The Science of Reading rejects the importance of picture books to children learning to read. In 2021, I wrote this, and many parents assumed that schools still use picture books and that children get exposure to them at home. The general idea was that picture books were taken for granted.
But while there are quibbles about whether synthetic, analytical, or systematic phonics is better, it’s hard to find Science of Reading enthusiasts emphasizing the importance of picture books. Picture books no longer appear to be a priority in early classes.
Parents and educators believe children must master sounds and phonetic rules to succeed at tests. With pressure from cognitive psychologists and parents, well-meaning teachers heavily focus on regimented teaching, direct instruction, using manuals, or placing children in front of screens with phonics programs.
How Often Do Children Get to Look at Picture Books at School or Home?
The rule appears to be that until children learn sounds and connect them to words, pictures may hamper that process. It’s not entirely clear when children are encouraged to attempt to read books independently.
This has been such a concern that reading specialists Hornsby and Wilson, in Early Literacy is More Than Phonics, asked and answered this question:
Do children have to learn phonics before they learn to read and write? No! Children actually learn phonics while they are talking, reading and writing.
This includes children with disabilities. The joy of looking at picture books shouldn’t be restricted, but they might be denied this opportunity.
Here’s a quote from PediaSpeech Services:
Children who are struggling to read might overly rely on the pictures and illustrations in texts. Those children who have difficulty decoding texts often guess words based on the illustration and insert incorrect words into the story. Without adequate phonological awareness skills (the ability to use, discriminate, and manipulate sounds), decoding and comprehension will ultimately suffer once those illustrations aren’t there anymore.
Instead of access to various picture books, a child’s teacher may provide students with decoding books aligned to the phonics sounds they’re teaching, but this is structured. Children may have little freedom to explore the subjects, nonfiction or fiction, that excite them.
This is extreme. Even respected psychologist and literacy researcher Jeanne Chall, who believed in systematic phonics instruction over whole language, described the importance of picture books from an early age. From 6 months to 6 years, she states in this chart children might pretend to read and retell stories they’re looking at on pages of a book, and later she explains how vital reading higher-level books is for children to increase their vocabulary.
Picture books do much more than expose children to words and pictures. They address phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. They help children make inferences, understand cause and effect, classify, identify sequence of events, follow directions, and much more.
Stories with pictures can also be comforting to children, help them recognize likes and differences, and observe caring and kindness. Picture books stir curiosity and drive children to want to look at more books.
SoR enthusiasts suggest that children should not guess at words by looking at pictures, generally ruling out picture books. But consider Richard Scarry’s Busy Town collection like the Best Word Book Ever which matches entertaining characters and actions with words. Many children delight in such books and learn by repetitively connecting images to new vocabulary.
Denying children plenty of opportunities to look at picture books may also be taking a toll on their future ability to enjoy reading.
In The Atlantic’s recent Why Kids Aren’t Falling in Love With Reading, Katherine Marsh writes:
. . .the advent of accountability laws and policies, starting with No Child Left Behind in 2001, and accompanying high-stakes assessments based on standards, be they Common Core or similar state alternatives, has put enormous pressure on instructors to teach to these tests at the expense of best practices.
Marsh describes how this has led to our current climate where children no longer care about reading books.
How Often Are Children Read To (or With) in Class?
Teachers also don’t appear to be reading stories aloud much anymore, the practice similar to shared picture book reading,
Australia and the UK share in America’s drive for the SoR, and a 2021 Australian study asked What’s Happening to Shared Picture Book Reading in an Era of Phonics First? (Campbell).
The study showed that many early childhood classrooms had resources, including picture books, but this didn’t mean teachers read to children or young students were free to explore books independently. Even if the classroom had book nooks, they appeared mostly for show. Most teachers taught commercial phonics programs, and omitted various inferential, rich skills that lead to increased vocabulary in reading.
If children aren’t provided opportunities to enjoy picture books on their own or through teacher read-alouds or shared reading, they miss out on a rich literacy environment.
In 2007, a UK survey of 1,200 teachers in Phonics is Killing Picture Books by the UK Literacy Association showed that most primary teachers couldn’t name more than three picture-book authors, and almost a quarter could not name any.
It has been understood for years that reading picture books to children ages 3-5 is critical. We’re also learning that exposing infants and toddlers to picture books earlier impacts later language development, including reading (Torr, 2023).
Parents concerned about how their student is learning to read should ask:
- How much time and exposure does my child have involving story time and teachers reading aloud?
- When do students visit the school library to explore books and reading material?
- What’s the school library’s condition, and is there a credentialed librarian?
- Does my child bring home picture books to read freely?
- Do students talk about book characters or story plots after school?
- Are children eager to look at picture books or reading material at home?
- How often does my child engage with a book for enjoyment?
