Psychological Perspectives on the Early Reading Wars: The Case of Phonological Awareness
by Robert C. Calfee & Kimberly A. Norman - 1998
The current mantra calls for resolving the early reading wars through a “balanced? approach. Defining balance will require careful theoretical and practical examination of specific elements in the acquisition of early reading skill. Phonemic awareness provides one opportunity for such an exercise. This article reviews origins of the construct from auditory perception through onset-rhyming patterns to the current emphasis on phoneme manipulation. Two points emerge from this review. First, both analysis of English orthography and survey of &relational data suggest that beginning readers are more likely to grasp the alphabetic principle when they can grasp the concept of the individual phonemic. Second, acquiring this competence is quite difficult for young pre-readers, but may be feasible if (1) students learn to use articulatory features as the basis for understanding phonemes, and (2) Phonemic awareness and spelling-sound relations are taught synergistically. Remaining to be completed is the task of development and evaluation of effective instructional programs to assess these hypotheses in large-scale naturalistic settings. The article describes a design-experiment strategy for approaching this task.
The current mantra calls for resolving the early reading wars through a balanced approach. Defining balance will require careful theoretical and practical examination of specific elements in the acquisition of early reading skill. Phonemic awareness provides one opportunity for such an exercise. This article reviews origins of the construct from auditory perception through onset-rhyming patterns to the current emphasis on phoneme manipulation. Two points emerge from this review. First, both analysis of English orthography and survey of & relational data suggest that beginning readers are more likely to grasp the alphabetic principle when they can grasp the concept of the individual phoneme. Second, acquiring this competence is quite difficult for young pre-readers, but may be feasible if (1) students learn to use articulatory features as the basis for understanding phonemes, and (2) Phoneme awareness and spelling-sound relations are taught synergistically. Remaining to be completed is the task of development and evaluation of effective instructional programs to assess these hypotheses in large-scale naturalistic settings. The article describes a design-experiment strategy for approaching this task.
Language, literacy, and thoughtfrom the earliest years of scientific psychology, these three constructs have provided the basic stuff for the field of educational psychology. Hueys landmark Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (1908/1968) is surely required reading for every doctoral candidate in the discipline, because it integrates conceptual, empirical, and practical issues in a coherent and congenial monograph.
Despite more than a century of concerted effort, the task of bringing scientific lenses to bear on the understanding and improvement of early reading instruction remains unfinished. Indeed, as reading researchers celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the First-Grade Reading studies (Bond & Dykstra, 1967; Graves & Dykstra, 1997)) disarray seems the order of the day. The First-Grade studies (and the subsequent Follow Through evaluations, Stallings, 1975) attempted to resolve once and for all, by a decisive horse race, how best to teach American children to read. Challs review of earlier studies in The Great Debate (1967/1996) appeared at about the same time. The outcome of these investigations seemed clearcut: (1) Teacher-led direct-phonics programs produced (slightly) higher scores on decoding measures at the end of first grade, but (2) variability between teachers within programs was substantial, (3) many students did poorly under all programs, and (4) the initial advantages washed out by the end of third grade. Pendulum swings have been pronounced, especially in California, and horse races have not resolved the issues (Adams & Bruck, 1995; Pearson, 1996).
The current mantra is balance (McIntyre & Pressley, 1996), which proposes that early reading instruction cover all of the bases, a sensible proposition. None of the debaters argues for an unbalanced position, although most see opposing positions as extreme. Whole-language advocates emphasize that their techniques have always attended to skill development, but within the context of real childrens literature. Phonics proponents claim that the idea is to move students quickly through skills development and thence to independent reading. Both positions, in short, argue that they are now and have always been balanced. Educators caught in the middle (including teachers and publishers) favor an eclectic approach, incorporating a variety of techniques within every lesson.
Despite these swings and surges, a fundamental bottom line has remained unchanged during the past fifty years. When they complete third grade, a quarter or more of U.S. students experience significant difficulty in translating print to sound and sound to print, an outcome predictable from social class and other demographics. Most other students can cope with the decoding task, although if effective spelling were the criterion for mastery, fewer than one in ten would pass the test-hence our conclusion that, despite substantial research and development, the field has made surprisingly little progress since Huey in the improvement of reading instruction.
This article explores one specific item on the early reading agenda¾phonemic awareness (PA), a topic that captures the interplay between educational policy, practice, and research. In California, for instance, the legislature has mandated PA instruction in kindergarten, and the inclusion of PA concepts in teacher preparation and in-service programs. Teachers frequently respond Ive done that for years, and they probably have. Publishers now include numerous dollops of PA in basal readers, often relabeling activities already in place. Educational psychologists, sometimes credited with this most recent remedy to reading problems, caution about oversimplification of a complex and not yet well-understood phenomenon. Plus ça change, plus la même chose.
We argue that PA research does indeed offer the foundation for a significant breakthrough in the effectiveness of early reading instruction and then describe some ways to apply the findings. PA provides an important case study for educational psychologists. The construct builds on concepts from cognition and linguistics that are largely terra incognito in elementary education. The case illustrates the challenges, conceptual and practical, of translating research into practice.
The article is organized in three sections: (1) a review of the conception of early literacy acquisition as a social-cognitive activity, (2) a brief sketch of the evolution of the PA construct, and (3) a discussion of how psychological research might contribute to understanding and applying this construct. An overarching theme is the value of cognitive and linguistic research for the pragmatics of instructional design and evaluation.
EARLY READING: WHAT IS WORTH TEACHING AND HOW SHOULD IT BE TAUGHT
A brief stage-setting digression is necessary because policy assumptions about the nature and purpose of reading instruction shape the entire enterprise. A battle is raging at present. In one corner are proponents of reading as a basic skill¾the translation of print into some equivalent of speech¾to be taught by direct instruction. The student who can read a text aloud quickly and accurately has mastered the skill and is ready for the good stuff (Adams, 1990; Beck & Juel, 1995; Blachman, 1997; Ehri, 1994; Honig, 1996). In the opposite corner are those who view reading as a natural extension of spoken language; immersing young children in quality literature leads naturally to competence and interest in handling print (Cazden, 1992; Edelsky, Altberger, & Flores, 1991; Pressley & Rankin, 1994; Smith, 1994; Symons, Woloshyn, & Pressley, 1994).
