My family was involved in a rear in collision on the highway while returning family members to the airport after our Christmas vacation. The driver of an F-350 pickup plowed into the rear of our family van without ever hitting the brakes. Although the driver denies it, we think he was most likely texting his girlfriend who was driving behind him.Texting, reading and/or talking on the phone while driving can be deadly. Fortunately, we all walked away alive. The year 2019 could have started much differently for us. Please do not text, read, or even talk on your phone while you drive. Yes, I still advocate reading each and every day, but please do not read/text while you drive.
Learning to read is one of the vital stages of early childhood development. Reading also influences mental health and wellness. A child who cannot read is going to have problems in school and throughout life. About 85% of juvenile offenders in the court system are classified as “functionally illiterate” (National Center for Adult Literacy 2007). Reading failure is also classified as the main cause of overall academic failure. A student who cannot read cannot succeed in school or in life.
As Dr. Sally Shaywitz (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules” (p. 78). We have the knowledge, the research, and the ability to teach every single child across the nation to read, so why do we cling to failed teaching methods and force students to continue to fail in reading?
For the past 25 years, nationwide testing has clearly shown that over half of the children and teens in the United States cannot read at grade level by 4th or 8th grade. The Nation’s Report Card (NPC) (see my post of 1/2/2018) stated that only 37% of 4th graders and only 36% of 8th graders across the nation can read proficiently at grade level. That is less than half. The rest of the students were shown to not be able to read at their respective grade levels, and most of these students, 78%, never catch up (NCES 2016). When we link reading failure, retention, and dropping out of school before graduation, we have a serious problem that often leads to aggression, violence, and even crime, especially when you consider that 70% of American prison inmates cannot read above the 4th grade level (National Center for Adult Literacy 2007). Depression and anxiety often accompany academic failure and reading failure, mental health and wellness problems that begin in childhood can last a lifetime.
We owe it to children to use the most effective way to teach them to read, because when children fail to learn to read that failure increases the likelihood that they will drop out of school before graduation, have trouble finding jobs, or even get involved in criminal activity. As Michael Brunner (1993) of the Department of Justice clearly explained, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” We can change that because we can teach students to read. If we use the correct teaching methods, neuroimaging research proves that even children who have previously failed can be taught to read. Neuroimaging research shows that intensive training in phonemes (letter sounds) changes the “brain and the way it functions.” This change through phonemic awareness training allows even struggling at-risk students to make significant improvement in reading (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).
The word cat is a common example for teaching phonemic awareness. Neuroimaging research shows that it is much better to teach students to sound out the word cat (one letter sound at a time) than to teach students to memorize or simply recognize the word cat (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015).
The method that I use is vowel clustering. Vowel clustering incorporates phonemic and phonological awareness by teaching students to decode or break words down into letter sounds and then to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. Vowel clustering does not stop at simply decoding and encoding. Vowel clustering also teaches spelling, oral reading fluency, comprehension, and writing. Vowel clustering has been tested and proven to work with struggling, at-risk, and failing students (Clanton Harpine & Reid, 2009; click on the .pdf link). I’ll also be publishing a new study on Camp Sharigan in 2019 showing that students preparing for end of the year testing through Camp Sharigan outscored students who followed traditional test-prep methods. Camp Sharigan works.
I’ll be teaching a free training workshop on vowel clustering, January 26th at 10:00 AM in Corpus Christi, Texas. Come join us. I’m also starting a ten-part series here on vowel clustering. If you have questions, contact me. (Click the mail button on the top right.)
Most of us know of children or teens who are struggling to learn to read. Although reading failure is a major problem, it is not being solved. The Nation’s Report Card shows that 63% to 64% (depending on age group) of students in the United States are unable to read at their grade level in school. While politicians, community leaders, school administrators, and sometimes even teachers argue over the best way to help struggling students learn to read, students continue to fail. We have research supporting that we can teach almost every child to read. So why do we continue to argue, use methods that do not work, and make students suffer?
The free Camp Sharigan week-long reading program will be held later this month (Jan. 2019) in Corpus Christi. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Camp Sharigan is coming to Corpus Christi. St. John’s United Methodist Church at 5300 South Alameda Street in Corpus Christi (phone, 361-991-4342) will be hosting a FREE reading clinic for children in the first through third grade who need help in reading. Camp Sharigan is a weeklong reading clinic scheduled for January 28th through February 1st from 4:00 to 6:00 PM. Camp Sharigan will meet in the Community Life Building at St. John’s. This reading clinic is a part of the church’s outreach ministry to the community, but this is a nonreligious program. Any first through third grader may attend for free, but we can only accept 30 children at this time. The first 30 children who register will start for free on January 28th. Children must be registered by parents, and parents provide transportation. The focus is on teaching children how to read. The Camp Sharigan program has been to Tampa, Chicago, the Bronx, several sites in Ohio, Augusta GA, Aiken SC, and even Dallas Texas. The Camp Sharigan program is now coming to Corpus Christi. Register today; spaces fill quickly.
The Camp Sharigan program has undergone rigorous university testing and research proves that it is more effective than one-on-one tutoring. How is that possible? The Camp Sharigan program teaches vowel clustering. Research has shown that vowel clustering is much more effective than any whole language and/or phonics teaching methods. In a one-week test of the Camp Sharigan program, the Camp Sharigan children outscored children receiving one-on-one tutoring. One year later, from just the one-week camp, the Camp Sharigan children were still ahead of the one-on-one tutored students. Camp Sharigan is a new method that works, has undergone numerous tests, and can help any child improve reading scores.
What do we need from the community? Help us find 30 children who need help in reading. St. John’s will also provide a free training program on vowel clustering on Saturday January 26th at 10:00 AM in the Community Life Building at St. John’s UMC. We need 10 volunteers per day to help work with the children. Teachers, parents, seniors, and even teenagers may volunteer to work in this program. You do not need teaching experience. Everything is included in the program. If you would like to register a child for the reading clinic or if you would like to volunteer to work at the reading clinic (even for just one day), please call Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph. D. at 361-867-8040 or e-mail to email@example.com
If you live in or near Corpus Christi, Texas, come and join us, or, if you would like to come for the free training session and/or a reading clinic session, come and join us. It’s a great time to be in Corpus Christi. Also, check Dr. Clanton Harpine’s free reading blog at www.groupcentered.com
I hope that every single child receives at least one book this Christmas, but we need to realize that simply giving a child a book will not teach the child to read. There are several myths floating around about reading. Here are some of the most common myths and why they are wrong.