Classes and school libraries should be filled with picture books and reading material that interest children and plenty of opportunities for independent reading, and be read to by their teachers. There’s no reason why phonics should totally replace the use of picture books. The two can complement one another.
It’s a severe loss to deny children picture books that excite, with funny, moving, and culturally significant stories, nonfiction and fiction, and books and pictures that entice them to examine words and read more.
Hornsby, D., & Wilson, L. (2014). Early Literacy is More Than Phonics. Practically Primary. 19(3), 12-15. https://search.informit.org/doi/pdf/10.3316/informit.624941039634635?download=true
Marsh, K. (2023, March 23). Why Kids Aren’t Falling in Love With Reading. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/books/archive/2023/03/children-reading-books-english-middle-grade/673457/
Campbell, S. (2021). What’s Happening to Shared Picture Book Reading in an Era of Phonics First? The Reading Teacher. 74(6). 757-767. https://ila.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/trtr.2004
Torr, J. (2023). Reading Picture Books with Infants and Toddlers: Learning Through Language. London: Routledge.
Kindergarten Critical Connection: Picture Books Teach Sounds and Generate Interest! February 26, 2023
Reading Aloud to Help Children Read Well Their Whole Lives! August 17, 2022
The Science of Reading Ignores The Importance of Picture Books to Early Learning June 6, 2021
Human Interaction & Picture Books vs. Waterford Upstart’s Preschool Phonics Online Video July 10, 2019
The POWER of Picture Books v. High-Stakes Testing & Common Core November 16, 2015
The Little Engine That Derailed—How Aligning Books to Skills Kills the Joy of Reading May 16,2014
Bravo and thank you! in teaching children’s literature, my first generation college students were exposed to art through the beautiful children’s books that we looked at. For many it was the first time they had looked at artistic representation, and it was extremely powerful.
Nancy Bailey says
Wonderful! The art in children’s books is superb! I love looking at illustrations and I have to watch myself when I go to bookstores because I will forget to leave, and I buy too many of them too! Thanks, Lauren.
Judy Smizik says
As a reading teacher with over 50 years of experience teaching reading to Title One Children, Dyslexic children, children with ADHD and other learning disabilities, I am appalled at the inappropriate information given to teachers and parents regarding what are the best strategies to help students become proficient. Readers. ,
So called experts in reading development need to demonstrate their expertise and competencies in a realistic school environment. I’ve seen far too many reading specialists who were not able to teach reading. In fact, when my school had the choice of using Title One money for a Reading Specialist or paraprofessionals, we chose paraprofessionals. Our school’s reading scores improved so dramatically that our school’s Early Childhood Intervention Program received National Recognition receiving a Title One Award in Tampa, Florida.
I headed the program while also teaching in a kindergarten classroom. My last classroom of 33 students in a Title One School outperformed 13,000 other school districts on their Waterford Early Learning Computer Software Program in not only kindergarten, but also outperformed many first grade classrooms. Teaching children to read is not that difficult when the teacher knows how to provide the proper learning experiences to help students become proficient readers. Picture Books are excellent resources for children to develop a love of books and to develop expressive and receptive language skills.
When educational policy makers, textbook publishers, administrators, university schools of education, parent teacher associations, educational journalists, and all others trying to address what are best practices for real reading instruction consult with the true. Educational Experts, the teachers, who have been successful and have demonstrated their competencies in the most challenging situations are the people making the decisions about what strategies and what methods work best to develop reading skills,, then we will have more reliable and valid professional decisions made in the area of reading instruction.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for your descriptive comment, Judy. I always love the way you describe your school experiences.
Can you name any schools or school districts that, inspired by the Science of Reading, don’t use picture books? That don’t read to students?
Nancy Bailey says
I cited information but based on what I have read concerning the SoR I see more concern about pictures than I do support for picture books.
And many still buy into synthetic phonics. I didn’t mention this in the post but it is pretty much phonics only from what I can tell.
It’s “pretty much only phonics from what you can tell.”
Sorry, what are you trying to say? That schools that rely on Science of Reading don’t use picture books? Or don’t use pictures?
Can you give us any firsthand observations illustrating your concern?
Nancy Bailey says
Yes. I did so in the post. I provide some direct quotes.
In addition, if you do a Google search Science of Reading and Picture Books it will show my 2 posts on this topic at the top and a list of reports that do not reference picture books. This actually surprised me!
I don’t see any firsthand observations.
You present present a collection of research, surveys, and quotes from experts to illustrate your concerns, which is commendable, but I can find no firsthand observations.
Ran your post through through ChatGPT – using the latest GPT-4 model – to see if I’m missing any, it didn’t find any either.
“[T]he author does not provide firsthand observations in the post…”
Nancy Bailey says
Excuse me. No. I did not go out and interview teachers and parents. I did the next best thing. And from the looks of the Tweets on this issue there’s a lot of confusion by the SoR crowd about why picture books are critical. The good thing about it, is maybe teachers will add picture books to their phoeneme discussions.
