reading at a
Grade 3 or 4 level by the end of Grade 1.
NO GREAT MYSTERY
How do the Wesley teachers do it? Well, according to an article in the May/June 1997
issue of American Teacher, the official publication of the American Federation of
Teachers, "There is no great mystery about how the school manages consistently to
score above the state and district average
First, both students and staff work long
and hard at academics, preferably beginning at the pre-K level. Second, kids know from day
one they must obey the rules. The school also makes sure that teachers and
paraprofessionals have the materials and training they need to get the job done. And one
other thing: Wesley teaches kids to read, write, spell and do math using a teaching
program that is built around a clinically-proven research base ... The method they use is
For teaching beginning reading, all Wesley teachers use a synthetic phonics program
called Reading Mastery.
Of course, most Ontario Grade 1 teachers teach phonics. However, the results of two
comparative studies of different types of phonics programs show that some phonics programs
are clearly better than others.
The first one, "Accelerating Reading Achievement: The Effectiveness of Synthetic
Phonics," was conducted by psychologists Joyce E. Watson and Rhona S. Johnston of
Scotlands University of St. Andrews and was funded by the Scottish government. It
involved mostly disadvantaged students in Clackmannanshire, Scotland.
SOUND OUT WORDS
In the process of examining how phonics was taught in Scottish schools, the researchers
discovered that one particular teacher, using "synthetic phonics" to teach
beginning reading, was achieving superior results. This type of phonics starts out by
teaching the letter sounds very rapidly six letter sounds in eight days and
then gives the children practice in sounding and blending the letters to read words.
Synthetic phonics also known as systematic phonics seeks to develop rapid
and automatic word recognition so that skilled readers need not rely on context. Its
central premise is that children should invariably sound out unknown words.
Their discovery prompted the researchers to look at what happened when other classes
received 10 weeks of synthetic phonics teaching. They discovered that these classes also
achieved superior results.
In the final phase of the study, 13 classes were divided into three groups. Four
classes were taught using "analytic phonics." This type of phonics starts at the
whole word level and typically introduces one letter sound per week, followed by consonant
blends and vowel digraphs. Analytic phonics views phonological knowledge as one of several
strategies that children can use to identify unknown words. Another four classes were
taught using analytic phonics augmented by 10 minutes a day of phoneme-and-rime awareness
(word families) training. The last five classes were taught using synthetic phonics. By
March of Primary 1, the synthetic phonics group was found to be reading eight months ahead
of the other two groups, while their spelling was eight months ahead of the first group
and nine months ahead of the second group.
The program used was Jolly Phonics, a program that is
currently being used to good advantage in a number of Toronto-area schools. Here in
Ontario, the effectiveness of Jolly Phonics has been evaluated by Dale Willows of OISE/UT,
and in a series of papers presented at various reading conferences, she reports truly
remarkable achievement. The programs success at one Etobicoke school was written up
in the Federation of Women Teachers Associations of Ontario (FWTAO) May/June 1996
The second study involved 285 disadvantaged children, the most at-risk 18 per cent of
children in eight inner city schools in Houston, Texas. This study, "The Role of
Instruction in Learning to Read: Preventing Failure in At-Risk Children" by Barbara
R. Foorman et al, is described in the Journal of Educational Psychology, 1998, Vol. 90,
No. 1, 37-55.
Group A received intensive synthetic phonics instruction, Group B received
"embedded" phonics instruction similar to analytic phonics in the
Scottish study and Group C received only "implicit" phonics instruction.
At the end of the year, Group A approached the national average on decoding (43rd
percentile) and passage comprehension (45th percentile), compared with Group Bs 29th
and 35th percentiles and Group Cs 27th and 33rd percentiles.
Group A used Open Court, a program that is currently being used with good success in
more than 200 Ontario schools.
One of these Ontario schools is Holy Cross, a highly-
multicultural school in Mississauga. Brenda Vassallo, a primary resource teacher at Holy
Cross, says, "I finally found what I was searching for in the Open Court resource:
everything required for a first-class, high-quality program is included." She and her
colleagues at Holy Cross like Open Court, because:
- children enjoy the program and they become excellent readers
- parents are thrilled by their childrens enthusiasm and competence
- program features a rich literature base and a print-rich environment
- childrens spelling and writing skills soar
- teachers prep time is cut in half.
Ontario children will need to be extremely competent readers and writers to survive in
the 21st century. Synthetic phonics offers them the best chance of making the grade.
For more information, you can learn about the Scottish study, Accelerating Reading
Achievement: The Effectiveness of Synthetic Phonics, at www.hmis.scotoff.gov.uk/riu.
"The Role of Instruction in Learning to Read: Preventing Failure in At-Risk
Children" by Barbara R. Foorman et al is in the Journal of Educational Psychology,
1998, Vol. 90, No. 1, 37-55.
To order a Science Research Associates (SRA) catalogue, which contains information
about both Reading Mastery and Open Court, call 1-800-565-5758. Jolly Phonics materials
are available from Scholars Choice and Louise Kool & Galt at 1-800-268-4011.
Malkin Dare is the newsletter editor of the Organization for Quality Education and
the author of How To Get The Right Education For Your Child. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.