False Assumption: Some people believe that if we just read stories to children that children will automatically learn to read.
Fact: Reading and speaking are not the same. We learn to speak by listening to others, but we cannot learn to read by simply listening to someone else read, nor will simply listening to someone else read a story improve a child’s reading skills. Reading a child a story should be a daily activity and is one of the most wonderful ways that you can spend time with a child, but it will not teach a child to read. Neuroimaging research studies showing how the brain works while children are learning to read emphasizes that reading and speaking are different. For a child to learn to read, the child must be able to look at a word and decode the letters into sounds. It’s like handing you a book in French. If you cannot read French, then the pages of the book are filled with meaningless letters and words because you do not know how to decode the letters into the correct sounds. The same is true for children who have not been taught how to break down or decode the letter sounds used in English. As Sally Shaywitz explains, “In order to read, a child must ‘enter the language system;’ this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language…. tens of thousands of neurons carrying the phonological messages necessary for language… Connect to form the resonating networks that make skilled reading possible….” (pp. 59-68) (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003). Simply handing a child a book, while one of the best possible gifts, will not teach a child to read. Children must be taught to read; it is not automatic.
False Assumption: Some people believe that, if we insist that children memorize sight words, learn a certain number of new words each day, or preview sight words before trying to read, children will then just naturally learn to read.
Fact: The National Reading Panel conducted a study in 2000 and learned from their nationwide research of 100,000 teaching situations that any and all forms of whole language (memorizing word lists) and even old-style phonics were not effective ways to teach children to read. Why? The study stated that for children to learn to read effectively they must have “phonemic awareness.” Neither whole language nor old-style phonics teaches phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness means understanding letter sounds—not rules or a weekly list of words. Some children cannot memorize weekly word lists; therefore, they fail to learn to read if that is the only method taught in school. Research also shows that even children who can memorize weekly word lists in the early elementary grades often begin to struggle around third grade. These children begin to have reading and comprehension problems in third grade because it is impossible to memorize every single word. Children memorize the word list for the weekly test and then promptly forget the words after the test. Yet, even after neuroimaging research visually showed how sounding out the word c a t was better than teaching a child to memorize the word cat (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015), whole language continues to prevail. It has been conclusively proven that there is no advantage to using whole language. Yet, thousands of children are still being taught using whole language, “look-say,” or balanced literacy teaching methods.
False Assumption: Some people believe that if we just expose children to books or give them free books that this will teach children to read. One group went out and collected 1 million books to give to needy children.
Fact: A book is probably the best gift you can ever give to a child, but it will not teach children to read. The truth is that children cannot learn to read until they understand that every letter represents at least one sound and many letters represent several sounds. The letter a, for example, can use seven different sounds, which doesn’t seem too difficult until you realize that there are at least 22 different vowel and consonant combinations that can be used to make these seven sounds for just the letter a. Simply buying books does not teach letter-sound relationships. Words are stored as sounds, not words. We do not have a Rolodex of words in the brain. We learn new words by developing pathways in the brain that correspond to the articulation of letter sounds. Therefore, it becomes critical that we teach letter sounds. Phonemic awareness teaches letter sound relationships that focus on oral sounds, the same way the brain learns new sounds. Phonemic awareness and phonics are not the same, do not use the same teaching approach, and are not interchangeable terms. Phonemic awareness means that you are teaching students to break words down into letter sounds (decoding). Then, students learn to put those letter sounds back together and to pronounce or read the word (encoding). It’s a two-step process that does not involve memorizing word lists or phonics rules. Phonics and phonemic awareness are totally different teaching approaches. They both stress letter sounds, but that is where the similarity ends.
False Assumption: Still others believe that all we need to do is just get children excited about reading. They organize large pep rally style gatherings using costumed characters. They proceed to teach children cheers that tell how wonderful it is to learn to read. Sometimes they even read a story and give away free books.
Fact: Pep rallies are fine. Reading stories and giving away free books are wonderful, but these pep rally style gatherings do not actually teach the children how to read the books that they are given. A baby must learn how to pull up, balance, and take a step before the baby can have any hope of learning to walk. It’s a step-by-step process. Reading is much the same. Children must learn to read one step at a time. As Dr. Sally Shaywitz (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules.” (p. 78) We have the knowledge, the research, and the ability to teach every single child across the nation to read, so why do we cling to failed teaching methods and force students to continue to fail in reading?
See my 11/20/18 blog post for an explanation of why systematic phonics and whole language both fail.
A recent pro-phonics advocate asked if I could refrain from saying that phonics will leave struggling students failing in reading. No, I will not stop warning educators and policymakers that switching from “whole language” to phonics, even systematic phonics, is a mistake. First, I completely and totally agree that phonics is better than whole language. Almost anything is better than whole language. Whole language is the worst teaching method that we’ve ever created, but switching back to phonics is not the answer.
First, we do need to get rid of whole language now and forever more. Sceintific research has completely proven that whole language education is a failure, (Chessman et al., 2009; de Graaf et al., 2009; Foorman et al., 2015; Foorman, Breier, and Fletcher, 2003; Kuppen et al., 2011; Lyon, 1998; Oakhill and Cain, 2012; Rayner et al., 2001; Torgesen et al., 2001) and numerous neuroimaging studies (Keller & Just, 2009, Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008; Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015).
Second, we need to remember that phonics is not a new teaching method. Phonics has been around since 1690. The reason that whole language enthusiasts were able to embed the whole language concept into literacy ecucation was that phonics was leaving many students still failing in reading. Let’s look at some examples—then and now.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a person who is nearing retirement. This is a very successful person. While discussing retirement plans, my husband offered to loan a book that he had found particularly helpful. This very successful, skilled and intelligent man said, “I can’t read; I can only read very-easy-to-read books.” He then went on to explain that he had been in a pullout program at school from third grade to ninth grade that taught phonics. Obviously, it failed.
A 15-year-old student was brought to my reading clinic because the school had said, “she could never learn to read.” In middle school, she was given coloring book pages and shuffled off to the corner of the classroom. The school was using “balanced literacy” in the classroom, and the student had received one-on-one tutoring in systematic phonics from early elementary school to middle school. Again obviously, phonics failed. I taught the student to read in 3 ½ years using vowel clustering.