But thank you for your comments, Brian. I appreciate debate and understanding where people are coming from on this important issue.
I don’t think this author really knows what the science of reading is. She states that “There’s no reason why phonics should totally replace the use of picture books. ” However, based on this definition from The Reading League “The science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing”, the science of reading does not focus on just one aspect of reading. Additionally, The Reading League states that the science of reading is not “a single, specific component of instruction such as phonics.” Check out Science of Reading: The Defining Guide: https://www.thereadingleague.org/…/defining-guide-ebook/
Remember this is defining guide, not everything there is to know about the science of reading. It’s like a jumpstart on what to look for when digging deeper into the science of reading.
Nancy Bailey says
I have not looked at their defining guide, but their website with a quick scan didn’t show any mention of picture books unless I missed it. I did find a page about decodable book publishers. I respect the Reading League even though I usually disagree with their heavy emphasis on the Science of Reading.
I’m sorry, that doesn’t seem to check out.
I clicked on one of the links from the page you cited from the Reading League, randomly, to “Dr. Maggie’s Phonics Readers.”
I then looked up the first title on that list. It’s a book that’s chock full of pictures.
Took me all of 30 seconds to find a huge pile of picture books.
I’m trying to understand your point here. Are you asserting that Science of Reading aligned folks such as the Reading League don’t support picture books?
Because it looks to me like they do.
Nancy Bailey says
The books they are describing I believe are decodable picture books that are used to instruct students on phonics skills. Those are different from general picture books that children choose to read. I’m not against decodables, but some of them are dull.
You wrote: “but their website with a quick scan didn’t show any mention of picture books unless I missed it.”
You’re changing the criteria from “picture books” to “decodable picture books” as if picture books that happen to be decodable somehow don’t qualify as picture books.
I’m sorry, but I can’t see any support in this quick scan for the bold claim made in your headline about the “rejection of picture books.”
It looks like the Reading League, which is aligned to the SoR, does not in fact reject picture books.
In fact, the Reading League lists scores of picture books on their web site, actively promoting them, which is the opposite of ‘rejection.’
And just because you cannot, with what you characterized as a “quick scan” find any picture books that are not, as you say, “dull,” does not mean that the Reading League or Science of Reading Advocates limit the books they use to the many titles mentioned on their web site, in practice.
I could characterize, for example, the many titles in the Teachers College “Jump Rope Readers” series as dull. But I would certainly not be able to fairly claim that they limit the selection of books in their classrooms to these titles.
All that said, you suggest a worthy enterprise: surveying the books in actual use in classrooms aligned with the Science of Reading. My children attend a school which uses SoR aligned materials, so I will check.
Nancy Bailey says
Decodable books are used to instruct. That’s why they’re sometimes dull in my opinion and probably in the opinions of some children. Teachers often align decodable books with their phonics lessons. I liked the one you shared though and some decodables might be getting better. I am not against these books for instruction, but they’re usually different than the commercial books found in school libraries, although maybe they include those now too, if children are luck to have a school library.
However, SoR supporters often have concerns about pictures. I’ve had a lot of comments about that on Twitter, fears that children will use pictures as a crutch or they may not get the words correct, or even that they don’t teach. I had a couple of comments implying teachers let children check out books and do free reading but they didn’t seem to see the value in what children learn with picture books. I tried to explain that in the post.
Synthetic phonics like I said is a good example of this. Those who believe in this don’t care for picture books until a child masters phonics.
Let us know what you find when you check on your child’s classroom and how the teacher uses picture books. I’m curious.
Decodables are typically printed out by educators without color.
These are not real books nor do they have illustrative beauty to be considered picture books.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Brian & Victoria – I continually question Nancy’s knowledge on the subject matter and am concerned that she does more harm when using her panic style headers. Seems like there are better ways to advocate for public schools and reading education.
Nancy Bailey says
Ah…you’re commenting on my blog and speaking about me like I’m not here. How am I doing harm by addressing picture books which are critical for children? I’ve had several parents tell me they will ask their child’s teacher how they’re using them.
Do a Google search for starters and type in Science of Reading and Picture Books. See where the SoR talks about picture books. I think you’ll be surprised.
I did just what you said, I did a a Google search for science of reading and picture books.
Guess what I found? A picture book explaining the science of reading.
So the SoR people aren’t just promoting picture books – on their own sites – they’re literally using a picture book as a vehicle for explaining their ideas.
This is just too much.
You give us a link – I click it – and instantly find evidence refuting your claim.
I do as you ask, and run a Google search and I find something that shows a picture book being used to explain the science of reading.
So I have to ask at this point. Is this a put on? Are you working for the Reading League? Are you trying to discredit Balanced Literacy through some kind of performance here?
