Coming soon to a screen near you

Some of you know that I gave a talk in Atlanta last week that created some, um, friction. It presented under poor conditions and wasn’t recorded properly. I have re-recorded it. It should be available via the Atlanta Speech School soon. Here are the slides. Update: talk is here.

I took advantage of the opportunity to make some revisions based on useful feedback. I agree that my comments about LETRS didn’t do justice either to LETRS or to the questions I wanted to raise. Through her research studies, Louisa Moats single-handedly raised awareness of the fact that most teachers lacked knowledge of basic properties of spoken language and print relevant to reading instruction. We know this is because of gaps in pre-professional training which continue to this day. She also acted on her findings, developing LETRS with Carol A. Tolman. Many in-service teachers have benefited from LETRS training and will continue to do so.

In place of those remarks about LETRS, I offer the following issues and questions that LETRS raised for me and perhaps others.

  1. No one method will work equally well for all teachers in all contexts. Having other approaches is a good thing. Here is a historical analogy that may be apt:

Time was, when people bought new computer software it came with a thick manual that was a comprehensive guide to using it. Everything you needed to know was in the manual, if you could find it. Some time in the 1990s, people working in HCI (human-computer interaction) realized that people didn’t want to read a manual and then start using the program; they wanted to start using the program as quickly as possible and consult the manual when necessary. This led to the  “minimal manual” approach: a shorter guide that provided the essential information needed to start using the program. This approach achieved a balance between explicitly telling users how the program worked and giving them a way to look up things as they were needed. 

The “minimal manual” approach might be adopted for PD related to reading. I think that is the philosophy behind Reading Simplified and Top Ten Tools. I am only noting a positive feature of these programs, not providing a global assessment of their value. 

  1. Are we conflating what teachers need to know to be able to teach with what children need to know to be able to read? Teachers should know about things like phonemes, onsets and rimes, inflectional and derivational morphology, relative clauses, collocations, and other basic components of language. “Know” here means being able to explain the concept and provide illustrations. Does a child need to know these concepts? I shudder when I see words like “phoneme” and “orthography” being used in teaching 6 year olds. This issue does not only arise with LETRS. 

  2. From material on social media and from my own discussions with teachers and people who teach teachers, it seems clear that many “science of reading” proponents ascribe to the following view or a close variant of it: Children need to learn about the components of spoken words in a sequence that starts with bigger units like words and ends with phonemes. Acquiring this knowledge is the prerequisite for learning about print and phonics. Phonemes are the minimal components of spoken words and phonemic awareness can be developed via spoken word activities. 

I do not think these assumptions are correct. I have explained several of the reasons in the lectures about phonemes, phonemic awareness and reading posted elsewhere on this website and in several talks, including one for the International Dyslexia Association (slides), and as the keynote speaker at the inaugural conference of The Reading League. Other reasons will be apparent from the principles/guidelines that Margaret Goldberg and I are developing. 

I have mainly focused on the common but mistaken idea that phonemes are properties of spoken words (they are an abstraction that depends on exposure to an alphabet), and that children need to demonstrate knowledge of all of them (44, 38, or some other number depending on your theory), prior to moving on to reading. I think it’s folly to devote precious time to teaching children the “correct” pronunciation of each phoneme. Since phonemes aren’t isolable segments of speech, whatever pronunciation we assign to, e.g. b is a bit of fakery, a useful fiction, but not how we talk.

I especially take issue with the idea that “phonemic awareness” refers to knowledge of the structure of spoken words independent of print. Evidence that the phonemic abstraction depends on exposure to an alphabet has been accumulating since the 1980s. The title of Read et al.’s breakthrough (1986) article (click to download) is “The ability to manipulate speech sounds depends on knowing alphabetic writing”. In the same year, Derwing et al. (Phonology Yearbook, 3) stated that their studies and others “go so far as to suggest that … the very ability to segment speech [into phonemes] may be a by-product of learning an alphabetic orthography.” The NRP (2000) review of PA also emphasized the role of print, but more important, the issues were greatly clarified by behavioral, computational, and neural research conducted over the subsequent 20 years (cf. my talks). 

The “phonemes first” approach seems to have coalesced out of several sources. LETRS K-3 Unit 2 is one of them. It says:

Although learning phonics requires phonemic awareness, the term phonics pertains to learning to read printed alphabetic symbols. Phonemic awareness activities, on the other hand, do not involve print.  They are listening and speaking activities; they can be done in the dark or with a blindfold on. (However, it is recommended that students watch the mouth of the speaker they are listening to.). p. 93

In other places the text includes statements about phonemic awareness that place greater emphasis on its connection to print. For example, this table about ages when children typically acquire knowledge of various phonological elements is very informative. I included it in the second talk here. The ability to use phoneme-level knowledge to perform tasks such as phoneme identification, deletion, blending and others typically develops relatively late, after the onset of reading instruction (and even longer after preschool children start learning letters, letter sounds, and letter names). The treatment of phonemes and phonemic awareness in LETRS is somewhat inconsistent and open to different interpretations regarding instruction.

The idea that children need to learn their phonemes before they learn to read is seen in other work that is prominent in education.  In “Equipped for Reading Success,” David Kilpatrick states that 

“PHONEME AWARENESS has to do with sounds in spoken words. It has nothing directly to do with letters. It is an awareness of the sounds in spoken language. It is a mental/linguistic skill.” p.15

A footnote on this entry says

“Phonological awareness is about understanding and being aware of the sounds we make when we say words. The minute you introduce letters, you have left the realm of phonological awareness and entered the realm of phonics.”