A very smart third grader came to my reading clinic. The student could not even read at the beginning kindergarten level. The student’s parents were college educated and had even paid for private systematic phonics tutoring. Balanced literacy from the classroom, pull-out small group phonics instruction during school, and even private one-on-one systematic phonics instruction failed to teach this student how to read. Again, using vowel clustering, I taught the student to read in one year.
These are just three examples; I have many others, but I selected these three examples because they tell how phonics failed across an approximately 60-year period. Two of the methods used “systematic phonics.” These are real people, and we owe these people and thousands more a teaching method that will not fail them. Systematic phonics is not that method.
Before we go further, let’s define phonics. The word “phonics” is used to describe many different teaching methods. First, I turn to a noted expert, Richard Nordquist, Ph. D. Nordquist defines phonics as: “A method of teaching reading based on the sounds of letters, groups of letters, and syllables is known as phonics.” Linnea C. Ehri (2003) adds to this definition by specifically defining systematic phonics:
“What is Systematic Phonics Instruction? Phonics is a method of instruction that teaches students correspondences between graphemes in written language and phonemes in spoken language and how to use these correspondences to read and spell words. Phonics instruction is systematic when all the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught and they are covered in a clearly defined sequence. This includes short and long vowels as well as vowel and consonant digraphs such as oi, ea, sh, th. Also it may include blends of letter-sounds that form larger subunits in words such as onsets and rimes.…
It is important that we all work from a common definition. I chose a definition from Ehri because she is a systematic phonics advocate. From examples of failure under phonics, to definition, to scientific research and findings from evidence-based research, let’s see what scientific research tells us. Let’s look at what the experts say:
I use vowel clustering, and it has worked for me. I just talked with two parents yesterday; they asked, “Do you really think he can learn to read? We’ve tried everything.” I smiled and said yes, “With vowel clustering, I can teach him to read, and with your permission, I will.”
Emily Hanford’s October 26 New York Times column claims that scientific research recommends using phonics-based teaching methods in reading education. She is correct that scientific reading research shows that whole language teaching methods are ineffective, but she is incorrect that scientific research supports explicit, systematic phonics instruction. What the research supports is teaching children to decode or break words down into letter sounds and then encode or put those sounds back together and pronounce or read the word. The question remaining is: What is the best way to teach children this letter-sound relationship?
One of the leading reading scientists, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a member of the 2000 National Reading Panel, explains in Overcoming Dyslexia that, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules” (p. 78).
Whole language, in all of its many forms, “balanced literacy,” Reading Recovery, and all “look say” approaches has been proven to be ineffective or as Louisa Moates, a scientist that Hanford mentions, says: “…it's harmful. So it's not just an argument about philosophy.” Whole language, which is indeed ineffective, is why the 2017 Nation’s Report Card found that 63% of 4th grade students were unable to read at grade level.
Yet, to return to phonics ignores the knowledge that scientists have discovered about how we learn to read. Phonics is not new; it has been around since 1690. The National Reading Panel agrees that “systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics [whole language].” They still found that “phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades” (p. 94).
As David A. Kilpatrick explains in Equipped for Reading Success, neuroimaging research shows that phonics does not teach letter-sound relationships in the same way that the brain processes them. Phonics focuses on the letters; the brain focuses on sounds. Shaywitz explains: “Today scientists can actually watch the brain as it works to read; scientists can actually track the printed word as it is perceived as a visual icon and then transformed into the sounds (phonemes) of language and simultaneously interpreted from the meaning that is stored within the brain” (pp. 59-68).
David Moreau’s study in Educational Psychology Review showed that the brain focuses on letter sounds. There are 26 letters in the alphabet and 40 different letter sounds (phonemes). Two hundred fifty letter combinations or spellings make these sounds. For example, the letter a uses seven different letter sounds but 22 different letter combinations to make those sounds. Phonics focuses on learning rules to predict these letter sounds. Phonemic awareness focuses on learning letter-sound relationships without rules. Sebastian P. Suggate’s 2016 study in the Journal of Reading Disabilities compared 71 phonemic awareness and phonics intervention groups. He showed that phonemic awareness had more long-term staying power than phonics, especially if the phonemic awareness training used letter-sound training.
Kilpatrick explains that the brain does not recognize and store words through visual memory—seeing the same word over and over or “look-say.” Instead, the brain creates an oral filing system. The brain does not file words by letter. Neither whole language or phonics works with the brain’s oral filing system. Students who cannot memorize whole language word lists cannot memorize phonics rules, especially rules for irregular letter sounds. If we go back to a phonics approach, we will leave many students failing in reading when we have the scientific knowledge to teach every student to read. Struggling students need educators to move forward, to read and understand what scientists are saying, and to use new scientific methods to help struggling students learn to read.
Phonics instruction usually starts by teaching the short vowel sounds for a, e, i, o, and u. Then, teaching the long vowel sounds for vowels by adding silent e, as with cake, tree, ice, tone, use. Yet, this causes an immediate problem. Seven different letter combinations can make the long a vowel sound: ea, ai, ay, ei, ey, eigh, and silent e—break, sail, pay, rein, they, eight, take. Of course, the letter a can also make the long a vowel sound standing alone, as with “apron.” When we teach students the long a sound using only silent e, then later introduce irregular vowel sounds, struggling students become confused.
Scientific research shows us how to teach children to read, but schools are not using those methods.
Someone asked me a few days ago why I feel so negative toward the movement to switch reading instruction from whole language to phonics. My reason: switching from whole language to phonics would mean we were switching from one failing teaching method (whole language) to another failing teaching method (phonics). I have explained throughout several blog posts why whole language is a failed teaching method [see 11-2-18, 9-28-18, 8-26-18, 8-18-18, 8-4-18]. I have shared the research. I have shared the research of experts who clearly state that whole language is a failure always has been and always will be.
I have also presented several experts and abundant research to show why phonics will not work. Phonics is also a failed teaching method. Research proves it. My question is: Why should we switch from one failed teaching method to another failed teaching method when they have both proven to be wrong? As Dr. Sally Shaywitz (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules.” (p. 78) We have the knowledge, the research, and the ability to teach every single child across the nation to read, so why do we cling to failed teaching methods and force students to continue to fail in reading?