If so, well done, you had me going. And if you’re sincere, I apolo9ize.
Perhaps there’s a point in here that could be framed more precisely than the ‘rejection of picture books’ language in the headline of this post.
Either way, I’m going to leave now and never come back, because I can’t handle this.
Nancy Bailey says
Discredit balanced literacy? I’m advocating picture books.
There might be some confusion with picture books by your interpretation of what I wrote which may be partially my fault. I describe the difference of decodables which yes are picture books but they’re usually aligned to lessons.
The picture books I’m discussing, that seem to be left out by SoR advocates, are the creatively written commercial books. Nonfiction and fictional stories that are enjoyable for children. That they will seek out. Children learn from these books as well but they’re not prescribed and there’s no aligning to phonics sounds usually.
I hope this helps. .
Nancy Bailey says
I understand it might be different. But my posts come up first for me too. Did you find any information linking SoR with picture books? I welcome any reports involving SoR advocates describing the importance of using picture books for the reasons I mentioned, and not just decodable picture books for aligning to phonics lessons. I also used a university research site and found the reports and studies I mentioned.
Child Dev Perspect. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2015 Aug 17.
Published in final edited form as:
Child Dev Perspect. 2015 Mar 1; 7(1): 1–5.
Learning to Read: What We Know and What We Need to Understand Better
Charles Hulme1 and Margaret J. Snowling2
Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer
The publisher’s final edited version of this article is available free at Child Dev Perspect
The authors review current knowledge about the cognitive processes underlying the early stages of word reading development. Recent findings in a variety of alphabetic languages converge on the conclusion that there are 3 “cognitive foundations” for learning to read: letter–sound knowledge, phonemic awareness, and rapid automatized naming skills. Deficits in each of these skills appear causally related to problems in learning to read, and deficits in letter–sound knowledge and phonemic awareness appear to be remediable by suitable teaching. The authors argue that this evidence has important practical implications for early education and for the diagnosis and treatment of children with reading difficulties.
Keywords: reading, decoding, dyslexia, intervention, causes
Learning to read is a key objective of early education and difficulties in learning to read can have serious adverse consequences. A proficient reader can decode print efficiently and build a coherent “mental model” of the meaning of a passage. Although being a good reader involves much more than having efficient decoding skills, it is certainly the case that poor decoding will be an obstacle in developing adequate comprehension skills. In this article, we discuss the mechanisms by which children learn to decode print and why children with dyslexia have difficulties in this realm (for a discussion of difficulties specifically affecting the development of reading comprehension, see Hulme & Snowling, 2011). We focus particularly on individual differences in cognitive skills that appear to place constraints on the early phases of learning to read in alphabetic languages (languages where a small number of letters are used to represent the phonemes, or speech sounds, that make up spoken words). Drawing on this evidence, we argue that identifying the proximal causes of reading difficulties is critical for planning educational interventions.
CAUSAL INFLUENCES ON LEARNING TO READ
Levels of Explanation
When considering causal influences on the development of reading, it is important to distinguish different levels of explanation (Hulme & Snowling, 2009; Morton & Frith, 1995). The ultimate causes of individual differences in learning to read are the biological and environmental factors that shape the development of brain systems underlying reading. There is good evidence for genetic influences on how easily children learn to read and causal risk factors for the severe reading problems that are seen in children with dyslexia (e.g., Pennington & Olson, 2005; Plomin & Kovas, 2005).
A range of environmental factors, including the literacy environment in the home, also influence children’s reading development. For example, “code-focused” activities by parents with their preschool children (teaching children letter–sound relations and how to recognize printed words) give children a head start in mastering reading (decoding) skills when they enter school (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002). Conversely, “meaning-focused” activities (reading stories aloud and discussing them with the child) appear to improve language and reading comprehension skills.
The quality of instruction children receive also influences reading development. Phonically based reading instruction (explicitly teaching children the letter–sound relations and how to use “sounding out” strategies to read unfamiliar words) is more effective than less systematic approaches (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). It is also now well accepted that children learn to read more easily in alphabetic orthographies (writing systems) with highly consistent spelling-to-sound correspondences (e.g., Finnish) than in less consistent orthographies (e.g., English; Seymour, 2005).
Our focus is on a cognitive level of explanation for reading development. A cognitive explanation focuses on the processes that underlie learning to read. Much of the evidence relevant to this approach comes from studies of the factors associated with individual differences in reading ability. We consider three classes of evidence:
Comparisons of children with dyslexia with typically developing children help generate causal hypotheses about factors that may be responsible for difficulties in learning to read.
Longitudinal studies that examine cognitive variables predictive of later variations in children’s reading skills can help establish causal precedence (i.e., whether putative causes operate prior to the development of reading).