In yet a third corner is a view of literacy as the acquisition of a linguistic register, of strategies for using language in a planned and thoughtful manner, print providing a technology that supports reflective memory and strategic problem-solving (Calfee & Patrick, 1995; Horowitz & Samuels, 1987; Olson, 1996). This proposal often wears the colors of social-cognitive learning, a stance that emphasizes literacy as a set of tools for thinking and communication, tools best acquired through Vygotskian principles of active, reflective, and social learning (Hiebert et al., 1996; Vygotsky, 1926/1997, 1978).
The third position overlaps somewhat with the first two alternatives, but with important distinctions. Skills are important, but only as embedded in purposeful and transferable understandings. Learning is neither directed nor natural, but scaffolded (Greenfield, 1984; Rogoff & Wertsch, 1984). Curriculum is neither serial nor serendipitous, but parallel, designed to move the student toward competence across the full range of literacy domains.
The devil, of course, is in the details. The third corner might be characterized as balanced, but this label does not fully capture the position. Literacy (including print) is skill and enjoyment, but also a technology that amplifies the social and communicative functions of language. Early literacy has as much to do with oral language as with print. The classroom serves as an environment for exploring ideas and experiences through immersion in a range of scaffolded activities: vocabulary and concept development, narrative and expository comprehension and composition, and acquisition of English orthography. The last mentioned is where PA enters the picture, not as a prerequisite, but as part of a larger puzzle.
WHAT IS PHONEME AWARENESS, WHERE DID IT COME FROM, AND WHY SHOULD IT MATTER?
The emergence during the past ten years of intense interest in PA is rather incredible. We were tempted to make annual counts of ERIC citations, but instead will limit ourselves to noting that a recent issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology contained four articles on reading, all dealing with PA matters. It was not a special issue. The first volume of Scientific Studies in Reading, flagship for the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, also contained a disproportionate number of PA articles.
PA precursors appeared more than fifty years ago under the label auditory perception. In the First-Grade Reading studies, auditory perception predicted first- and second-grade comprehension outcomes better than any other measure except letter-name knowledge (Bond & Dykstra, 1967; Dykstra, 1968). Amazingly little was made of the finding, perhaps because the concept was unclear. This section begins with a discussion of the evolution of the concept, followed by a brief history of empirical and practical research through the late 1980s.
DIMENSIONS OF A CLOUDY CONSTRUCT
Joanna Williams (1995), editor of Scientific Studies in Reading, offered the following definition of PA in The Literacy Dictionary: Awareness of the sounds (phonemes) that make up spoken words (p. 185). She added, An important challenge for the future is for researchers to agree on what measures might be most appropriate for defining the construct (p. 186). This challenge has yet to be met, although the fuzziness has not prevented states like California from mandating PA policy and practice.
At the practical level, both whole-language and phonics approaches define PA in similar terms: (1) identification of rhymes, (2) sensitivity to initial-consonant alliteration, and (3) ability to transform spoken words at the phoneme level. The third task is especially complex and difficult for both children and adults: How many sounds in fox, in socks? [Count]; What is left when you take the first sound from switch? [Delete]; What happens when you put an R sound after the T in tap? [Insert]; What happens when you take the S from the beginning of sun and put it at the end? [Move]. This is Professor Henry Higginss territory, tasks that test even the accomplished reader (Moats, 1994). Young children seldom succeed at any of the games.
Where does PA fit into the instructional path that leads to mastery of phonics? In math, common sense suggests that counting provides a foundation for addition, which then supports word problems, and so on (to be sure, Hiebert et al., 1996, question this proposition). Similar reasoning has led to the proposal of reading stages (Chall, 1983/1995); students first learn letters and sounds, then onset-rime patterns, sentences next, and eventually stories. Onset-rime programs usually employ the first two items on the PA list, initial consonants and rhymes. Onsets and rimmes have been essential elements in the first-grade teachers phonics armamentarium since McGuffey. As noted earlier, blending or reattaching the two parts can pose a problem for young students, and some phonics programs emphasize this skill over all others: /sss/ . . . /nap/; whats the word?
Where do transformational PA skills fit into the picture? These tasks are the most difficult for students (and teachers) but also the most predictive of reading achievement in the later grades. Where in the cognitive processing of a letter-sound sequence might a reader need to count, delete, insert, or move individual phonemes? These tasks are often included in PA assessments, the tendency being to throw in everything including the kitchen sink (e.g., Robertson & Salter, 1997). In contrast, phonics programs tend to avoid transformational PA skills, although replacement and deletion can be found in some series: What do you hear when you take the first sound away from /snap/? When you take the last sound away from /runs/?
Pulling all these pieces together, it appears-that researchers and practitioners may be on the track of something important. The question remainswhat is it?
A HISTORY OF PHONEMIC AWARENESS
One line of work directly connected with PA (as opposed to auditory perception) began in the 1960s. Building on work by the Russian psychologist Elkonin (1963), Calfee and Venezky (1969), Calfee, Chapman, & Venezky (1972), and Venezky, Calfee, and Chapman (1969) showed that (1) most pre-readers had only vague ideas about how to perform PA tasks, and (2) it was difficult to clarify the tasks for young children, but (3) performance on these tasks was highly correlated with later reading achievement-stronger than any other psycholinguistic component. Calfee (1977) later investigated two related questions. First, was it possible to help kindergartners delete the initial consonant phoneme segment, up to but not including the vowel? The answer was yes; assessments based on careful task analysis helped virtually all students achieve perfect performance within a few trials (the language of the 1970s). Second, could children transfer learning to more difficult non-scaffolded tasks including pseudo words? The answer was sometimes. Some students handled the segmentation task when all supports were withdrawn. Others experienced considerable difficulty. Two years following the assessment, at the end of first grade, degree of transfer predicted standardized reading performance as well as or better than any other index.