It has been circulating throughout education that phonemic awareness is only about oral sounds. As a teacher said, “I was told that phonemic awareness is just teaching the children oral sounds.” Wrong. To teach phonemic awareness means that you are teaching students to break words down into letter sounds (decoding). Then, the student learns to put those letter sounds back together and pronounce or read the word (encoding). Phonemic awareness is a two-step process that does not involve memorizing word lists or rules; it is not the same as teaching phonics. When we teach phonemic awareness, we need to teach students phonemes (letter sounds) using letters instead of just oral sounds (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003).
“Teaching students to manipulate phonemes with letters yields larger effects than teaching students without letters, …. PA [phonemic awareness] training is more effective when children are taught to use letters to manipulate phonemes. This is because knowledge of letters is essential for transfer to reading and spelling” (National Reading Panel, 2000).
Phonemic awareness enables students to hear and recognize letter sounds, to match letter-sound relationships, and to decode and encode phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can be identified.
Neuroimaging research shows that intensive training in phonemes (letter sounds) changes the “brain and the way it functions.” This change through phonemic awareness training allows even struggling at-risk students to make significant improvement in reading (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).
The word cat is a common example for teaching phonemic awareness. Neuroimaging research shows that it is much better to teach students to sound out the word cat (one letter sound at a time) than to teach students to memorize or simply recognize the word cat (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015). The word cat has three distinct phonemes or sounds. Students need to break words into letter sounds, even with simple one-syllable words like cat. It is better to teach students to sound out each letter sound, one letter at a time, even for multisyllabic or compound words. There are no rules to learn when learning phonemic awareness, and students are never asked to guess at a word or to memorize a word list. Students are taught to break all words down into individual letter sounds (decode) and then put those letter sounds back together and read or pronounce the word (encode).
“In order to read, a child must ‘enter the language system;’ this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language…. tens of thousands of neurons carrying the phonological messages necessary for language… Connect to form the resonating networks that make skilled reading possible….” (pp. 59-68) (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003)
After studying over 100,000 programs, the National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that lack of phonemic awareness was a major cause of reading failure. The NICHD identified lack of phonemic awareness as the primary cause of reading failure (Lyon, 1998). Several of the field’s leading researchers have declared that it is absolutely necessary to teach phonemic awareness if we are to correct reading failure (Chessman et al., 2009; de Graaf et al., 2009; Foorman et al., 2015; Foorman, Breier, and Fletcher, 2003; Kuppen et al., 2011; Lyon, 1998; Oakhill and Cain, 2012; Rayner et al., 2001; Torgesen et al., 2001) and numerous neuroimaging studies (Keller & Just, 2009, Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008; Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015) have each shown that teaching phonemic awareness is the way to correct reading failure.
In response to my last blog post about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), I received a question from a parent: “Do you think Adderall is dangerous? My son does so much better when he is on Adderall.” Many children, teenagers, and adults respond positively when first placed on a stimulant such as Adderall. The real questions are: (1) Is Adderall safe? (2) Is it harmful, and (3) Are there other actions that can be taken rather than prescribing stimulants such as Adderall? The answers are that Adderall is not safe, and yes, it is harmful. Read an unbiased source that clearly states that Adderall is addictive and can have very serious side effects, especially with long-term use.
What I find interesting is that the drug leaflet says not to use it for “severe anxiety, tension, or agitation (stimulant medicine can make these symptoms worse).” Most children diagnosed with ADHD are placed on Adderall because of anxiety, agitation, and not being able to focus.
The point that I’m trying to make is that there are many alternatives for ADHD other than drugs. I mentioned several in my 10-3-18 blog post. Before you decide to use Adderall or other ADHD medications, check the facts. Do not simply trust a doctor or the school when they say that Adderall is safe. Notice at best, Adderall prescribers say, “safe for short-term use.” Yet, many children are placed on Adderall for years
The abuse of Adderall is becoming a major nationwide concern. There is even a new documentary film available through Netflix talking about Adderall addiction. What happens when ADHD patients are taken off of ADHD meds? Remember, Adderall is an addictive drug and in some cases, it can lead to street drugs. The connection between ADHD meds and meth is truly frightening.
So, in answer to the parent’s question:
· No, Adderall is not safe, not even short-term, says Dr. Sanford C. Newmark, M. D.
· Yes, Adderall can be harmful and can have long-term life-long side effects. As Kelly Patricia O’Meara with the CCHR, a Mental Health Watchdog agency, states: “there is not now, nor has there ever been, any medical or scientific test to show that any child diagnosed “ADHD” is suffering from a medical condition requiring drugs to ‘treat’ it.”
· Yes, there are effective non-drug treatments for ADHD (see my 10-3-18 blog).
Why is ADHD a concern in reading failure? Because many children diagnosed with ADHD are also diagnosed with reading failure. Adderall and other ADHD meds are not the answer to reading failure. Children with reading failure will not automatically start reading if you place them on Adderall or other ADHD medications. The only way to correct reading failure is to “train the brain” by teaching children how to decode (break words down into letter sounds) and encode (put those sounds back together and pronounce and read the word).
"As we move into October, many school children are being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). For a good definition of ADHD, see the WebMD article.
Often such students cannot remain seated at their desks, stay focused on the class assignment, finish their seat work, or have other behavioral or impulsive actions. The question then arises, does my child need to go on medication for ADHD? Some will tell you yes; others say no.
National Public Radio (NPR) presented a program in which they tried to explain the different drugs being prescribed and their side effects:
1. Amphetamines like Adderall and Vyvanse are addictive and may cause insomnia, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and/or seizures.
2. Concerta, Ritalin, Metadate, Daytrana, and Quillivant (methlphenidates) may cause insomnia, aggression, mood swings, behavior changes, twitching, and even shaking.
3. Many argue that such drugs carry too high a risk for children. As Kelly Patricia O’Meara with the CCHR, a Mental Health Watchdog agency, states: “there is not now, nor has there ever been, any medical or scientific test to show that any child diagnosed “ADHD” is suffering from a medical condition requiring drugs to ‘treat’ it.”
O’Meara goes on to quote the Department of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in connection with Boston Children’s Hospital, who concluded from their research that the clinical trials for drugs presently approved for ADHD have not been tested for long-term effects or safety. O’Meara continues by citing the research report:
“Literally millions of children have been prescribed ADHD drug ‘treatments’ with virtually little to no understanding of the long-term safety or efficacy of the drugs. According to the information given in the study, two thirds of the 6.4 million American children (including 10,000 toddlers) diagnosed with the alleged ADHD are nothing short of a fraudulent life-threatening drug experiment.”
