Showing posts with label Letters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Letters. Show all posts

Monday, March 14, 2016

Putting One’s Underwear on First: Why Sequence Is Not Always So Important


 Teacher Question:  Is there a particular order in which teachers should teach the letter sounds?

  Shanahan responds:

            It makes sense to put your underwear on before you put on a skirt, shirt, blouse, or pant.

            Unless you’re Madonna.

            Then the usual ordering of things doesn’t necessarily get the job done. She changed the sequence from bra/blouse to blouse/bra and became a star. (It helped that she was wildly talented)

            Many teachers, principals, parents, and policymakers expect the proper ordering of letters and letter sounds in a curriculum to be more than a matter of convention or style, however. This question comes up often.

            It is hard explaining to them that there is no research-proven best sequence for teaching the ABCs or phonics. But that actually is the case.

            Back when the National Reading Panel report came out (2000), there was a similar hubbub in Congress. The Panel had found that phonics programs that had a clear sequence of instruction (‘systematic phonics”) were most successful. Consequently, officials wanted to require that everyone teach that sequence.

            The problem was that the Panel wasn’t touting a specific curricular ordering, just a planned curriculum. About 18 different phonics programs were examined in those studies, and they each had their own sequence of introducing letters and sounds. And they all worked.

            When it comes to teaching something like phonics, it makes sense to have a clear sequential system to follow. That way all the important patterns and elements get taught. As a classroom teacher, I tried to teach phonics in a more individual, diagnostic matter, keeping track of what I had covered with each child. It was an unholy nightmare; too much managing and less learning for the kids.

            That doesn’t mean the letter/sound orderings are completely arbitrary.

            For example, it makes good sense to offer earlier teaching of the letters and sounds that are used most often. Children seem to learn such letters—including the ones in their names—more quickly than the letters they don’t see much (Dunn-Rankin, 1978). That means one would be wise to teach letters like t, h, s, n, and the vowels, before taking on z, x, or k. One could learn these letters in any sequence, of course, but by teaching the most frequent ones early in the process, the teacher enables kids to read more words sooner—not a bad deal for them.

            When I was a becoming a teacher there was a controversy over whether to teach consonants or vowels first. Lots of argument, but not much data: Professors showed us that if you took all the vowels out of a message you could still read the text, so consonants were most useful; their argument for consonants. And others would argue back that no words are without vowels, so vowels clearly have higher frequencies.

            Common sense eventually won out. Instead of making it an all or none proposition, we figured out that by teaching a combination of consonants and vowels kids could read and write words earlier.
           
            Still another general guideline has to do with ambiguity. We should try to minimize confusion to make early reading easier. Whatever sequence is used should separate very similar letters. At one time, psychologists flirted with the idea of teaching highly similar letters together, so teachers could point out the differences, but studies found that it was better to go the separate route (Fang & Invernizzi, 2014). Don’t teach b and d together, or m and n. Letters that are visually or phonemically similar just need to be kept apart.

            Teach one of the confusables very well before introducing its partners. A student who already has strong purchase on either the /p/ or /b/ sounds, will have less trouble mastering the other. (Ws are confusing, not because of their great similarities with other letters, but because of the pronunciation of their names: I wish I had a nickel for every time I have told a young writer to sound out a w and he has said, “ Doooubbbblle-uuu…/d/”.)

            A related question has to do with capitals and lower case letters. Which of those do we teach first? Basically, lower case letters have greater value in reading. You simply see more of them, so the knowledge of such letters is more predictive of eventual reading achievement (Busch, 1980).

            Nevertheless, kids are more likely to come to school knowing their capitals (they are somewhat easier to teach because they are more distinctive, and so many preschool alphabet toys include capitals rather than lower case). And teaching them together is not a big deal (especially for the many that are miniature versions of the capital letters: c, k, m, o, p, s, v, w, x, y, z, for example).

            I guess what I’m saying is that the sequences of instruction for these elements are pretty arbitrary and you have a wide range of choices in how you do it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t commonsense guidelines that should shape these choices a bit. I definitely would not send my daughters to school with their underclothes on the outside, but then they aren’t Madonna.



Monday, November 2, 2015

Letter Teaching in Kindergarten

Teacher question:
     Our Kindergarten is using a reading program that has some wonderful lessons. However, we also feel that the pacing doesn't match current expectations for kindergarten students. For example, the program doesn't introduce high frequency words until December and it only teaches 25 words for the entire year. The first lesson for teaching letter names doesn't come until December. What does current research say about when letters, sounds, and sight words should be introduced in kindergarten?

Shanahan response:
     The National Early Literacy Panel examined a lot of research on the role of letter knowledge in learning to read by kindergartners and preschoolers. Those studies clearly showed the value of knowing letter names. There were 52 studies including 7,570 children in pre-K or K that explored the relationship of their knowledge of letters with later decoding, 17 such studies connecting letters to later reading comprehension (2028 kids), and 18 such studies connecting letters to spelling (2619 kids). The result showed a strong significant correlation among all of these skills. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the more letters (and sounds) that you know early on, the better your chances of developing strong literacy skills.

     Of course, letter knowledge is one of those “necessary but insufficient” skills. What I mean by that is that if all we did was taught kids about letters, few would become readers; there is more to it than that, so such teaching would be insufficient. However, that doesn’t take away the “necessary” part of the formulation. It would be awfully hard to learn to read without knowing the letters.

     The panel also examined about 75 instructional studies—all done with children in kindergarten and earlier—that focused on letter names, letter sounds, decoding, phonological awareness, and print awareness. These studies were resounding in their results, too. Such teaching not only improved performance on the skills in question (yes, teaching letter names leads to the learning of letter names), but to consequent improvements in decoding and reading comprehension.

     Given that the more letters young kids know, the better they do in literacy, I can think of no reason for delaying the teaching of letters. Some kids pick them up quickly and so waiting until mid-Kindergarten probably would not be harmful. They’ll still be likely to master the letters by the end of the year.

     But what about the strugglers; the kids who don’t pick that kind of information up so easily? (Think about kids who don’t get much academic support at home or who suffer from disabilities.) They would benefit from a longer regime of teaching. That increased opportunity could make a huge difference in their success with letters. The sooner they master that part of early reading, of course, the sooner they can focus their learning efforts on other literacy concepts and processes.

     With regard to teaching words in kindergarten, I think 25 is plenty. We don’t have research studies on this so I’m drawing mostly on personal experience (as a teacher and parent) and on the professional judgment of various educators (such as Catherine Snow at Harvard).

     There definitely are benefits to learning sight words, but sight word learning gets easier as students develop phonics skills. A heavy early emphasis on words puts a lot of strain on memory, unnecessarily. I have long argued for kids to learn 100 high frequency words by the end of grade 1, and 300 by the end of grade 2, and 25 by the end of K makes lots of sense. These would not be the only words that kids could read, but it would cover a lot of those not-so-regular, super-high frequency words like “of” and “the” which are so useful early on.

     I know some programs are going wild with having kindergartners memorize large numbers of words, but I don’t know of any empirical evidence supporting that practice.

     It sounds like your program should be more ambitious when it comes to teaching kids about letters, sounds, and decoding, but its word coverage sounds reasonable to me.