At about the same time, but quite independently, Isabelle Liberman and her collaborators at Haskins Laboratories conducted an impressive array of investigations on the predictive value of PA segmentation (Liberman, Shankweiler, Fischer, & Carter, 1974). This work and subsequent investigations are summarized in Shankweiler and Liberman (1989; also see I. Y. Liberman & A. M. Liberman, 1990). The PA construct began to filter into the reading literature, although with relatively little impact on practice. On the West coast, Pat and Charles Lindamood had developed an assessment system modeled on Elkonin (1963; Calfee, Lindamood, & Lindamood, 1973/1977), and a remedial program, Auditory Discrimination in Depth (Lindamood & Lindamood, 1975), based on the articulatory patterns. The program taught students to produce English phonemes (e.g., /p/ is a lip-popper), and then blend the patterns. Intriguingly, although Haskins Labs provided a conceptual and empirical basis for all three lines of work, connections between the two coasts were negligible, and articulation was not a central element in I. Libermans educational studies.
THEMES FROM THE 1980s
Useful reviews of research during the 1970s and 1980s appear in Adams (1990, pp. 65ff., 247ff., 293ff.), Berninger (1994), Blachman (1994), Bradley and Bryant (1985), Goswami & Bryant (1990), McGuinness (1997), Share (1995), Share and Stanovich (1995), and Stahl and Murray (1998). Several themes in these reviews set the stage for future thinking. The first, noted at the outset of this section, is continuing confusion about the PA construct. The problem appears most clearly in scattershot assessment methods (Stahl and Murray are explicit about this matter, which is implicit in the other papers).
A second point, also noted above, is the extreme difficulty of PA tasks. Virtually everyone mentions this finding, which Adams (1990) summarizes in a difficulty sequence: rhymes, rhymes-alliteration, blending and syllable-splitting, segmentation of individual phonemes, and manipulation of individual phonemes (pp. 80-81). Most kindergartners can perform the first few entries in this list; the final entries are barely doable even after extensive training (Blachman, Ball, & Black, 1994). Some reviewers (Bradley and Bryant, 1985; Goswami and Bradley, 1990; along with Adams) conclude that unset-rime is the most feasible PA strategy, even though the impact on phonics acquisition is often slight (also Bruck & Trieman, 1992). The easiest approach to PA helps some but not much in the development of fluent reading and comprehension.
A third theme appears under several labels: mutuality (Adams, 1990), reciprocity (Blachman et al., 1994, who quotes Perfetti, Beck, Bell, & Brody, 1987, as the original source), interaction (Foorman, 1994), and synergism (Stahl & Murray, 1998; also McGuiness, McGuiness, & Donohue, 1995). The basic idea here is that PA acquisition supports phonics learning, and vice versa. Teaching letters, sounds, and words in combination seems a sensible strategy, but questions about how to define and sequence the elements have evoked major controversies in both policy and practice. Here are a few scenarios: (1) Teach kindergartners initial consonants and rhymes (no letters, no words); (2) teach kindergartners initial consonants and rhymes through word-building with colored blocks (block spelling); (3) teach kindergartners to build words by matching letters and sounds. The three scenarios may appear similar, but they (and other possibilities) provoke enormous debate.
A fourth set of issues centers around differences between training and understanding, between drill-and-skill and insight. The contrast often invokes the concept of metacognition, the capacity to explain relations and to demonstrate transfer of knowledge (Blachman et al., 1994; Stahl & Murray, 1998). Share (1995) has proposed that explicit and transformational awareness of phonemes is the foundation for "self-teaching, the students capacity to handle novel print patterns strategically. The notion of phonics as a basic skill that depends on practice with feedback clashes with the idea of a metaphonics curriculum that emphasizes insightful learning.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that, except for a brief discussion by Adams (1990), none of these reviews addresses either the concept of a phoneme or the structure of English orthography, the relation between phonemes and graphemes in English. These missing pieces will play a central role in the remainder of the argument.
EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE PA QUESTION
The preceding themes are consistent with three puzzlements propounded by Williams (1995) in her definition of phonemic awareness: (a) how to create a more adequate definition of the PA construct, (b) how to establish the underlying causal relations between PA and early reading acquisition, and (c) how to use the available research to enhance the short- and long-term effects of PA training on the acquisition of decoding skills. This section discusses how educational psychologists might productively explore these questions.
CLARIFY THE CONSTRUCT
What does it mean to be aware of a phonemic segment? For that matter, what is a phoneme? Several reviewers have remarked on the clutter and vagueness in the PA domain, a problem that calls for clearer thinking about the relation among phonemes, phoneme awareness, and English orthography. In approaching this problem, we will first (a) say something about phonemes, then (2) connect phoneme awareness to articulation, and finally (3) argue that phonemes (rather than onset-rimes) are critical for acquiring English orthography.
Phonemes are unusual sounds, perceived in ways quite unlike physical stimuli such as bells and whistles (Giegerich, 1992). For instance, the speech spectrograph for the first element in sit is substantially different from the same pattern in suit, yet you hear the same sound. Another important feature of syllables is the shingled effect. We speak not in phonemes, but in syllabic units, where the transitions smoothly interweave from one phoneme to the next. For example, consider wha/chu/je/sed. Each segment of this quick rendition of What you just said has a vocalic element, but as the voice moves from one syllable to the next, the intersegmental combinations take shapes not immediately obvious from the original words.
What is going on here? The answer requires study of the behavior of vowels and consonants in the spoken language. Vowels provide much of the power in speech, while consonants add information that is critical, complex, and relatively brief. Consider a musical analogy. Vowels serve as the string section, the violins and cellos. Consonants appear as pops (p and k) and hisses (f and s), the percussion section. Complex consonants like the nasals (m and n) and semi-vowels (r and l) bring in the brasses and woodwinds. A word like splintered is a virtual symphony!
In normal speech, syllables¾consonant-vowel-consonant combinations¾are sandwiches, vowels the glue binding consonants on either side. Vowels range from sharp-pitched front tones like eek! to deeper back tones like oops! Consonants vary along three basic dimensions: Manner, Place, and Voicing. Manner describes how. Plosives literally explode (e.g., pop), fricatives hiss (as in shush), nasals make their way through the nose (hold your nose and say mom), and semi-vowels subtly shape the airstream (woollier illustrates the pattern). Place describes where, ranging from pursed lips at the front of the oral cavity to actions at the back of the tongue and palate. In a word like pocket, the consonants (all plosives) travel from the front to the back and wind up with the tongue in mid-cavity against the alveolar ridge just behind your upper teeth. The progression is so fast and automatic that you may be hard-pressed to track the events.