O’Meara also explains that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified “more than 17,000 adverse reactions connected to ADHD drugs.” Some of these drug effects can include abnormal heart rate or rhythm, depression, hallucinations, insomnia or trouble sleeping, anger and violence, seizures, stunted growth, stroke, and, in rare cases, even death.
So, why do we medicate children, even toddlers, for ADHD?
I have tried to compile a list of websites for parents and teachers to refer to in answering this question. I intentionally avoided any sites supported by pharmaceutical companies. I want parents to evaluate the decision without the economic incentive put forth through research supported by pharmaceutical companies. In other words, if your research is supported by a drug company, it’s biased. Let’s face it, pharmaceutical companies do not support research that does not show a positive result for medicating students, but there are alternatives.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common neurobehavioral disorder diagnosed for children, and ADHD meds are a billion-plus big-money industry, some estimates say as much as $13 billion a year. This was reported in the news:
“Last year, Shire Pharmaceuticals, which makes Adderall, settled with the Department of Justice for more than $50 million based, in part, on allegations that it marketed its ADHD based on unsupported claims that it would prevent, say, poor academic performance.”
There is absolutely no research that supports that placing children on ADHD medication will help them learn, read, or perform better in the classroom. If someone tells you that, then request to see the research. Then check to make sure that the research was not paid for by a pharmaceutical company. One book that gives the most comprehensive discussion of meds and ADHD is by Stephen Hinshaw and Richard Scheffler (2014): The ADHD Explosion: Myths, Medication, Money, and Today’s Push for Performance. Check your library.
A good on-line source is from Dr. Sanford C. Newmark, M. D. Dr. Sanford states:
“There are at least three very good reasons for not jumping straight to medications.
1) "The research evidence so far supports only the fact that stimulant medications (the mainstay of ADHD treatment) work well over the short term, about 70% of the time. The long-term research we have so far — and there is very little of it — fails to show long-term benefit. In fact, the largest long term study showed that the benefits of medication noted after one year disappear by a three-year follow-up.
2) "There are significant side effects in many children. Some are clear physical and psychological effects like hallucinations, tics, and weight loss. There are also more subtle effects, like low-grade depression or a ‘loss of joy.’ I have had many parents tell me the medication was working but he or she ‘just wasn't my child.’
3) "We don't know what the long-term effects of stimulant medication are on the developing brain. When psychotropic medications, which have significant effects on neurotransmitter balance, are given to a developing brain, there is going to be an effect on how that brain develops. Although we know that there do not seem to be dramatic long-term effects, like kidney or liver damage or psychosis, there is really no research on subtler effects…. The next logical question is whether there are effective non-pharmaceutical interventions for ADHD? The answer is an unequivocal yes.”
Two other good on-line sources of information on the dangers of ADHD medications are the Harvard Mental Health Letter and Jane Collingwood on Psych Central.
Since there are alternatives, as Dr. Sanford states, let’s explore some of those alternatives.
1. Children diagnosed with ADHD need programs that emphasize step-by-step procedures and active hands-on learning.
2. Classroom interventions should stress intrinsic motivation (no reward or incentive programs).
3. Programs with a social skills component (interaction with others) are typically more successful, while programs consisting mostly of homework help and recreational activities do not improve student grades or ADHD behavior.
4. Working alone does not teach children how to control their ADHD behavior. They learn best in a group setting.
5. Children diagnosed with ADHD must learn self-management skills in a group setting in order for such retraining to be effective and transfer back to the classroom.
I conducted a 2009-2010 study with students from the schools who had been diagnosed with ADHD. Some were on meds, some were not, but the children on ADHD medication sent to my reading clinic were sent because they were failing in reading and uncontrollable in the classroom. The medication was not working. Before I could teach the students to read, I had to teach them how to work together and follow classroom instructions. For example, the children painted a puppet stage. This was a group activity at my reading clinic, and I carefully controlled the painting session. A piece of cloth was spread out on top of the table. Everyone sat around the table in a circle and was given the opportunity to paint one at a time with washable tempera paint. The desired behavior was to wait for your turn. I didn’t care about their painting skills. I wanted cooperative behavior. I did not use reprimands, punishments, or rewards. I stressed only intrinsic motivation: no prizes, no rewards, only praise when a child took a turn correctly. If children weren’t in their seats or quietly waiting for their turn, the game rule was to skip and go to the next person. We always came back around the circle, and even fidgety students soon learned to sit quietly for their turn. Each child was given an assignment: six blades of grass, three trees, or a specific flower. There was no competition. Simple painting skills were demonstrated as needed, but the object was not the painting. Yet, the children were very excited about the puppet stage they created. I ended the session with a free painting time by giving each of the children a piece of paper and the opportunity to paint whatever they would like. The only rule during the free painting time was to share paint and space on the table, while working together. This exercise was so successful that I have repeated it with many groups. It can be used with one individual student or with a group of students—any age. For more information about this activity, see my book Group-Centered Prevention Programs for At-Risk Students (2011).
Another suggestion is listed in the Prevention Corner column of The Group Psychologist newsletter and speaks directly for teachers, community workers, or parents working with children in a group setting. Read the column on page 20 of the newsletter for suggestions.
Don’t simply turn to meds because it’s the easiest option. Consider the damage drugs can do. Explore behavioral options. After-school programs that emphasize group interaction as we do at my reading clinic are perfect for students diagnosed with ADHD behaviors.
"This is Part 3 of my series on phonics. Throughout this series, I have presented research by reading experts who state that neither whole language nor phonics can be enough to solve the reading problems that our schools face today. As Dr. Sally Shaywitz (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains, “Children do not learn to read by memorizing a word list. Most children, especially those who struggle in reading, do not learn to read by memorizing phonics rules.” (p. 78) Struggling, at-risk students who are failing need more. We have a reading failure rate of 63-64% (depending on the age group) [see my blog post of 1-2-2018]. What else should we do?
