Many teachers and parents bring students to my reading clinics saying just those words. When you consider that reading scores just dropped another 5 points (Remember, scores dropped 2 points in 2019 before COVID.) and that more than 60% of students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade cannot read at the proficiency level, it is no wonder that teachers, parents, tutors, and students are frustrated about reading failure.
As the young teacher asked, what should we do?
Neuroimaging scientific research says that, to teach students to read, teaching methods must connect with the oral language system.
For more on the Nation’s Report Card scores, see: The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the first set of scores for 2022. They are not good. What does that mean for children in the classroom?
In Part 1 of this series, we are looking at what science has to say about the role of the oral language system in teaching students to read.
Since schools and the Internet are buzzing with talk about what scientific research says about teaching reading, let’s start by looking at some actual scientific research findings.
Scientific Research on Reading
The oral language system is how we communicate verbally (spoken rather than written). We use spoken words to explain what we know, the information that we have learned. We also use oral language to express ideas, opinions, and beliefs. Oral language also includes the way we express our emotions and feelings, and how we interpret meaning. Oral language is not written; it is derived from vocal sounds and from our oral communication experiences. For example, a toddler can communicate orally and understand your oral communication, but most toddlers cannot read. Reading is not something children learn naturally just by listening to others read. Reading is a skill that must be taught.
Dr. Sally Shaywitz, M. D., author of Overcoming Dyslexia, who specializes in working with struggling students and students diagnosed with dyslexia, says that,
“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).
We activate the oral language system that Dr. Shaywitz mentioned by the way we teach letter-sound relationships.
As Dr. Shaywitz goes on to explain, “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)
Therefore, if you are teaching in the classroom or tutoring a student, you must use teaching methods that actually connect with the oral language system, otherwise your teaching and tutoring will not be effective, especially for those who struggle the most in reading.
Do phonics and whole language connect with the oral language system?
No, they do not. Whole language does not teach letter sound relationships at all, and phonics focuses on letters rather than sounds. Therefore, neither of these methods connects with the oral language system. Let’s look at some actual scientific research.
In his book, , Equipped for Reading Success, David A. Kilpatrick explains why.
“Most people assume that words are stored in visual memory. Many teaching approaches [phonics and whole language] presume this. We assume that if students see the words enough, they will learn them. This is not true. Children with reading problems often cannot remember new words, even after many exposures.” (pp. 29-30).
Why does whole language not connect with the oral language system?
Whole language focuses on “look-say” techniques and learning sight words.
Whole language stresses whole words not letter sounds. Therefore, whole language does not connect with the oral language system.
We do not have a rolodex of words indexed in our brains. The brain does not have the ability to store whole words. The brain only stores words by sound.
We’ll talk more about how the brain records and stores sounds in Part 2, but if you’d like more information, read: How the Brain Sorts Out Speech Sounds
For now, we’ll stay focused on the oral language system.
Scientific research in reading has tested the superiority of teaching letter sounds vs. teaching memorization of whole words. Neuroimaging scientific research directly compared whole language and teaching letter sounds or phonemes.
Yoncheva, Wise, and McCandliss (2015) conducted a study using the word cat:
“… teaching students to sound out ‘C-A-T’ sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word ‘cat.’ [thereby concluding that] “… different instructional approaches to the same material may impact changes in brain circuitry.”
This neuroimaging research study showed 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 proof is in the neuroimaging pictures. Neuroimaging scientific research directly compared whole language and teaching letter sounds. Whole language failed; it doesn’t connect. Teaching letter sounds connected to the oral language system and was very successful.
Even though the word cat only has three distinct phonemes or sounds, students still need to break it into letter sounds. Yes, this is true even for simple one-syllable words like cat. It is better to teach students to sound out each letter sound, one letter at a time than to memorize or try to teach through repetition. Sounding out letter sounds becomes essential for multisyllabic or compound words.
There are no rules to learn when learning phonemes and sounds, 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 or sound clusters (decode) and then put those letter sounds back together and read or pronounce the word (encode).
Why does phonics not connect with the oral language system?
Neuroimaging research shows that phonics does not teach letter-sound relationships in the same way that the brain processes them. Phonics focuses on letters; the brain focuses on sounds. As we have discussed before, struggling students will most likely not be able to learn to read from either whole language techniques or systematic phonics.
For more about this research, see: Tutoring Hint #8: Stick with Real Scientific Research in Reading. Do Not Fall for Gimmicks. Scientific Research Is Helpful for Tutoring.
Some people may be saying that they teach phonemes or sounds in preschool or kindergarten and then I switch to phonics in first grade. Wrong. That's not what the research says.
Even the National Reading Panel (2000), said teaching letter-sounds was more than just teaching phonemes in kindergarten.
Yes, the National Reading Panel talks about phonics, but if you look more closely the panel actually tested three teaching methods, not just whole language and phonics. The panel also tested phonemic awareness as a teaching method.
The term “phonemic awareness” has become distorted in schools. Many teachers tell me, “That’s just learning sounds.” Wrong. As indicated by this quote from the National Reading Panel, phonemic awareness is a teaching method.
“… 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."
Therefore, when we teach letter sounds, we need to teach students phonemes using letters instead of just oral sounds. Students need to match the actual letter with the sound.