Voicing is a third distinction, subtle but important. Consider the contrast between pat and bat. The initial consonants are plosives, both produced by compressing the lips; manner and place are the same. The difference is that pat begins with the release of air, while bat starts with a brief vocalization. You can exaggerate the difference by stretching the word as uh-baaa-t. The initial uh doesnt exist in pat. Technically, in voiceless-voiced contrasts (/p/ vs /b/, /t/ vs /d/, /k/ vs /g/, /f/ vs /v/, and /s/ vs /z/ are most common), vocalization onset begins about fifty milliseconds before the consonant pattern. This slight variation in the physical stimulus is, amazingly, the most perceivable phonological contrast for most people.
Listening for the individual phonemes in a syllable is both unnatural and difficult. To illustrate, say the word spa, focusing on the p sound. You probably hear no difference from pa. But hold your hand close to your lips while you say spa, pa, and ba, and you will feel that the air pressure from spa is more like ba. Small surprise that research reveals that children (and adults as well) have considerable difficulty in segmenting individual phonemes. In all of these tasks, striving for phoneme awareness is more laborious than you might have thought.
Articulation as the Foundation .for PA
Once again, what is going on here? Our natural inclination is to think that our ears process auditory events. If you cannot hear what someone has just said, ask them to repeat the message more clearly. Be grateful on your next airline trip that pilots do not rely solely on this advice. Instead, they amplify phonetic contrasts using an international code. S-F-O might come out as Samuel-Foxtrot-Omega. Lacking context, the listener might otherwise hear F-S-O, or any of several other possibilities.
A completely unexpected explanation of how we process speech comes from the motor theory of speech perception (Liberman & Mattingly, 1985), which hypothesizes that phonemes are perceived by reproduction, In essence, speech perception operates by asking What would my oral cavity have to do to produce what Ive just heard? This theory is as counterintuitive as Newtons concept of inertia: A body remains in motion unless acted upon. At first hearing, the theory suggests that if you throw a ball into the air, it should keep going. Since balls fall down, Newton concluded that a counterforce must be acting on them, hence the idea of gravity.
Liberman and Mattingly (1985) developed tools to study the physical characteristics of phonemes, and discovered that sounds like those at the beginning of sit and suit had remarkably little in common. Gradual variations in stimuli we hear as /p/ and /b/, which differ only in voicing onset, jumped quickly from one consonant to another. Unlike the glissando produced by a violinist, which we hear as a smooth progression across the scale, the perception of /p/-/b/ variations is a sudden categorical shift from one phoneme to the other. To explain such effects, the Haskins-Laboratory team (Liberman & Mattingly, 1985) formulated the motor theory. They argued that the perceiver fills in the missing stimulus information by using the available information to reproduce (implicitly) the articulatory movements.
Confirmation of the motor theory of speech perception, like all theoretical efforts, is ongoing and will never end. For now, however, the theory offers the soundest basis for understanding PA findings and for practical action. College courses in phonology have long rested on this foundation; undergrads learn about phonemes not by listening, but by producing. Instructors emphasize articulation charts that trace the consonant dimensions described above, along with vowel charts.1 We leave this section with a question-How do we introduce PA concepts to young children using principles from the motor theory? One answer can be found in the Lindamood ADD program (Lindamood & Lindamood, 1975); we will consider other options later in the article.
PA and English Orthography
Now to the third issue: What should be the PA curriculum for English orthography? A childs development of speech perception depends on his or her linguistic environment, but acquisition does not require tutelage¾children are not taught to speak. They enter school with a well-developed system for phoneme perception and production, a system that is tacit (children cannot talk about this knowledge) and automatic (they do not need to). Only when they confront the task of linking print symbols with phonemic segments in an alphabetic language may PA come into play. And this linkage seems more important for English than for other languages. What is going on here? What needs to be taught?
One answer is something about how letters and sounds go together to make words. Surprisingly, relatively few reading researchers have given serious attention to the structure of English orthography (but cf. Balmuth, 1982; Venezky, 1970). On the positive side, educational psychologists have turned increasingly in recent decades to careful examination of curriculum issues (Greeno, 1997; Shulman & Quinlan, 1996), and the following analysis is in this same spirit.
One description of the English spelling-sound curriculum is chaos, a position found in both phonics and whole language positions. Our readers are undoubtedly aware that English spelling contains some remarkable eccentricities. George Bernard Shaw suggested that GHOTI might be pronounced fish: GH as in rough, O as in women, and TI as in nation. The example is ludicrous on careful examination, but beliefs dictate policy and practice, and most people believe that English orthography is inherently erratic. Phonics programs accordingly encompass an enormous range of letter-sound patterns, numbering in the hundreds, well beyond the limits of human comprehension. In contrast, whole-language teachers immerse students in literature, relying on incidental phonics mini-lessons to support students. The idea is that the orthography is too complicated to be taught, but with a little bit of help, students will somehow figure it out. As an aside, the papers in Leong and Joshi (1997) suggest an unusual pattern for English readers, compared with alphabetic orthographies that are more regular or that are syllabic or hieroglyphic.
In fact, English orthography is reasonably coherent when viewed through historical and morphological lenses (Balmuth, 1982; Calfee, 1998; Gough & Walsh, 1991; Venezky, 1970). Like many of the worlds other orthographies, English employs an alphabetic script (Gaur, 1984/1992; Taylor & Olson, 1995). But it is a polyglot, a collage of languages, some carrying the original scriptal principles into English (e.g., Norman French), others totally transliterated (e.g., Amerindian and Arabic). This diversity appears in both morphological and orthographic variations. English words spring preponderantly from Anglo-Saxon and Romance origins. The former appear with greatest frequency, especially for young readers, and most are indeed four-letter words, plus or minus one or two letters (cat, brat, splat, past, pasts, pastes). Combinations take shape as compound words (doghouse), prefixes (typically prepositions), and grammatical suffixes (-ed, -s, -ing, -en -ly). Romance-based words begin to appear around fourth grade. The dominant pattern is prefix-root-suffix, where the base elements may not stand alone in the language, or may mislead the reader who adopts the often taught strategy of looking for the little words in a big word. Consider applying this technique to submission: sub as a boat, a replacement teacher, or a sandwich; miss as a young woman, a failure to hit, or a longing; ion as an atomic thingamabob. The little word technique fails because it does not apply to Romance words. Knowledge of word origins directs the reader to look instead for roots and affixes; Romance suffixes like -tion, -sion, -cious clue the reader to avoid the compound-word approach.