First: Completely and Totally Abolish Whole Language from the Schools
The National Reading Panel (National Reading Panel, 2000) was created to end the battle over whether whole language or phonics was a better method for teaching children to read. After reviewing over 100,000 studies, the NRP concluded that systematic phonics was better than whole language. Yet, even after neuroimaging research visually showed how sounding out the word c a t was better than teaching a child to memorize the word cat (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015), whole language continues to prevail. It has been conclusively proven that there is no advantage to using whole language. Yet, thousands of children started school this fall and are still being taught using whole language, “look-say,” or balanced literacy teaching methods. Reading Recovery, which uses whole language methods, is also still being used even though it has been proven to be ineffective. As reading specialist Dr. Louisa Moates explains,
“ I would refuse to allow my child to be in a Reading Recovery lesson because all the instruction is directing their attention away from what they should be paying attention to. It's just not OK, it's harmful. So it's not just an argument about philosophy” (Moates, 2000).
It has been proven that whole language contributes to reading failure, especially with at-risk students. It has also been demonstrated that meaning and context are not lost when students focus on “print to sound” strategies (Taylor et al., 2017). As Dr. Michael Pressley (2006) explained, "At best, much of whole-language thinking...is obsolete, and at worst, much of it never was well informed about children and their intellectual development." (p. 23). Students do not learn to read simply by being exposed to the printed page. They must be taught decoding and encoding along with letter sounds to learn to read.
The National Council of Teachers of English in 2014 openly promoted whole language (NCTE, 2014). They now use the term literacy, but as many whole language advocates have concluded,
“To us the principles underpinning the word literacy were similar but did not bring with it the negative connotations … whole language is still with us, strongly embedded in current curriculum, pedagogy and assessment strategies. Adversaries of whole language still complain that the term whole language may not be used however the philosophy is alive and well in each state system” (Cambourne & Turbill, 2007, p. 23, 25).
If your student brings home a list of words to memorize each week and tries to guess when they do not know a word, you are still locked into whole language. We need to once and for all banish every form of whole language from reading curriculum.
Second: We Shouldn’t Try to Revive Phonics; It Doesn’t Work for At-Risk Students
The phonics advocates are now marching up and down and saying “only” phonics will work. The truth is that even though phonics is certainly more effective than whole language, both phonics and whole language leave many students lost, struggling, and failing. As the National Reading Panel (National Reading Panel, 2000) concluded, “…systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics [whole language]…. However, phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance of low-achieving readers in 2nd through 6th grades….” (p. 94). Phonics does not work for many students. The same students who cannot memorize word lists, cannot memorize phonics rules. I work with low-achieving students, struggling at-risk students, students who have failed for multiple years. My students need something more effective than whole language or phonics. Phonics is more effective than whole language, but phonics is not enough. So simply stating that we are switching to phonics, even a “new phonics,” will not solve reading failure. We need a program that works for all students.
I’m also concerned about the switch to phonics because research shows that phonics has had long term difficulties. Remember, phonics is not a new approach; it has been around since 1690. In 2016, a comparison study between 71 phonemic awareness and phonics intervention groups showed that phonemic awareness had more long-term “staying power” than phonics, especially if the phonemic awareness training incorporated letter-sound training (Suggate, 2016). [see my blog posts from 9-10-16, and 6-23-17 for more research evidence on phonemic awareness]
So, let’s explore phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is when a child sees the word cat and immediately begins to break the word down into individual phonemes or sounds. Phonemic awareness teaches students to break words down into letter sounds (decode) and then put those sounds back together to pronounce or read the word (encode) (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003).Phonemic awareness is more effective than phonics and whole language combined, but phonemic awareness, as it is presently being taught in the schools, is also not enough to correct reading failure. [for clarification on the terms phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and phonics see my blog post of 8-4-18] We need more.
Third: Emphasize That Phonemic Awareness Is More Than Simply Oral Sounds.
We need to teach phonemic awareness instead of whole language and phonics, and we need to teach phonemic awareness connected to letters. Some people contend that phonemic awareness is only about oral sounds; unfortunately, that’s not true. The National Reading Panel (like many other researchers) clearly state:
"Teaching students to manipulate phonemes with letters yields larger effects than teaching students without letters, …. PA [phonemic awareness] training is more effective when children are taught to use letters to manipulate phonemes. This is because knowledge of letters is essential for transfer to reading and spelling." (National Reading Panel, 2000)
Therefore, when we teach phonemic awareness, we need to teach students phonemes using letters instead of just oral sounds. Dr. Sally Shaywitz (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003) explains,
"Today scientists can actually watch the brain as it works to read; scientists can actually track the printed word as it is perceived as a visual icon and then transformed into the sounds (phonemes) of language and simultaneously interpreted from the meaning that is stored within the brain …. In order to read, a child must “enter the language system;” this means that the child must activate and use the brain circuits that are already in place for oral language…. tens of thousands of neurons carrying the phonological messages necessary for language… Connect to form the resonating networks that make skilled reading possible…. If the … neural system necessary for phonologic analysis is somehow miswired…. [then] …we would expect to observe variations in varying degrees of reading difficulty." (pp. 59-68)
Words are stored as sounds, not words. We do not have a rolodex of words in the brain. We learn new words by developing pathways in the brain that correspond to the articulation of letter sounds. Therefore, it becomes critical that we teach letter sounds. Students need schools to start teaching phonemic and phonological awareness. Phonemic awareness teaches letter sound relationships that focus on oral sounds, the same way the brain learns new sounds.
Phonemic awareness and phonics are not the same, do not use the same teaching approach, and are not interchangeable terms. Phonemic awareness and phonics are totally different. Phonemic awareness means that you are teaching students to break words down into letter sounds (decoding). Then, putting those letter sounds back together and pronouncing or reading the word (encoding). It’s a two-step process, does not involve memorizing word lists or rules, and is not the same as teaching phonics. Phonics and phonemic awareness are totally different teaching approaches. They both stress letter sounds, but that is where the similarity ends.
Phonemic awareness with letter-sound training is the foundation of my vowel clustering teaching method. Group-centered prevention provides a safe and corrective learning atmosphere. Vowel clustering teaches students to read using a completely and totally new and different approach for learning to read. Vowel clustering stresses phonemic and phonological awareness, not phonics. All of my reading programs teach phonemic awareness (learning letter sounds) and phonological awareness (learning to work with letter sounds) through vowel clustering. Vowel clustering emphasizes decoding, encoding, handwriting, fluency, vocabulary, spelling, writing, and comprehension.
So, if phonemic awareness is more effective with at-risk struggling students (Foorman et al., 2015), why do we still cling to whole language and phonics teaching methods? Why do the schools refuse to teach phonemic awareness?