Training studies build on the findings of longitudinal studies and provide the best evidence for causal effects. After a theoretically plausible causal factor is identified, training in this skill should bring about improvements in reading. For example, if training in letter knowledge results in faster progress in learning to read, this provides evidence that it is one causal influence on learning to read.
We would emphasize that causes can never be directly observed, but always have to be inferred from studies based on a sound theoretical foundation. It is also important to emphasize that causes do not operate in an all or none fashion, but rather increase or decrease the probability of an outcome (e.g., smoking increases the chances of getting lung cancer, but not all smokers get the disease). Moreover, developmental interactions between causes are likely: Reading is highly heritable, but genetic effects on reading have their impact in the context of environmental influences. A child who carries a genetic risk of dyslexia is not only likely to have problems learning to read but also to self-impose restrictions on the literacy activities he or she experiences (Snowling, Muter, & Carroll, 2007).
Individual Differences in Children’s Early Reading Skills
Reading, like many other characteristics (e.g., IQ, height), is distributed normally in the population. This is consistent with the idea that many different genetic and environmental influences contribute small effects to the continuous variations in reading ability that are observed. Such distributions also underline the fact that when we talk about dyslexia, where we place the boundary between the disorder and the rest of the population is to a large extent arbitrary.
Three main predictors have been identified in efforts to account for these individual differences in the early reading skills: letter knowledge, phoneme awareness, and rapid automatized naming (RAN; Caravolas et al., 2012; Lervåg, Bråten, & Hulme, 2009).
Phoneme Awareness Many concurrent and longitudinal studies have assessed the relation between phoneme awareness and children’s reading ability. Measures of phoneme awareness involve children manipulating or making judgments about phonemic units in spoken words or nonwords. A commonly used task is phoneme deletion (e.g., say the word “CAT” without the /k/ sound—response “AT”). Melby-Lervag, Lyster, and Hulme (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of studies on phoneme awareness and its relation with reading skills in children. The review included both extreme group comparisons (comparing poor readers with typically developing children) and correlational studies of unselected samples. The results from extreme group comparisons indicated that children with dyslexia show a large deficit on phoneme awareness tasks in relation to typically developing children of the same age (pooled effect size estimate d = −1.37) and to younger children matched on reading level (pooled effect size estimate d = −0.57). Analyses of studies of unselected samples showed that phonemic awareness was a strong correlate of individual differences in word reading ability, and that this effect remained reliable after controlling for variations in both verbal short-term memory and awareness of the onset-rime components of words. This shows that phoneme awareness has a close association with variations in reading skills in children, but does not on its own establish that this is a causal connection.
Letter Knowledge Letter knowledge, the other essential component for understanding the alphabetic principle (the notion that letters in printed words map on to phonemes in spoken words; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989), also predicts variations in children’s ability to read words. Moderate correlations have been reported between letter knowledge assessed at the beginning of first grade and word reading skills measured at the end of the school year (e.g., Bond & Dijkstra, 1967; Lervåg et al., 2009; Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Stevenson, 2004).
Letter knowledge may predict learning to read for either of two reasons. First, mastery of the alphabetic principle provides the child with a self-teaching strategy whereby unknown words can be decoded by “sounding out” on a letter-by-letter basis (Share, 1995). This is unlikely to be the complete explanation, however. Learning letter names and sounds provide a measure of visual-phonological associative learning that is fundamental to learning to read (learning to read a word aloud involves creating in memory an association between the printed form of the word and its pronunciation). For example, skill in learning visual–verbal paired associates (i.e., associating abstract shapes with a nonsense word) predicts individual differences in reading skill (Hulme, Goetz, Gooch, Adams, & Snowling, 2007). Similarly, studies of children with dyslexia have shown them to have impairments on such paired-associate learning tasks (Mayringer & Wimmer, 2000; Messbauer & de Jong, 2003). Such visual-verbal paired-associate learning is directly analogous to the process of learning to associate letters with their sounds or names. These findings suggest that variations in letter knowledge may tap into a basic associative learning mechanism that is a fundamental component of learning to read.
Phoneme Awareness and Letter Knowledge: Issues of Causation Phoneme awareness and letter knowledge are closely linked to learning to read. Both these effects operate longitudinally from an age when reading skills are very limited (e.g., Muter et al., 2004), which suggests that they may reflect causal influences on learning to read. Direct evidence for causation requires training studies and indeed, training children in phonemic awareness is effective when coupled with appropriate phonically based reading instruction in helping improve word reading skills. For example, a meta-analysis reported an effect size of d = 0.67 (based on seven studies) for training phonemic awareness on word reading (National Institute for Literacy, 2008).