No matter what the origin, virtually all English words are built of syllables or (C)V(C)s, the vocalic-center unit, the glue that binds the consonants. The parentheses indicate that the consonants can be optional (e.g., I or oh) or complex (threads). Spoken English uses an enormous variety of consonants and consonant clusters; more than fifty variations appear in initial and final position. The spoken vowel system is also complexeven disregarding dialect variations, more than twenty-five distinctive vowel contrasts. A little multiplication turns up more than 50,000 syllabic units, from which emerge more than 500,000 dictionary entries.
Most written languages are consistently and simply spelled at the syllable level. The beginning reader can deal with Spanish, for instance, by learning units like ma, me, mi, mo, mu. Within the Anglo-Saxon base of English, however, syllabic patterns range in the hundreds rather than the dozens (Stanback, 1992), even disregarding irregular high-frequency words like of and was. Dr. Seuss (1965) portrays the challenge in his delightful booksThrough three cheese trees three free fleas flew . . . , Thats what made these three free fleas sneeze, (pp. 50-51) a potpourri of consonant patterns. Publishers provide decodable books with restricted syllabic patterns, but the resulting prose is less convincing as good childrens literature.
The favored phonics strategy for teaching syllabic patterns relies on division into onset-rime units. The onset is the initial consonant; the rime is the vowel-final consonant. The learning task is daunting because of the large number of basic elements. The curriculum question is whether to emphasize basic vowel and consonant phonemes (around 100 spelling-sound correspondences), or a collection of 1,000 onset-rime patterns. Elevating phoneme perception (and production) to conscious awareness is a difficult task. As noted above, one route is to help young children to think about how they are producing speech sounds, a promising strategy and one that we explore at the end of the article.
PREDICT AND INTERVENE
Considerable work remains to clarify the PA construct. In the meantime, educational psychologists have busied themselves on other fronts: using PA tasks to predict reading achievement, and developing and evaluating experimental PA programs. This section describes the numerous efforts in the 1990s to predict and intervene¾to improve understanding of the relation between PA and the acquisition of phonics skills, and to intercede on behalf of students for whom the prediction is problematic. Some studies have been mentioned earlier, but this overview attempts to describe the recent deluge more systematically.
Cause and effect intermingle in the work of the educational psychologist. We seek to predict problems, but also to help solve them. The letter-name phenomenon illustrates the point. In the First-Grade Reading studies mentioned earlier, childrens knowledge of the ABCs was the best predictor of reading scores; the more letters of the alphabet a student knows on school entry, the better his or her prospects for becoming a good reader. One response to this finding is correlational. Parents who put magnetic letters on the refrigerator door also read Fox in Socks (Seuss, 1969) and play rhyming games. Educational psychologists are expert at predictive studies, at exploring correlational data structures, conducting factor analytic synopses, and teasing out regression paths. But when everything is correlated with everything else, the most sophisticated statistics do not help, because correlation is not causality. Your cars gas gauge is an important indicator of how far you can travel, but tinkering with a gas gauge when it registers empty does not solve the problem. You need to fill the tank with gas.
Letter-name (and PA indicators) clearly tap into something of critical importance in early reading. One possibility is that the indicators reflect early home environment-parent wealth (still the best predictor), bedtime stories, books in the home, richness of academic language, and so on¾experiences that cannot be quickly or easily remedied once a child enters kindergarten. The favored strategy for establishing causality in such situations is to experiment, to intervene. As it turns out, teaching letter names to at-risk kindergartners seldom improves their long-term prospects, suggesting that this indicator is a gauge, not a gas tank (Venezky, 1978).
A wide variety of PA prediction and/or intervention programs during the past several years, most by educational psychologists, are summarized in Table 1. By way of overview, the studies lead to the conclusion that (1) recently developed PA tests do an even better job of predicting reading achievement, and (2) current PA programs teach students sounds, but do not offer consistent transfer to the acquisition of letter-sound relations, nor to skill in fluent decoding of connected text, nor to the capacity to comprehend and compose. These findings mesh with a report by Walker and Shaffarzick (1972) showing that students learn what they are taught. Transfer is the name of the game, and it does not happen automatically (Stanovich & Stanovich, 1995).
Now to a more careful look at the studies. Table 1 is organized by predictive and interventional paradigms. Many intervention studies include predictive components. The aim of this summary is neither a comprehensive review nor a statistical meta-analysis. Rather, the goal is to offer a descriptive survey of fairly recent studies published in archival sources-a guide for the reader interested in the original documents. The table lays out the participants, the treatment conditions and instrumentation, the findings, and ancillary comments. We have tried to provide enough information so the reader can reconstruct essential features of the studies, using important code words. For instance, segmenting and blending are high-frequency concepts for both treatments and assessments, as are onsets and rimes. We provide size of effect indicators in the Results column, along with cautions. For instance, if a treatment group gains twice as much as a control, but neither group does very well on a post-test, that pattern warrants attention. We have not emphasized statistical significance, but rather attempt to convey a practically oriented summary of the findings. Most comments reflect researchers reactions; our choices are admittedly selective.
The sheer magnitude of PA studies that have passed peer review is impressive. Some reflect the impact of the NICHD program (Lyon, 1995), but most are independent efforts. Many are one-year first-grade program evaluations, with no-treatment or alternative-treatment controls. Longitudinal studies appear but are rare. Assessments focus on the word level, including experimental tests along with well-known instruments like the Woodcock-Johnson and Wide Range Achievement Test. Missing in action are measures of fluent oral reading like running records and comprehension indicators. Test words are typically one syllable long; polymorphemic constructions are rare.
PA curriculum components in these studies mostly build on the onset and rime patterns, but occasionally incorporate more complex relations like those in the Lindamood ADD program (Lindamood & Lindamood, 1975). Most are relatively short-term and stand-alone additions to regular classroom activities, although a few are embedded within year-long basal reading programs. All the studies take place within regular classroom settingsno laboratory experiments in this list.