Will adding phonics onto whole language (“blended literacy”) correct the staggering number of students who are failing in reading nationwide? No, whole language will never be effective. It is simply wrong and has been proven to be wrong for over 20 years (National Reading Panel, 2000).
Will straight phonics work? Phonics is an old concept, not a new idea. Phonics education was first introduced in schools in 1690 with the New England Primer. The effectiveness of phonics depends on how you teach phonics. At present, phonics instruction is so entangled and the term so over-generalized that I do not use it. If you read a study or teaching technique, you must first know exactly what kind of phonics is being advocated before you can tell whether it is likely to be effective or not.
Some studies overstate the case for phonics. One such article is “Ending the Reading Wars” by Anne Castles and her colleagues (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018). They state: “We present a comprehensive tutorial review of the science of learning to read….” (p. 5) That sounds excellent, just what we need, but they completely ignore all of the neuroimaging studies -- the latest scientific research on reading, such as (Keller & Just, 2009; Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008; Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2004; Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015). So, be careful, yes, it is normal to place your theory in the best possible light, but it will not help children learn to read if we overstate the case. Another research piece coming out of Australia is from Kerry Hempenstall, “Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading (2016). This gives a more comprehensive and accurate description of phonics than the Castles article. If you want a good reference on phonics, I recommend reading Hempenstall’s work. Still, Hempenstall does not discuss neuroimaging research on reading. If phonics enthusiasts want to lead the way in reading, using scientific research, they must stop ignoring neuroimaging research in reading.
Being able to watch children’s brains as they learn to read offers a whole new wealth of knowledge to the reading wars. Phonics is better than whole language. Unfortunately, even at best, phonics education will still leave most struggling, at-risk students in the failing category (Kilpatrick, 2016). Why? Phonics does not teach letter-sound relationships in the same way that the brain processes letter-sound associations. This is what the neuroimaging research is showing us. Phonics focuses on the letter; the brain focuses on sounds.
Today’s struggling students deserve the very best we can offer in the classroom. It is not enough to trade whole language for phonics. Students need more. In his book Equipped for Reading Success, David A. Kilpatrick (2016) gives one of the clearest and easiest to understand explanations for how the brain processes and learns letter-sounds. Kilpatrick explains that the brain does not recognize and store words through visual memory—seeing the same word over and over or “look say.” The brain recognizes and stores new words in memory by sound. The brain creates an “oral filing system.” The brain does not file words by letter. Sound sequences are the way that the brain stores and matches sounds. The brain strings letter sounds together, especially vowel sounds. The brain does not store “whole words” (Kilpatrick, 2016). Whole language stresses whole words not letter sounds. We do not have the ability to store whole words by memory in the brain. The brain stores words phonologically by sound.
This is why whole language and all of its various varieties remain useless for teaching students to read; whole language works against the brain. Students fail. Yes, some students learn to read under the whole language system. Some students will learn to read regardless of the method that you use, but 63% or 64% (depending upon the age group), according to the Nation’s Report Card (2017) have not learned to read at their respective grade level. This tells us that whole language is a failure, not the children, not the teachers, it is clearly whole language and any school that uses whole language or any publisher who publishes and distributes whole language curriculum that is the failure. It needs to stop—now. Whole language has hurt enough students. We must get rid of it. Whole language causes students to fail in reading. We’ve known this for years (Foorman, 1995).
Neuroimaging research directly compared whole language and phonemic awareness; whole language failed; phonemic awareness techniques were successful (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015). The proof is in the neuroimaging pictures (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2004). The superiority of phonological awareness has been proven study after study (Keller & Just, 2009). Neuroimaging research showed that intensive training in phonemes (letter sounds) changed the “brain and the way it functions.” This change through phonemic awareness training allowed even struggling at-risk students to make significant improvement in reading (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).
How much proof do the schools need? No, tacking on phonics this fall will not make whole language education work. Students will continue to fail as long as schools continue using whole language.
Switching to phonics is also not the answer. Schools absolutely must teach letter sound relationships—phonemic awareness. Phonics, like whole language, still focuses on whole words. Phonics, unlike whole language, does teach letter sound relationships, but the emphasis is on the letter and the word—not the oral letter sounds. I learned to read in the 50’s with phonics, and some children will learn with phonics who did not learn through whole language. The students need more. Children need a system that will allow all students to learn.
Vowel clustering teaches both phonemic and phonological awareness by teaching children to decode and encode letter sounds in order to read words (Clanton Harpine, 2008). All of my reading programs teach phonemic awareness (learning letter sounds) and phonological awareness (learning to work with letter sounds). Phonemic awareness teaches children to recognize that letters of the alphabet represent sounds. Phonological awareness teaches children to work with letter sounds to build multisyllable and compound words. Vowel clustering teaches students to decode or break words down into letter sounds and then to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. Vowel clustering has been tested and proven to work with all students, including struggling, at-risk, and failing students.
In my reading clinic, I have worked with children who had failed multiple years and had even been retained.
Unfortunately, most students return to the classroom this fall to whole language. Yes, each fall, most schools tack on something new. The change that is coming for most schools this year is adding phonics onto whole language—“balanced literacy.” Phonics is not a new teaching method and neither is “balanced literacy.” Some schools have already made the switch to “balanced literacy.” Balanced literacy is also a failure. So, the schools that are saying, “we’ve added phonics” are still going to fail. Schools cannot and will not be able to teach struggling at-risk students to read by merely tacking on phonics. Students need a complete and total change in teaching methods.
In Part 3 of this discussion on phonics, I’ll look at what we could do if we focused teaching reading with methods grounded on phonemic awareness principles.
As teachers and students start gearing up to head back to school this fall, the Internet is buzzing with advice. Be careful. There is a lot of bad advice, advice that is not research-based or advice that has not been tested with at-risk and struggling students. Examples are the ones that say, “teach your two-year old to read.” Yes, there are probably some children who may learn to read at two years of age, but that is not the norm, nor should you fall for such nonsense. There’s also, “teach your child to read in 10 easy lessons.” Some children may learn to read in 10 easy lessons—but not all. Remember, anyone can post anything on the Internet. Look at their research. If they do not list rock-solid research findings, I’d be suspicious.
Teaching a student to read is hard work. Learning to read as a student is hard work. If someone is telling you that they can teach any child to read in 10 easy lessons, you want to be very cautious of such claims. I have been teaching at-risk students to read for over 17 years. It takes more than 10 easy lessons. Yes, we can teach at-risk students to read. If we use the correct teaching methods, I believe all students can learn to read. Research has also proven that the teaching methods that we are using in the classroom are the main cause of reading failure—not teachers, but the teaching methods (Foorman et al., 2015).