A recent study by our own group (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2008) sought further evidence for the causal role of phoneme awareness and letter–sound knowledge in learning to read by delivering a phonology with a reading intervention program that provided training in letter–sound knowledge and phoneme awareness alongside direct reading instruction. This intervention produced significant improvements (in comparison to a control group who were given an oral language intervention) in later word-level reading and spelling skills. Furthermore, reanalysis of data from this study (shown in Figure 1) revealed that the improvements in letter–sound knowledge and phoneme awareness measured at the end of the intervention fully accounted for the improvements seen in the children’s reading and spelling skills measured 5 months after the intervention had finished (Hulme, Bowyer-Crane, Carroll, Duff, & Snowling, 2012).
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Path model showing that the effects of a phonology + reading intervention are mediated by its effects on phoneme awareness and letter knowledge (from Hulme et al., 2012).
Because this study randomly assigned children to two different interventions (a phonology and reading program or an oral language intervention program), we have good evidence that the improvements seen in letter knowledge, phoneme awareness, and literacy skills are causal effects. However, perhaps more critically, the results of the mediation model provide support for the theory that motivated the intervention—that weaknesses in letter knowledge and phoneme awareness are two causes of difficulties in mastering reading and spelling skills, and these skills will improve to the extent that these two underlying skills (phoneme awareness and letter–sound knowledge) improve following training.
RAN The last important predictor of variations in reading development is RAN, in which children name as quickly as they can a list of pictures, colors, letters, or numbers. Children with dyslexia perform poorly on RAN (Wolf & Bowers, 1999) and in unselected samples of children, there are reliable concurrent and longitudinal correlations between RAN and children’s reading skills (see Bowey, 2005; Kirby, Georgiou, Martinussen, & Parrila, 2010, for reviews). The fact that using even RAN with pictures and colors, measured before children can read, is predictive of later variations in reading skills (Lervåg & Hulme, 2009) indicates that this effect cannot be just a consequence of differences in letter knowledge, and the fact that it predicts reading accuracy as well as fluency indicates that it is not just a measure of speed of processing. Whatever RAN taps into, it is statistically independent of letter knowledge and phoneme awareness as a predictor of reading development. However, we would emphasize that there is no evidence from a training study to clinch the argument that RAN plays a causal role in constraining the rate of reading development; on the contrary, training in rapid letter naming appears to affect neither RAN nor reading reliably (see Kirby et al., 2010).
At the moment, the relation between RAN and letter knowledge and their putative causal role in learning to read is a little uncertain. Lervåg and Hulme (2009) argued that RAN is an index of the efficiency of a left-hemisphere brain circuit that underlies object naming and that this circuit is recruited to form the basis of the visual word-recognition system. However, in cognitive terms, both these tasks would seem to depend upon the same cross-modal associative learning mechanism (associating what is seen—a letter or a picture—with its name) and hence they show a substantial correlation with each other. Thus, we would argue that both RAN and letter knowledge may predict how well children learn to read because they both reflect a common cross-modal (visual–verbal) associative learning mechanism that is central to the process of learning to read. In addition to this, however, letter knowledge probably also plays an additional more direct role in reading development as it is one component needed for developing a “phonic” strategy that can be used to decode unfamiliar words. Evidence from Hulme et al. (2012) is consistent with this in showing that the degree of letter knowledge and phoneme awareness acquired at the end of an intervention are both critical determinants of the level of word reading achieved some months later.
DOES READING DEVELOP IN SIMILAR WAYS IN DIFFERENT ALPHABETIC SCRIPTS?
As noted earlier, English is more inconsistent in its mappings between letters and the sounds in words than other alphabetic orthographies that have been studied. This has led some to argue that the relative importance of variations in letter–sound knowledge, phonemic awareness, and RAN as predictors of reading ability would differ in English in comparison to languages whose orthographies have more consistent spelling-sound correspondences. Wimmer, Mayringer, and Landerl (2000) argued that in consistent orthographies, RAN is the predominant predictor of variations in reading ability (which is usually measured by speeded measures of reading fluency), whereas phoneme awareness and letter–sound knowledge are much less important. A wide range of studies have been conducted examining the predictive relation between RAN and reading in different languages, with rather complex and inconsistent results (for reviews, see Caravolas et al., 2012; Kirby et al., 2010). These inconsistencies likely reflect the fact that different studies have used different measures of reading and RAN.
To try to reconcile these apparent inconsistencies, Caravolas et al. (2012) conducted a large-scale longitudinal study of learning to read in four languages (English, Spanish, Slovak, and Czech) in which directly comparable measures were used in all languages. The study began just before, or soon after, children started formal reading instruction and assessed the relative importance of phoneme awareness, letter–sound knowledge, RAN, and verbal memory span measured at the beginning of the study as predictors of reading ability some 10 months later. The findings revealed a remarkably clear pattern, with phoneme awareness, letter–sound knowledge, and RAN (but not verbal memory span) being reliable predictors (with similar relative importance) of later reading skills in all four languages. Furthermore, phoneme awareness was at least as strong as a predictor of both reading and spelling development as RAN in the Caravolas study, even when reading was measured by speeded tests. In sum, this study suggests that the cognitive processes involved in learning to decode print are essentially identical in English and the three other much more consistent European orthographies studied. Further research is needed to establish whether letter knowledge, phoneme awareness, and RAN are truly universal influences on reading development in different alphabetic orthographies, but current evidence is consistent with this idea (see also Ziegler et al., 2010).