Predictive relations are strong throughout the literature; all of the predictive studies report that children who do better on PA tasks, especially on entry to school, are better readers in the later grades. Intervention results are less encouraging. PA-trained students generally do better on PA measures, but with smaller direct and long-term transfer benefits for decoding tasks like pronouncing pseudo-words or oral reading of decodable texts, unless the intervention combines both PA and Decoding components. The research does provide comparisons of PA, Decoding, and PA-plus-Decoding, but seldom in convincing and direct comparisons. A case can be made that PA Only training (often described as skill and drill) has limited transfer potential for the acquisition of fluent decoding and spelling and facile comprehension and composition. The evidence is less clear, but students in phonics programs do not as an automatic consequence acquire PA competence.
A critical question centers around the relation between PA and phonics. Many PA programs favor oral-only exercises or use colored blocks as placemarkers. Both logic and data support the conclusion that the best strategy is one that combines PA and phonics, rather than a stagewise approach where students learn letters, then sounds, then combine the two. As things now stand, the stagewise approach dominates current policy and practice.
Two other points stand out in these studies. One is the character of PA interventions. The onset-rime strategy is most commonplace; students learn to rhyme, to alliterate, to segment (usually at the rime level), and to blend (frequently described as the most difficult task when conducted at the phoneme level). Transformational tasksdeleting, moving, and identifying and blending individual sounds -appear less frequently. The reason is straightforward; it is hard to teach young children to work at the phonemic level. The Lindamood ADD program (Lindamood & Lindamood, 1975) appears in several studies. ADD relies on articulation as the basis for establishing the PA concept. It incorporates decisions about curriculum (understanding the articulatory basis for both consonants and vowels), instruction (direct instruction on each curriculum objective), and assessment (a block spelling test). The program sometimes stands alone and sometimes moves from PA to phonics. Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, Burgess, and Hecht (1997) have conducted perhaps the most extensive ADD evaluation. They report positive outcomes on some measures, but emphasize the importance of keeping your eye on the ball. ADD advantages are largest for indicators most closely related to the instructional program; transfer to fluency in comprehension and composition is less clearcut. Across the board, reports seldom provide information about actual program implementation, leaving the reader to wonder about details of the actual curriculum and instruction.
A second issue centers around efforts to move PA and phonics from basic skills to a higher level of understanding¾a metaphonics strategy (Calfee & Henry, 1996). A. E. Cunninghams (1990) award-winning study suggests that an emphasis on insightful learning, even when the objective is basic skills and the students are very young, seems to lead to more effective learning. Most meta-studies still rely on teacher-led direct instruction, which offers little support for genuinely reflective learning. The definition of a PA/phonics curriculum as a large collection of objectives leaves little to think about. P. and J. W. Cunningham (1992) proposed a word-building strategy that opens the way for students to explore letter-sound relations as junior cryptographers wrestling with mystery words. The meta-data appear promising, but the effects are relatively small. The bottom line is that educational psychologists have identified a valuable construct for predicting early reading acquisition, an indicator with an interesting linguistic relation to the acquisition of English letter-sound relations. We have been less adept at moving from prediction to action. One possibility is that action is simply beyond our reach, that genetic, home, and environmental factors are fundamental determinants of differences in reading acquisition. The other possibility is that current actions are poorly formulated, partly because we are unclear about the PA construct, and hence unsure about program design and evaluation. We return to the drawing board in the next section to reexamine other possibilities.
What should be the aim of future research for improving early reading instruction? Action makes most sense when focused on a goal, and so we begin by suggesting one: Success for All has a nice ring to it (Slavin, Madden, Dolan, & Wasik, 1996), and serves as the theme of this final section. But let us be clear about the meaning of this goal. Standardized tests are a poor criterion; instead, we suggest that, between kindergarten and the end of third grade, all students should acquire critical literacy, the skill and will to use language in all of its forms to think, to solve problems, and to communicate (Calfee & Patrick, 1995; Paris, 1983).
One part of achieving this competence is mastery of the English spelling-sound system: fluency and understanding, automaticity in translating print to sound, and the capacity to become strategic in word attack. High-road transfer (Cox, 1997; Detterman & Sternberg, 1993) is essential for a system as complex as English orthography. Teachers cannot hope to cover 50,000 patterns and 500,000 words. Success for the third-grade graduate means being able to read almost any book in the elementary school library, to write virtually anything that falls within his or her knowledge and experience, and to have an appetite for these tasks. Successful reading and writing have much more to do with text and discourse structures than with the print system, but the latter is the bridge from spoken to written language. This bridge needs to be established as quickly as possible, but its refinement and extension go on throughout life¾advice to complete decoding-spelling instruction by second grade reflects a profound misunderstanding of the English language.
Word Work: Foundation for a Design Experiment
As noted above, investigations of early reading acquisition fall mostly into prediction and intervention paradigms. Few studies have looked carefully at the details of the acquisition process, and these are limited to observation rather than experimentation. Studying a process that takes years is a challenge, especially in the real world of classrooms and schools. We think that further advances in the improvement of early reading acquisition toward the goal of success for all students requires taking on this challenge.
For the past several years, we have explored an alternative to systematic phonics versus whole language. Word Work (Calfee, 1998) is not so much a program as a framework, one that allows classroom teachers to experiment and that invites collaboration between teachers and researchers (Chall, 1979). It is an example of a design experiment (Brown & Campione, in press: Salomon, 1996), a research strategy that permits systematic investigations within a natural classroom environment.
Word Work incorporates several principles, all intended to promote instructional efficiency and effectiveness. First is the metaphonic principle: Insightful learning and high-road transfer are enhanced by instruction that emphasizes explicit knowledge of language structures. A second principle is phoneme awareness through articulation: By studying how they make phonemes, students gain both skill and knowledge about the relation between letters and sounds. Third is the productivity principle: Not all spelling-sound patterns merit direct instruction. Life is too short to spend hours on ough and igh. Vowels are of central importance for decoding and spelling competence and for segmenting long words into syllabic and morphological chunks. The final principle calls for transfer based on reflection through discourse: Insightful and structural learning calls for opportunities to work and talk with others about the problem (Vygotsky, 1978). Phonics is typically taught by teacher-directed IRE (Interrogate, Respond, Evaluate; Cazden, 1988); the teacher is a bottleneck through which all discourse flows, giving students limited opportunities for genuine discussion. Word Work employs a hands-on phonics approach; students use letter tiles and other manipulatives as occasions for talking with one another about spelling patterns.
