According to the Nation’s Report Card, more than half of the students in the United States are struggling to read. Yet, almost every single student who is now struggling can be taught to read. We can end reading failure if we use the correct teaching method. The student’s school in our opening example taught balanced literacy in the classroom and taught systematic phonics in a one-on-one pullout program. Yet, the student had still failed. These were the wrong teaching methods.
Research has shown time and time again that whole language and balanced literacy do not give us an effective way to teach children to read. Even systematic phonics fails many students, especially the students who need it most. So, what are we to do? We need to change the way we teach students to read in the classroom. Yes, we must change the curriculum and teaching methods that we use to teach reading.
As I have said many times in this blog, the problem is not the teachers, the students, or the parents. The problem is the curriculum and teaching methods that school boards and politicians have dictated. We are clinging to old teaching methods that have been proven not to work. Using the wrong teaching method is causing students to fail in the classroom.
What Teaching Method Should We Use?
The National Reading Panel, organized by Congress in 1997, studied whole language, phonics, and phonemic awareness. Note that, despite their similar names, phonics and phonemic awareness do not mean the same thing. In 2000, after analyzing over 100,000 research studies, the National Reading Panel concluded that lack of phonemic awareness was one of the major causes of reading failure.
One of the clearest explanations comes from the Put Reading First document. This document, produced by the National Institute for Literacy, emphasizes that phonemic awareness is not the same as what we see in phonics textbooks. The group explains:
“Although phonemic awareness is a widely used term in reading, it is often misunderstood. One misunderstanding is that phonemic awareness and phonics are the same thing. Phonemic awareness is not phonics. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that the sounds of spoken language work together to make words…. Another misunderstanding about phonemic awareness is that it means the same as phonological awareness. The two names are not interchangeable.”
What Is Phonemic Awareness?
Phonemic awareness is, for example, when a child sees the word cat and immediately begins to break the word down into individual phonemes or sounds. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound, but phonemic awareness is more than just letter 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).
As the National Reading Panel explains, “Teaching students to manipulate phonemes with letters yields larger effects than teaching students without letters…. Teaching children to blend the phonemes represented by letters is the equivalent of decoding instruction.” Be sure to read the full report, not just the summary; see Section 2, Page 41.
Phonemic awareness enables students --
- To hear and recognize letter sounds,
- To match letter-sound relationships, and
- To decode and encode the sounds they hear while looking at alphabet letters and words.
How Can We Correct The Mistakes That Have Been Made In Teaching Reading And Abolish Reading Failure?
An important step in preventing reading failure is to stop saying that phonemic awareness is just about sounds. That is not what phonemic awareness means. That is wrong. As stated above, even the National Reading Panel determined that it was important to combine the teaching of sounds (phonemes) alongside their relationship with alphabetic letters. You cannot separate letter sounds from alphabet letters and be successful when teaching children to read.
If we are to bring change to the classroom, we must understand that phonemic awareness and phonics are not the same, and that they do not use the same teaching methods. Phonics starts with the letter. Phonemic awareness starts with the oral sound and builds toward the letter and the word.
The final step in preventing reading failure is to understand that teaching phonemic awareness correctly will help struggling students better than trying to teach them using a phonics method. As explained by Sebastian P. Suggate in his 2016 research comparison between phonemic awareness and phonics, the two teaching methods not only use totally opposite approaches to teaching reading, but they also produce totally different results as well.
Suggate analyzed 71 phonemic awareness and phonics intervention groups and discovered that phonemic awareness had more long-term “staying power” and positive long-term effects than phonics, especially if the phonemic awareness training used letter sound training. Suggate explains that this difference is because phonemic awareness targets phonemes (sounds) and the process of attaching those sounds to alphabet letters.
We must remember , however, that reading is more than just associating letters with sounds. The teaching method that I use in my reading clinic is called vowel clustering. Vowel clustering uses the principles of phonemic awareness. Vowel clustering teaches students to decode or break words down into letter sounds or sound clusters and then to encode or reassemble those sounds back into pronounceable words. Vowel clustering also teaches spelling, handwriting, oral reading fluency, comprehension, and story writing
Vowel Clustering Works Better Than Phonics for at-Risk Students
More About Vowel Clustering
Vowel clustering has proven to work with struggling, at-risk, and failing students. I’ve even had struggling students move up four grade levels in one year using vowel clustering. These were students who had failed multiple years in school.
In my forthcoming book, Why Can’t We Teach Children to Read? Oh, but Wait, We Can! (contact me at the email link above for more information), I outline step-by-step methods as well as reteaching techniques to help parents, tutors, and teachers use phonemic awareness techniques in teaching children how to read.
Yes, we can teach students to read, but to do so, we must change the methods that we use to teach students to read. Next, we will look at ways to teach phonemic awareness correctly in the classroom.