We should note that we are not arguing that phonemic awareness, letter knowledge, and RAN are the only cognitive factors that influence children’s reading development. Other language abilities such as vocabulary knowledge and morphological awareness (understanding the way in which morphemes—units of meaning—can be combined to form words) are likely to influence learning to read. We believe that these “higher level” language skills may become relatively more important for reading development as children get beyond the initial stages of learning to read that we have been discussing here (see Kirby, Desrochers, Roth, & Lai, 2008, for a review).
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The work we have summarized here is important, theoretically and practically. Theoretically, learning to read in alphabetic orthographies appears to depend on at least three key cognitive skills: letter knowledge, phoneme awareness, and RAN. Practically, we know that the first two of these skills can be directly taught, and recommendations to this effect are already embodied in current educational recommendations in both the United States (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) and the United Kingdom (Rose, 2009). It is clear from well-controlled randomized trials for children with reading difficulties that teaching that involves letter–sound knowledge and phonemic awareness training can bring about statistically reliable improvements in word reading skills with moderate effect sizes. We therefore have evidence about what works for children with reading problems, and such evidence derives from and helps support current theory in this area.
But it is also clear that this evidence could be improved. Most of the interventions that have been evaluated are relatively short term (20 weeks or so is typical) and the effect sizes are moderate. Further research is badly needed with longer term, possibly more intensive, interventions to see if such effects are durable and whether they can be improved upon. It also must be acknowledged that the problems we have identified as important causes of early difficulties in learning to read (particularly weaknesses in letter knowledge and phoneme awareness) are highly heritable (Byrne et al., 2009). We have shown here that short-term interventions in relatively young children can produce reliable improvements in these underlying skills, which are associated with improvements in reading. We should emphasize, however, that such interventions do not amount to cure reading problems; on the contrary, many children are likely in need of ongoing support for many years to help to overcome their inherited predisposition to become poor readers.
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Nancy Bailey says
I have no problem with this, especially when referring to children with reading difficulties. But it doesn’t diminish the importance of ensuring that young children have access to picture books and are read aloud too often. I would argue the two can go hand-in-hand and I’m not talking about decodable books, although there’s a place for them as well.
Thank you for going through the trouble of sharing the research. They’re all interesting, and I appreciate it.
Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis
Linnea C. Ehri, Simone R. Nunes, […], and Dale M. Willows+1View all authors and affiliations
Volume 71, Issue 3
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A quantitative meta-analysis evaluating the effects of systematic phonics instruction compared to unsystematic or no-phonics instruction on learning to read was conducted using 66 treatment-control comparisons derived from 38 experiments. The overall effect of phonics instruction on reading was moderate, d = 0.41. Effects persisted after instruction ended. Effects were larger when phonics instruction began early (d = 0.55) than after first grade (d = 0.27). Phonics benefited decoding, word reading, text comprehension, and spelling in many readers. Phonics helped low and middle SES readers, younger students at risk for reading disability (RD), and older students with RD, but it did not help low achieving readers that included students with cognitive limitations. Synthetic phonics and larger-unit systematic phonics programs produced a similar advantage in reading. Delivering instruction to small groups and classes was not less effective than tutoring. Systematic phonics instruction helped children learn to read better than all forms of control group instruction, including whole language. In sum, systematic phonics instruction proved effective and should be implemented as part of literacy programs to teach beginning reading as well as to prevent and remediate reading difficulties.
Nancy Bailey says
I have difficulty with anything from the NRP because I read Joanne Yatvin’s panel review.
Also, just because I recognize that many children may become excellent readers through early exposure to picture books doesn’t mean phonics isn’t important.
Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls
Rhona S. Johnston, Sarah McGeown & Joyce E. Watson
Reading and Writing volume 25, pages1365–1384 (2012)Cite this article
A comparison was made of 10-year-old boys and girls who had learnt to read by analytic or synthetic phonics methods as part of their early literacy programmes. The boys taught by the synthetic phonics method had better word reading than the girls in their classes, and their spelling and reading comprehension was as good. In contrast, with analytic phonics teaching, although the boys performed as well as the girls in word reading, they had inferior spelling and reading comprehension. Overall, the group taught by synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and reading comprehension. There was no evidence that the synthetic phonics approach, which early on teaches children to blend letter sounds in order to read unfamiliar words, led to any impairment in the reading of irregular words.
Nancy Bailey says
I assume you’re saying synthetic phonics sounding out and blending the letters (phonemes) compared to reading the word is better. But I’m not sure where picture books fit here.