The Word Work curriculum spirals and cumulates from kindergarten through second/third grade. The design includes four large clusters of spelling-sound objectives: Making Sounds (consonant articulation), Making Words with Short Vowels, Making Words with Long Vowels, and Making Big Words (compound and affixed words), Spelling and decoding are integrated, two sides of the same coin. Minor patterns (vowel and consonant digraphs, R- and L-affected vowels, high-frequency irregular words like was and of; and so on) enter along the way as minor clusters.
Instruction is built around two-week blocks, during which a significant objective (e.g., short-A words) is introduced in a teacher-led small-group session, reinforced in a whole-class exercise, repeated in small-group activities, reviewed at the beginning of the second week, and finally assessed by a spelling test. Daily sessions last fifteen to twenty minutes; the complete program requires five to six months of the school year. Evaluations in natural settings have yielded promising results (Calfee, 1998), suggesting the usefulness of the model as the foundation for a design experiment to investigate early reading acquisition. The Making Sounds component provides the opportunity to study phoneme awareness, and we turn next to this matter.
Words, Syllables, or Sounds?
What is the optimal unit for teaching children to connect letters and sounds in English? This question, which goes back at least to Cattell (1886), remains a fundamental puzzle. Teaching whole words has advantages if the aim is to help students get up and running as quickly as possible, hence the attractiveness of the whole-word approach. The problem is the absence of transfer; learning McDonalds helps with neither Burger King nor Macys. Teaching syllabic units like onset-rimes promotes greater transfer than whole words, but the number of elements is large, and blending is a problem. Teaching individual phonemes offers the promise of high levels of transfer based on a relatively few basic letter-sound correspondences. The problem is that young children have considerable difficulty grasping the concept of an isolated phoneme.
The virtue of the design experiment is that it allows investigators to explore research questions within a realistic context. Based partly on classroom observations and partly on our experiences with Word Work, we propose that the optimal orthographic unit may vary with the developmental progressionthe place in learning. Immersion in a world of words seems eminently sensible for introducing children to the purpose and power of print. The words first strategy is certainly the practice of middle-class parents, who do not typically demand mastery of letters and sounds before turning the story book pages. Immersion entails both visual and auditory stimulation, lots of printed words throughout the classroom environment, all linked to functional spoken language. Words spring from charts and from stories; the teacher transcribes the students oral compositions, legitimating what children have to say. Building a whole-word environment that includes a wide variety of onset-rime patterns (Dr. Seuss books) seems a sensible way to support PA acquisition. The ABCs and attention to rhyming patterns and alliteration are part of this picture, but not a prerequisite.
These activities pave the way for more systematic instruction in the letter-sound system. Once the student possesses a collection of words, the teacher has the stuff for analyzing print patterns through distinct and decontextualized activities¾explicit phonics. It is time to learn about letters and sounds. Phoneme awareness and phonics join together as tools for this task. Assigning students the tasks of building rhyming and alliterative patterns takes advantage of onset-rime concepts.
Returning to the question that began this section, the answer may not be whether but when. All three units may play a role in optimal curriculum design; the conceptual and empirical job is to decide the advantages of different schemes. The educational psychologists task in this kind of situation is not so much the discovery of fundamental principles, but the pragmatics of developing and evaluating alternative designs (Salomon, 1996). It is an engineering job, based on fundamental principles, but grounded in understanding classroom contexts. Does this strategy mean that educational psychologists (and educational researchers in other disciplines) are no more than tinkerers on the way to utopia (Tyack & Cuban, 1995)? We find more promise in the engineering metaphor, seeing disciplined inquiry as rigorous but practical research (Berliner & Calfee, 1996; Jaeger, 1997). Problems are the starting point, theories and empirical findings serve as resources, but solutions also depend on creative hunches. The problems may have no one best answer (Tyack, 1994), but that does not mean we cannot find satisfying answers (March & Simon, 1958).
So Much for Answers; What are the Questions?
In this section we sketch several questions about PA learning that we think are explorable and answerable within a design experiment. The questions address basic perceptual and cognitive processes, but may also guide instructional practice.
We first illustrate with several questions that center around curriculum design. What should be taught about PA, and when should it be taught? First, What? What to teach as a phoneme?" Current practice asks students to recognize or listen for target sounds or syllables. "Mark all the words that begin or end like fan." Which phonemes to teach, and in what order? Current PA curriculum design relies on behavioral-objective principles; the teacher presents each phoneme to students, who then practice the objective with feedback. The answer, accordingly, is to teach everything, often in more or less random order. How to support transfer? The evaluations in Table 1 suggest that students in articulation-based programs learn to articulate and gain slightly greater facility in decoding-spelling skills than students who receive no PA training. How to organize PA concepts? The human mind is not a mechanical computer, but a live organ that searches for (and creates) order amidst chaos. It might make sense, for instance, to highlight the functional distinctions between consonants and vowels. Within these two categories, the dimensions identified by phonologists offer a starting point for more refined classifications.
Next, When? How should PA be interwoven with readiness and decoding-spelling activities? With comprehension, composition, and language development? Answers to these questions are critical for two reasons: time and interest. Teachers (and students) have only so much time to spend on the decoding-spelling curriculum, which is after all ancillary to the main goals of critical literacy. The synergism findings suggest that some sequences may be more time-efficient than others. The brute-force solution is to take as much time as needed¾students should study phonics until they get it right. But children are not machines, and they will eventually lose interest when given repetitive and meaningless tasks.
Our investigations have generated various alternatives to current practice in response to these questions. What phonemes should we teach, and how should we organize them? Rather than everything in random order, what about teach a small set of consonants in an organized structure? In Word Work, students spend two weeks learning seven consonants: p, t, c/k, f, s, m, and n. These seven consonants, when combined with the five short-vowel sounds, generate almost 250 basic CVC patterns, including numerous productive and regular onset-rime combinations. The seven consonants vary along two primary phonological dimensions: manner (how the consonant is produced) and place (where the consonant is produced). The structure provides students with a basis for transfer to other consonant phonemes (e.g., the voiced phonemes), and (more significantly) to consonant blends. Word Work introduces vowels as glue letters that connect the consonants. Students are not taught to articulate vowels, but follow the teachers model. The result is a streamlined two-week PA curriculum.