These observations (and others in the same chapter) are contradicted by research on how orthography, phonology, and the mappings between the codes develop. I’ll get into this in more detail in a separate post. Here I will only note that the assertions about the nature of phonemic awareness and phonics, and the boundary between them aren’t part of mainstream theories of learning to read. 

Finally, I should mention the Heggerty multi-year phonemic awareness curriculum that builds levels of phonemic knowledge through the use of PA tasks of increasing difficulty. 

In light of the extensive research evidence on the reciprocal development of orthographic and phonological knowledge from a very young age, I think these assertions and practices need to be carefully reconsidered. I am particularly concerned about the treatment in LETRS because it such a widely used resource.

  1. Finally, LETRS contains a version of this figure, the Tolman Hourglass, which is probably popular because it seems to convey reading science in an easily comprehended way. If the figure is meant as a literal representation of how the various types of knowledge come together to support reading, it is grossly incorrect. Among other things, it conveys the idea that orthography and phonology are separate domains, and that each of them consists of a strict hierarchy of discrete structures that somehow come together to create 1:1 (?) mappings between letters and sounds. It strongly suggests an instructional strategy of stepping through the levels, from the simpler ones to the harder ones, which is inefficient and unnecessary. The figure isn’t a good representation of the structure of language, the structure of print, or how children learn about this stuff on the way to reading and spelling. If it is merely meant as a mnemonic for all those terms, that could be done without the graphics.

I hope this post clarifies these concerns and the reasons I have mentioned LETRS in particular. Of course, this post settles nothing, but it could lead to fruitful discussions and positive changes. I will be pursuing the issues further in future posts and other media.

7 thoughts on “Coming soon to a screen near you”

  1. Thanks so much for giving us a broader perspective. I see the point of Fundations and Benchmark but less of Letrs so far.

  2. Very interesting. Some of your thoughts here confirm my own, though I’m no expert, just a former homeschooling mom who is now a substitute teacher. I worry that the over technical phonics programs that sometimes seem to bill themselves as the only science of reading options are going to dissuade schools and individuals from truly following the science of reading, which in my understanding is using phonics to teach reading, rather than providing a comprehensive understanding of phonics in English. The overly complicated phonics and phonemic awareness programs used in my school district seem confusing (not helped because the district uses a phonemic awareness program and a phonics program and a spelling program and a reading program) and also ineffective. The grade school music teacher says that she can no longer expect third graders to be able to read lyrics and has to teach all songs by rote. Things worsened with the pandemic but they were already getting worse. When I homeschooled I feel like there were so many options for decodable readers and programs that integrated phonics, reading, and spelling instruction. It shouldn’t be that difficult!

  3. Hi Mark,
    I’m teaching grade 1/2 in a French immersion program in Canada. We teach literacy in both languages. I work in a division that very much supports balanced literacy and related programs and interventions. My cohort has been doing some self directed pd into how we can better teach reading and writing, and I must admit it’s confusing. There’s a lot out there about strategies and activities to teach and I know we don’t have time to do all of that, especially not in both languages! I appreciate your discussion of effective and efficient because I do think those are valid concerns. I will watch for your future posts about “what to do”.
    In the meantime, we have completed the first part of the training of Reading Simplified. It seems to me like there’s a lot the teacher needs to know, but the kids “just” need to learn to read.

    Thanks for taking the time to address some issues with current practices labelled as science of reading… for now I think it’s muddied the waters a bit for me but I hope that future reading will bring some clarity.

  4. Thank you for sharing your slides. I’m wondering whether you can clarify slide 33 where you refer to ‘sight words’. Do you agree that both Ehri and Kilpatrick are not only referring to ‘irregular’ or ‘high frequency’ words when they use the term ‘sight words’ but to all words that we can recognize by sight without needing to decode them? Unfortunately, that term is used in curricular materials to only refer to these two categories of high frequency and irregularity, whereas Ehri and Kilpatrick are applying it to all words, proposing that, as Ehri says, orthographic mapping “involves the connection-forming process linking graphemes in spellings to phonemes in pronunciations to secure the words in memory for sight word reading and spelling.” I’m wondering whether you are using the term ‘sight words’ in the same way they are using it.

    1. Very good question, and timely too. We have been studying the treatment of these words in several curricula. We are calling them “special words,” because they include irregularly pronounced and/or high frequency words, and authors use different terms for them. We are presenting a paper on this at the SSSR meeting this summer. The basic finding is that there is a remarkably little agreement about which words are included in the category. There is a further issue about how such words are learned and how much they differ from other words in how they are learned and read. Kilpatrick is the definitely outlier, with a much larger number of words designated for special attention. So, no, people are not using the terms in the same ways, resulting in different words being singled out for special treatment

  5. Hi Mark,
    As a retired primary school teacher and now tutoring as a hobby here in Australia (40 students and a waiting list), I am so glad you are raising these issues. Children do not need to be taught all that teachers ideally need to know. I’m using just the strategies of Reading Simplified with great success! The parents sit in on my lessons and they do more of the same during the week with their child.
    Thank you for sticking your neck out and addressing the elephant in the room!
    Anna Linard

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