I’m not against phonics, but many in the synthetic phonics camp seem to think that children must sound out the words and learn them before they are exposed to picture books. I don’t see why.
Name names. Name someone who says that, and quote them.
Earlier you retweeted someone highlighting this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Lan72cVDRg
I’m sharing research that provides a fuller picture.
But while we’re on this provide evidence for this assertion: “many in the synthetic phonics camp seem to think that children must sound out the words and learn them before they are exposed to picture books”
Name a name, and quote them.
Nancy Bailey says
Not sure how you’re debating Hruby’s video, which is a good explanation of phonics throughout the years. Some are being led to believe that phonics use in classrooms is new.
Also, here’s a good run down about synthetic phonics. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/jan/19/focus-on-phonics-to-teach-reading-is-failing-children-says-landmark-study
Not research but how it’s often interpreted by https://readingeggs.com/articles/2012/06/22/synthetic-phonics/
“Synthetic phonics is a more accelerated form of phonics. Children are taught letter sounds upon starting school, before they learn to read, and even before they are introduced to books.”
Also, the Rose Review out of the UK is interesting although they’re speaking about systematic phonics. Rose was cited in one of the research articles you provided.
What Says says
The only hard data in the article from the Guardian you shared is at the end:
“A Department for Education spokesperson said systematic phonics teaching had been proven the world over to be the most effective method of teaching children to read.
“Since the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012, the percentage of Year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard in reading has risen from 58% to 82%, with 92% of children achieving this standard by Year 2.””
Those numbers sound great, no? Sounds like phonics is working. Though maybe there’s more to this.
So let’s dig into the report the Guardian story was reporting on. Don’t find many numbers, but do find this assertion:
“In comparison with the national curricula in the other English language dominant countries that we reviewed, England’s national curricula of 2014 represents an outlier. Whereas other countries either have a whole langue or balanced instruction orientation to the teaching of reading, England heavily emphasises synthetic phonics teaching.”
Really? Let’s take a look at one example. The study characterizes Ireland’s approach as “whole language.”
But the information I found in the Irish media suggests this is not so, they use phonics. In fact, Irish schools use a program called “Jolly Phonics.”
Here’s how Jolly Phonics is described by the publisher, a primary source:
“Our Jolly Phonics course has transformed the teaching of reading and writing for children in the first years of primary school. Extensive research has shown that a synthetic phonics approach is the key to unlocking independent reading for all.
The majority of primary schools in Ireland have made Jolly Phonics the preeminent programme of choice for teaching children to read. Why? Simply because it is so effective and efficient in equipping young children with the skills and techniques required to read independently and confidently in the shortest possible time-frame.”
This is not just a detail, this is material to their entire argument: Ireland is a very strong performer in international literacy tests, among the best in the world.
More evidence? There is in fact, discussion in Irish media about whether the phonics system “used as a literacy learning tool in Irish primary schools” goes too far!
But that Ireland is doing relatively well is undeniable if you look at PISA scores.
That Ireland strongly emphasizes phonics is undeniable based on primary sources.
That the authors of the study you cite got this easily checkable fact – one key to their entire argument – wrong is undeniable.
Following the first line of inquiry that comes to mind this entire paper falls apart completely.
Nancy Bailey says
I used several studies to make the points I wished to make, and while some parents and educators were critical of the post, the conclusion seemed to be that quite a few don’t believe reading books to children and giving them books to look at results in learning HOW to read. Of course, I’m afraid I have to disagree.
Also, many parents voiced concern about children relying too much on pictures for the words and that they might always need pictures for reading.
But I didn’t know your point about Ireland and I always like to learn how other countries are teaching reading. So thank you whoever you are.
One of the overarching problems here is that many educators, BOEs, parents, and the media have been duped into believing that current assessments that use Common Core standards, accurately measure reading abilities. No test that uses objective, MC items can accurately evaluate reading achievement when the standards used are vague, subjective, and open to interpretation, Yet this inherent flaw in our current reading tests is making it literally impossible to determine which method of reading instruction is most effective. Developmentally inappropriate (CC) standards are another fundamental problem that continue to skew reading scores downward. And we cannot overlook the simple truth that language arts test scores are significantly impacted by a lifetime of language immersion/acquisition along with general life experiences (background knowledge and vocabulary) – influences that reach far beyond the classroom.
Nancy Bailey says
Excellent point! Yet, they’re STILL promoting Common Core as wonderful. Note the puff piece recently about E.D. Hirsh. Have never understood how one can begin to think they can collect all the necessary information a child should learn.
Susan Ohanian posted an older Ed Week article she did to critiquing Hirsh but it’s behind a paywall. “Finding a ‘Loony List’ While Searching for Literacy” if you can access it.
Thank you, Ron.