When you are teaching do not match letter sounds to pictures, instead match letter sounds to letters without a picture. You want students to learn to associate the oral sound with the written letter, not a picture. We read with words not pictures. If you are tutoring, this is where manipulatives (letter tiles, letter cards) can really be helpful, but do not match the sound to a picture. Match the sound to the letter without a picture.
Yes, scientific research has tested the effectiveness of teaching letter sounds instead of teaching phonics. In 2016, Sebastian Suggate conducted a study comparing 71 phonemic and phonics intervention groups. He found that:
“… phonemic awareness interventions [letter sounds attached to oral language system] showed good maintenance of effect…. phonics and fluency interventions … tended not to.”
Why are we not using teaching methods that connect with the oral language system?
If both whole language and phonics do not connect with the oral language system and teaching methods must connect with the oral language system in order for students to learn to read, then is science research in reading actually telling us that we should change how we teach students to read? What teaching methods should we be using instead of whole language and phonics?
Neuroimaging research has changed how science views reading. As Dr. Kilpatrick explains,
“Today scientists can actually watch the brain as it works to read; scientist 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).
Dr. Kilpatrick continues:
“Understanding why words sound different is phonemic awareness.” (p. 16)
“… phonemic awareness is not “optional” if one wants to be a good reader.” (p. 16)
“Phonemic awareness is a linguistic skill that is essential for learning to read. It is different from phonics….” (p. 18)
“The vast majority of students with word recognition difficulties lack sufficient phonemic awareness.” (p. 35)
So, as Dr. Kilpatrick states, phonemic awareness and phonics are not the same. Remember, we need phonemic awareness to tie into our oral language system. So, how should we teach students to use the oral language system? I use vowel clustering.
Teaching Letter Sounds
Teaching letter sounds and connecting to the oral language system is much more effective for teaching students to read than phonics teaching techniques. I have also found this to be true in my own research with vowel clustering.
Vowel clustering teaches letter sounds and connects to the oral language system.
Study 1: Camp Sharigan with children of Mexican descent from an inner-city neighborhood
Randomly selected students participated in my Camp Sharigan week-long, 10-hour after-school reading program. Compared with students from the same after-school program who participated in homework help and one-on-one systematic phonics tutoring, the Camp Sharigan students showed significantly more improvement than the phonics/homework group in spelling, reading, sight words, and comprehension. After follow-up testing one year later, results showed that the Camp Sharigan students were still scoring higher. Camp Sharigan is only a one-week program. There was no follow-up intervention, just retesting. Camp Sharigan uses vowel clustering.
Study 2: Camp Sharigan with children from a suburban public school
Students participating in the reading clinic
“… showed significant improvement in reading, spelling, and sight word recognition, while students in the control group showed no improvement in any category. In fact, students in the experimental group actually surpassed students in the control group for all three outcomes, indicating that the immediate effects of the intervention were quite substantial.”
From the results of the study as described in Chapter 3, we see that the experimental group (the Camp Sharigan students) showed substantial improvement over the homework/phonics group. The bar graphs show the number of errors, or the number missed by students in each group. Notice how much the Camp Sharigan students improved.
What is vowel clustering?
Vowel clustering teaches students to decode and encode letter sounds to pronounce and read words. There are no rules to memorize, and students are never allowed to guess at a word. Vowel clustering teaches students to decode or break words down into individual letter sounds or sound clusters. Then, to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. Vowel clustering connects directly with the oral language system. My vowel clustering method also teaches spelling, handwriting, oral reading fluency, comprehension, and story writing. All of my reading programs teach vowel clustering. Vowel clustering has been tested and proven to work with struggling, at-risk, and failing students. A student, who failed for nine years using balanced literacy and phonics, learned to read in 3 ½ years using vowel clustering. I have even had failing students move up four grade levels in one year using vowel clustering. These were students who had failed multiple years in schools that taught whole language, balanced literacy, and phonics. So yes, we can teach students to read, but to do so, we must change the methods that we use to teach reading.
Vowel clustering also works with tutoring. In my newest tutoring book (click on the image at the top of the page), I use vowel clustering because it teaches tutors how to connect directly with the oral language system.
I had a 5th grade student reading between 2nd and 3rd grade with very low comprehension. After only 21 weeks of one-hour, once-a-week tutoring using vowel clustering (as taught in my new book), the student was reading at the 6th grade level with strong comprehension scores.
For more about vowel clustering, see: Vowel Clustering Makes It Easier for Children to Learn to Read
So, what does scientific research tell us?
The brain does not recognize and store words through visual memory—seeing the same word over and over or “look-say” does not help students learn to read. Instead, the brain creates an oral filing system. The brain does not file words by letter. The brain concentrates on sounds or phonemes.
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 (as the schools are presently doing this fall), we will leave many students failing in reading when we have the scientific knowledge to teach every student to read. We just need to read, understand, and follow what scientific research in reading is actually telling us. Struggling students need educators and tutors to move forward, to read and understand what scientists are saying, and to use new scientific methods to help struggling students learn to read.
I’m sorry, I know that a lot of people are rooting for phonics this fall, but phonics, even systematic phonics, is not following what scientific research is telling us to do. No matter how many people label phonics as the science of reading, it just isn’t true. Phonics will work for some students, especially those in the top 90th percentile, but struggling students will continue to fail.
In Part 2, we will take a closer look at what science says about the oral filing system and orthographic mapping.
In the meantime, if you need help in tutoring or have a question, contact me. I am always happy to help.