Phonics Instruction for Older Students? Just Say No
Let’s resist the temptation to impose quick-fix solutions on struggling readers in the intermediate grades and beyond.
As former reading teachers and as literacy researchers, we have known older struggling readers too numerous to count. We have explored the complex factors affecting the reading behavior of individual middle school students (Ivey, 1999a). We have observed students becoming less enthralled with reading as they move through the middle grades (Baker, 2002) and have also studied what would make reading more appealing to these students (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001). We have reflected on what helps students read more fluently and thoughtfully (Ivey, 1999b). In all our work with older struggling readers, we have not come across a single student who would benefit from phonemic awareness training or phonics instruction.
Unfortunately, in the past year or so, we have received a disconcerting number of reports from middle schools and high schools that have adopted reading programs focused on these basic elements of reading. Could the older struggling readers whom we have known be so different from those who attend the schools using these programs? Could research on improving adolescent literacy be so wrong? We doubt it.
In response to the National Reading Panel report (2000), it appears that weighty decisions to bombard struggling readers with phonemic awareness and phonics instruction have been hastily applied across the grade levels, with little thought about the purpose of such instruction and with little evidence to support its effectiveness. Those who make decisions about the instruction of older struggling readers need to pause to think about what makes the most difference for these students and redirect their efforts accordingly.
Two Good Reasons to Say No
When teachers and administrators ask for our opinion on a particular program or practice intended to improve reading, we encourage them to consider two simple but crucial questions: Does it help students read better? Does it make students want to read more? In the case of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction for students in the upper grades, the answer to both questions is clearly “No.”
Does It Help Students Read Better?
No existing evidence suggests that phonemic awareness training or isolated phonics instruction helps older struggling readers become more competent at reading. A solid understanding of the terms is essential. Phonemic awareness involves “the awareness that the speech stream consists of a sequence of sounds—specifically phonemes, the smallest unit of sound that makes a difference in communication” as well as “the ability to notice, mentally grab hold of, and manipulate these smallest chunks of speech” (Yopp & Yopp, 2000, p. 130). Phonics instruction focuses on letter-sound correspondence and its role in spelling and reading. Both phonemic awareness and phonics play a role in the earliest stages of reading acquisition, when students begin to break the code and learn to match speech to print.
Phonics and phonemic awareness are two of the five components of the learning-to-read process that the National Reading Panel (2000) studied, along with vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Although research indicates that phonemic awareness is a good predictor of success with beginning reading, the Panel’s report found that phonemic awareness training and phonics instruction produce the most benefits for young students, with diminished results for older students. The research summarized in the report indicates that phonics instruction does not significantly boost the reading performance of students with reading difficulties beyond 1st grade, nor does it lead to greater comprehension abilities for older students.
By the time they reach middle and high school, students have been grappling with reading for some time. Even those students with the most severe difficulties will likely have basic understandings about the role of sounds within words and about letter-sound relationships. Yet we know of situations in which middle school students who lag just one or two grade levels behind in reading are herded through six-week crash courses on phonemic awareness. A student who reads well enough to negotiate 3rd or 4th grade materials, or even 1st or 2nd grade materials, will not benefit from practice in manipulating individual sounds within words.
In short, after students have gained a certain degree of competence with word recognition, working with phonemic awareness and phonics becomes a dubious use of instructional time. Training in phonemic awareness and phonics may lead to higher scores on tests of phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge, but such instruction will not improve struggling readers’ ability to read.
Does It Make Students Want to Read More?
No evidence suggests that focusing on sound-level, letter-level, or word-level instruction will make older struggling readers read more. In fact, such an emphasis might make them read less. If reading instruction for these students means more drills on word recognition and letter-sound relationships—and less thoughtful, strategic reading for real purposes—the students will likely become even less inclined to read on their own.
Educating older students, regardless of their competence in reading, comes with its own set of challenges. Effective literacy instruction for adolescents focuses on their individual interests and uses diverse reading materials, such as engaging trade books and digital texts (Alvermann, 2002). Students who struggle with reading in school may read and write for their own purposes quite successfully outside school (Knobel, 2001); effective reading instruction for older students enables them to channel and extend the literacy practices they already use. But such instruction cannot happen in the context of programs that focus narrowly on decoding skills.
What Struggling Older Readers Need
Certainly, some students in the upper elementary grades through the high school grades still struggle to actually read the words they encounter. It makes sense for these students to receive thoughtful, age-appropriate instruction in word recognition and spelling.
But working with words alone will not build the competence and dispositions that students need to read the increasingly complex texts in their academic subjects, nor will it motivate students to read voluntarily outside school. In a critique of the National Reading Panel report, Cunningham (2001) asserts that the report’s focus on single reading interventions, such as intensive phonics programs, ignores the multidimensional and interactive nature of literacy development and of productive reading experiences. Teaching reading is not like targeting and curing specific medical illnesses, Cunningham suggests. It is more like
fostering healthy human development, building a successful business, maintaining an effective military, and providing good parenting than it is like administering medical or psychological interventions. (p. 331)
Teaching reading to older struggling students means paying attention to the full range of evidence on what these students need to grow as readers and writers.
Put the Right Books in Students’ Hands
More than anything, struggling readers need plenty of opportunities to read text that makes sense to them. Requiring students to spend most of their school time reading books that are too difficult makes it impossible for them to learn and to develop as readers (Allington, 2002).
Students should spend most of their school reading time with texts that they can read and want to read. Students tell us that when we give them interesting materials that they can read without too much difficulty, they will read (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001). Providing books that span the content areas, match students’ reading levels, and encompass a variety of formats and genres is nonnegotiable if we want struggling readers to improve.