Will the new school year bring change? There is always change. The problem with change is that the changes implemented in the schools are often incorrect or ineffective changes. Therefore, reading failure continues, children and teens continue to struggle and suffer, and real constructive change never reaches the school classroom.
For example, we are seeing “phonics” mentioned more often. Many schools are claiming that they are using phonics. There are approximately 6 different types of phonics being used; so, the questions that you want to ask are: What kind of phonics instruction are you using? Do you teach decoding and encoding with your phonics instruction? Is there any research to show that the type of phonics that you are teaching helps improve reading scores? Or, are you using “balanced literacy?”
“Balanced literacy” is actually the disproven whole language approach with some phonics tacked on (Moates, 2000). Balanced literacy has been proven ineffective; it doesn’t work (Foorman et al., 2003). Yet, many schools claim to be using “balanced literacy.” It sounds nice; but, unfortunately, it is ineffective
Phonics is defined as knowing letter-sound relationships. Knowing and understanding letter sounds is essential for effective reading. The problem is the way you teach these letter sound relationships. There are many phonics methods being advertised [see my previous blog on the confusion on phonics’ teaching methods 7-9-17]:
Whole language works against the brain’s natural mental processes. Whole language focuses on the whole word and has been proven over and over not to work.
Simply saying that your school includes phonics instruction is also not the complete answer to reading failure. It depends on how the school teaches phonics.
Schools must do more. Schools must also recognize that phonics does not work for all at-risk, struggling students. Phonics focuses on letters. The brain focuses on sound relationships (Kilpatrick, 2016). See the upcoming next post of this blog for a better understanding of why simply tacking on phonics will not help teach children to read.
A Twitter user asked me to clarify the terms phonemic awareness and phonological awareness. I am happy to explain, because yes, I know that these terms can be confusing. Yet, teachers will encounter these two words, and they need to understand them.
Phonemic awareness is when a child sees the word cat and immediately begins to break the word down into individual phonemes or sounds. Phonemic awareness teaches students to break words down into letter sounds (decode) and then put those sounds back together to pronounce or read the word (encode) (see Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003).
Phonological awareness is when the child sees the word cat, breaks the word down into letter sounds, can pronounce the word, and can then take that knowledge and work with it. This may mean that the student can manipulate the word cat by adding or subtracting letters to make new words: can, cattle, calf. The student can break words into syllables. This also means that the student knows what the word means and can use that word in a sentence (for a complete description of phonemic and phonological awareness see Kilpatrick, 2016).
So, phonemic awareness is the identification or decoding and encoding of letter sounds. It is part of phonological awareness, which is the ability to work with letter sounds, to build new words from a common letter sound (particularly vowel sounds), and to break words into syllables.
Now, what is phonics? Phonics methods emphasize the letter rather than the sound. Phonics education starts with the letter. With phonemic and phonological awareness, you start with the oral sound and build toward the letter and the word. Phonemic and phonological awareness give us a totally different teaching method that evidence shows to be superior to teaching the old-style phonics approach.
Phonemic awareness, phonological awareness and phonics are not the same, nor do they use the same teaching methods. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness, but phonics education is an entirely different approach to teaching letter sounds.
Phonics is a means of teaching the relationship between letters and sounds. The emphasis is on letters or groupings of letters. There are between 4 to 6 different approaches used for teaching phonics. Of these 6 different phonics teaching techniques, systematic phonics is the only phonics method that has shown any success in teaching children to read. Unfortunately, research also shows that systematic phonics leaves many students confused (Hempenstall, 2016; click on the .pdf link).
Systematic phonics instruction entails the direct teaching of letter-sound relationships and uses a specific sequence or learning pattern. Research shows systematic phonics instruction to be the most effective phonics method, but be careful. There are many different approaches for teaching systematic phonics. To be effective, systematic phonics must teach decoding and encoding instead of memorization or a list of rules.
Personally, I have completely stopped using the word “phonics” because the word is being used so many different ways—many of which represent ineffective teaching methods. Instead, I use only phonemic and phonological awareness and vowel clustering.
Phonemic awareness describes when students are taught to hear and recognize letter sounds, identify letter-sound relationships, and decode and encode phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can be identified.
The word cat is a common example for teaching phonemic awareness. Neuroimaging research shows that it is much better to teach students to sound out the word cat (one letter sound at a time) than to teach students to memorize or simply recognize the word cat. The word cat has three distinct phonemes or sounds. Students need to break words into letter sounds, even a simple one syllable word like cat. It is better to teach students to sound out each letter sound, one letter at a time, even for multisyllabic or compound words. There are no rules to learn when learning phonemic awareness, and students are never asked to guess at a word or to memorize a word list. Students are taught to break all words down into individual letter sounds (decode) and then put those letter sounds back together and read or pronounce the word (encode).
Phonological awareness incorporates many skills, including phonemic awareness. Phonological awareness also teaches letter sounds and includes breaking words into syllables. This is very important when the student is ready to learn multisyllable words or compound words. Phonological awareness teaches students to work with words. Students can be taught to add or take letters away to make new words: the word at can be changed to the word am by taking the letter t away and adding the letter m. This is a simple example, but the same is true with more complex words: back, black, sack, stack, act, actor, acrobat. Building new words with a common vowel sound helps students visualize how words are formed. Some people will tell you that phonological awareness is just about sound and does not involve alphabet letters or words—wrong. Phonological awareness teaches the relationship between letters and spoken sounds. Yes, phonological awareness involves working with the actual written word, breaking the word down into letter sounds, and then understanding how to use that word to express ideas.
Vowel clustering incorporates phonemic and phonological awareness by teaching students to decode or break words down into letter sounds and then to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. Vowel clustering does not stop at simply decoding and encoding. Vowel clustering also teaches spelling, oral reading fluency, comprehension, and writing. Vowel clustering has been tested and proven to work with struggling, at-risk, and failing students (Clanton Harpine & Reid, 2009; click on the .pdf link).
Vowel clustering teaches both phonemic and phonological awareness by teaching children to decode and encode letter sounds in order to read words (Clanton Harpine, 2011).
Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph.D.
Elaine is a program designer with many years of experience helping at-risk children learn to read. She earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology (Counseling) from the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.