One can imagine several variations on the preceding design choices. Deciding on and evaluating such choices require judgment calls that engineers routinely confront. Each choice has a rationale. Why start with the stops, fricatives, and nasals? Because English semi-vowels (R, L, and W) affect vowel pronunciations in complex ways (consider the vowels in pat, pal, par, and wall), complexities better placed later, in our judgment. Why sidestep vowels? Because they require relatively subtle articulatory distinctions, and reflect dialectal variations. But other choices and rationales exist, and empirical evidence is the final criterion.
How can research inform such practical decisions most effectively? One approach is to carry out laboratory investigations on each componenta useful strategy, but often criticized because of problems in application. The program-evaluation approach compares programs: Determine whether Package A yields better performance on Outcome P than Package B. This strategy has some advantages, but offers little insight into the critical processes that lead to success and sometimes to failure. The design experiment concept offers a mid-range strategyone that captures the engineering metaphorof carefully designed small-scale experiments evaluating different choices and conducted within the context of a real-world program.
So much for curriculum. We next mention three other matters that we think influence PA acquisition and transfer. The First is instruction. Explicit phonics programs typically entail teacher-led direct instruction. Embedded phonics programs also depend on the teacher for guidance, but with greater opportunity for student engagement and self-discovery. In the Word Work design, teachers play various roles: small-group instruction, whole-class activities, and facilitation of cooperative learning. The latter is demanding for kindergarten and first-grade students, but is possible with appropriate scaffolding (Norman, 1998), and provides the opportunity for reflective learning.
Second is assessment. How best to determine a students awareness, and his or her capacity to transfer this understanding to the decoding-spelling task? Adequate assessment is critical to the design-experiment concept. The challenge is to track student learning during an acquisition period measured in months or years. Assessment must accordingly be ongoing and developmental rather than one-shot or prepost. It must capture the direct outcomes of the instructional program, as well the transfer domains that are the ultimate goal of skill learning, including attitudes and motivation. An assessment program meeting these specifications includes student performance, but also requires teacher observations and interpretations. Meeting these criteria is difficult but possible (Calfee & Piontkowski, 1980). Unfortunately, contemporary PA assessments are often a potpourri, or are designed around a particular curriculum program.
Third are organizational issues. Design experiments take place in real situations, which means that the context determines what is possible. The researcher may plan a comprehensive instructional program (curriculum, instruction, assessment), but when these seeds are planted in a particular school, teacher, or classroom, the results may have little resemblance to the original design concept. Consider the teacher as a contextual Factor. A design experiment may place research teachers" in the classroom, select special teachers for the study, or engage regular teachers in the project. These and other options clearly entail tradeoffs in control and generalization.
Suppose the researcher chooses to conduct controlled studies in typical classrooms with typical teachers. Todays elementary teachers typically have little preparation in linguistics and phonology, and so the PA construct will be unfamiliar and perhaps incomprehensible. Nor can the construct be teacher-proofed by explicit textbook routines. If developmental adaptations that blend PA and decoding segments in the early reading curriculum require professional judgment, then a prescribed sequence will fail. Adapting the early reading curriculum to student variations in entry level and learning rate also requires professional expertise if all students are to succeed.
Creating a design experiment within these parameters means knowing how to enhance teacher knowledge and practice on the fly. We place professional development under the heading of organizational change for two reasons. First, after-school workshops and day off conferences have little lasting impact; genuine change calls for schoolwide, multi-year professional development. Second, learning to read takes years, and effective transition across grades requires teachers to connect with one another, so that literacy instruction becomes a school-wide task. Finally, we cannot imagine successful design experiments without ongoing collaboration between practitioners and researchersschools as communities of inquiry (Schaefer, 1967).
LESSONS FROM THE CASE
We began this article with big-picture issues, and conclude with big-picture lessons. In between we have focused on a relatively small but significant topic: the role of phonemic awareness in early reading acquisition. Several lessons spring from this case.
First is the potential of the design-experiment concept as a foundation for valid research and effective practice¾potential because the methodology for this strategy remains somewhat fuzzy. The creation of a realistic environment or platform for exploring a significant but well-defined educational problem is an important feature of the method, one that entails ongoing collaborative relations between researchers and schools spanning years and sites. Financial support for such endeavors is scarce; funders appear more willing to explore simple answers than complex questions.
Second is the critical importance of design for exploring educational problems. How is the problem to be formulated, what elements and relations make up the conceptual framework, what boundary conditions must be considered? PA studies demonstrate that something important is happening in the sound part of the letter-sound relation. When reviewers puzzle over the chaotic pattern of findings in the field, however, they are hampered by the fuzziness of the construct, and overwhelmed by a panoply of studies lacking coherence and planfulness.
A third lesson is the wisdom of doing several not so little things right. Educators alternately search for the one best (simple) answer or despair about complex interactions. We have incorporated instruction, assessment, and organizational elements in the PA picture because we suspect that, while PA is a not so little enhancement for early reading acquisition, the impact of PA in early reading acquisition depends on other contextual features: synergism with ongoing letter-sound activities and the creation of a literate community, student-centered instruction, valid assessment, and a supportive organizational environment. The engineering metaphor again seems aproposthe weakest link in these chains may undermine an otherwise sound (sic) concept.
The final lesson centers around the potential contributions of concepts and findings from basic research. Practitioners and public often express doubt or disdain for theory. Research findings are presented as complex, contradictory, and unreplicable. Proven practice can be neither proven nor practical. But we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. For example, laboratory investigations of speech perception are replicable and theoretically compelling, and provide a sound basis for thinking about the PA construct. The translation of motor theory into a PA program is a daunting task, to be sure, but the foundation is solid.
In summary, we think that the ingredients exist to resolve the real reading war (Lewis, 1997). In the PA arena, the challenge is to define and evaluate competing conceptions of the PA construct in genuine learning contexts. The challenge is worth pursuing because (1) evidence shows that explicit word-attack instruction in the early grades has clear advantages over whole-word or immersion/discovery methods, but (2) survey data show that many youngsters are still poorly served by the best of existing programs (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). A promising lead is the finding that some kind of PA instruction connected to word-attack instruction is more effective than separation of the two. The bottom line remains clear: One of every three or four students leaves third grade lacking the skill, fluency, and motivation to read and write. Huey (1908/1968) would urge US to get on with it.
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