In the past, some middle schools and high schools have been reluctant to consider providing easy reading materials out of concern that such materials were embarrassing to struggling readers or too light on content. But today, such companies as Scholastic (http://scholastic.com) and Wright Group (www.wrightgroup.com) have produced a plethora of nonfiction materials that are easy enough for beginning readers but interesting enough to engage even high school students. Teachers can also find annotated lists of high-quality trade books that span a range of difficulty levels. These lists have been compiled by professional teaching organizations from across the disciplines. The National Council for the Social Studies’s Notable Social Studies Books for Young People (www.socialstudies.org) and the National Science Teachers Association’s Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children (www.nsta.org) are two good examples. Content-area teachers will find many readable, interesting trade books that include important content to match curriculum standards.
Help Students Make Sense of Text
Struggling readers—and even those who have no difficulty reading—need ongoing explanations and discussions about the process of reading and how to make sense of what they read. But rather than assign fill-in-the-blank exercises or test-like passages followed by comprehension questions, teachers should describe the mental activities involved in making sense of text and encourage students to share the specific processes that they use to build their personal understandings of what they read.
For instance, while reading to her students about the digestion processes of owls from the book Exploding Ants: Amazing Facts About How Animals Adapt (Settel, 1999), one 7th grade teacher stopped to explain how she figured out the main points of the text:
I pay attention to words and phrases that the author repeats. In this passage, I noticed “spits up” and “regurgitating,” which mean the same thing, at the beginning and end of the paragraph. I think the author wants us to remember that owls digest the soft parts of their prey and spit up the hair and bones.
Good instruction in reading comprehension does not happen in a short unit of study or within an intensive reading program (Duffy, 2003; Fisher & Frey, 2004; Tovani & Keene, 2000). Rather, teaching about thoughtful reading should happen in every class and throughout the school year. Most important, it requires the expertise of the best reader in the classroom: the teacher.
Explore Words Within Real Reading and Writing
Some struggling readers need to think more about the structure of words. An interactive and connected approach, such as word study, enables students to manipulate key words from their reading and begin extending generalizations to unfamiliar words, thereby strengthening not only reading skills but also writing and spelling skills (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2003.) Instruction to facilitate word knowledge begins with high-interest, easy reading and pulls high-utility words directly from the pages of students’ current texts.
For instance, middle school or high school students still struggling to spell predictable long vowel patterns in one-syllable words can read popular fiction picture books, such as Chip Wants a Dog (Wegman, 2003) and Willy the Dreamer (Browne, 1998), or visual nonfiction texts, such as Fish Faces (Wu, 1993). Students work briefly with a teacher to investigate words with long vowel patterns found in these books. After grouping and recording the words according to their patterns, students examine the letter combinations that produce the long vowel sound in these words and also consider word meaning. Students then reread selected text, searching for additional words that fit the newfound patterns. Continued practice in using and writing the selected words, a process reinforced by students’ reading selections, strengthens and builds on this new understanding of long vowel patterns.
Ensure Teacher Time and Expertise
Solid evidence shows that teachers who succeed with lower-achieving readers spend most of their time working with individuals or small groups rather than in front of the class (Allington & Johnston, 2002; Taylor, Pearson, Clark, & Walpole, 2000). During these one-to-one times, teachers can observe and respond to students’ confusions about reading and also determine what works for individual students.
The most important and sophisticated kind of teaching requires knowledge of how to support students in the midst of reading to facilitate their perseverance and understanding. Struggling readers need this kind of teaching more than other students do. Unfortunately, struggling readers are the students most likely to experience reading and writing instruction through a workbook, on a computer program, or from the least trained teachers in the school.
Teachers in the upper elementary through secondary grades may wonder how they can find enough time to work with individual students. The times when the whole class is engaged in purposeful reading and writing provide a good opportunity for the teacher to devote time to students who struggle to get started.
For example, during free reading time in a 7th grade ESL language arts class, one teacher we observed sat next to a boy who had selected My Little Sister Ate One Hare (Grossman, 1998), a high-interest picture book that the teacher had recently read aloud to the class. As the student mumbled and skimmed through the pages, the teacher perceived that the text was too difficult for him to read independently. But he clearly found this book interesting, and he wanted to read it. Reacting immediately but thoughtfully, the teacher suggested that the student echo read with her—that is, the teacher read a line of text and the student repeated it. By the middle of the book, the student was reading in unison with the teacher. The next day he selected the same text and read it again enthusiastically—this time independently.
In a school that had adopted a phonics-based or phonemic awareness program, this student would be considered a prime candidate. But participating in something so far removed from real reading would never take him to the point where this knowledgeable teacher was able to take him. We cannot imagine a more direct or influential resource in helping struggling readers than a good teacher.
Asking the Right Questions
If you find yourself in the position of having to consider whether or not to adopt a reading program for your low-achieving older readers that emphasizes systematic phonics instruction, ask yourself these important questions: When I think about developing word knowledge in my older students, am I sure of what kinds of instruction really count and which students really need it? Do I know what it means to teach thoughtful reading of texts, and do I have enough trust in myself and in the teachers in my school to do it? Do my students get enough opportunities to read interesting materials that they can easily manage? Do students find any relevance in the reading and writing curriculum in my school?
We would love to believe that an intensive, six-week dose of phonics or phonemic awareness training could solve persistent reading problems. But our experience does not show that such specific interventions can help us grow competent, strategic, purposeful readers. We cannot afford to waste time, resources, and, most of all, teacher expertise on anything that distracts us from the meaningful support that will make a real difference for older struggling readers.