Blast from the Past: This blog was first posted on November 25, 2014; and reposted on January 25, 2018. Last week, several teachers asked me about the appropriate instructional sequence for phonics or which commercial product had the best phonics sequence. This seems like a timely reposting.
Years ago, when the National Reading Panel (NRP) report came out, Congress tried to impose a national literacy sequence on American schools. Their plan only allowed phonemic awareness instruction until kids could fully segment words. Then the law would let us teach phonics… but no fluency until the word sounding was completed. Eventually, we’d even get to comprehension—at least for the most stalwart boys and girls who hung in there long enough.
A very ambitious plan; one that suggests a clear developmental sequence in how reading abilities unfold.
But much as Emperor Canute couldn’t order the tides to do his bidding, the U.S. Congress was powerless to determine the correct sequence of development for reading (these days it seems even more impotent than then).
Learning to read is a multidimensional pursuit. Lots of things have to happen simultaneously. That’s why in my scheme teachers are always teaching words and word parts (decoding and meaning), fluency, comprehension, and writing—not sequentially but simultaneously. Kids who are learning to decode should also be learning the cadences of text and how to think about what they read. All at the same time.
There have long been claims about the appropriate order of learning in reading, but these haven’t tended to pan out when studied. When I was becoming a teacher, one of the basals was setting its phonics sequence based on when the sounds appeared in oral language.
Babies tend to “duh-duh-duh” before they “muh-muh-muh,” so it had us teaching the “d” sound before the “m.” (Irrelevant side note: I suspect the word “dad" is the invention of generous prehistoric mom’s who told their mates that the baby's first word was referring to him -- the Cro-Magnon version of me would have been affected by that claim).
It might sound scientific to teach the “dees” before the “ems,” but it isn’t. No one has ever found that one order of phonics skills is more beneficial than another.
The NRP did find that phonics sequences mattered—and that may have tripped up our Congressmen—but NRP found it useful to have a sequence, but not any particular sequence.
Yes, teachers need a curriculum, and a curriculum will have to prescribe an orderly succession of letters and sounds. But that succession is arbitrary. Kids do better when teachers follow a systematic program of instruction for these foundational skills. That means a teacher who follows a phonics program is ahead of one who just tries to make it up along the way. But it does not mean that Phonics Program A has a superior sequence to Phonics Program B.
That doesn’t mean that anything goes in phonics. Studies do find that it helps not to pair up highly similar letters for instruction. Keep those b’s and d’s far apart; confusability matters in learning.
Usability matters, too. John Guthrie and Mary Seifert showed that whatever the order of phonics instruction, kids tend to learn the patterns that appear in the texts they read. You can teach long vowels before short vowels, but the young’uns will learn the short ones first because the texts they read will usually be stuffed with CVCs—not CVVCs or CVCes.
And what is true for foundational skills is true for comprehension, too. Cyndie Shanahan and I have speculated that general reading comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring, visualizing) will usually precede disciplinary strategies (e.g., sourcing in history, connecting the prose and graphics in science).
Some researchers (Fagella, et al., 2011) have even claimed that this order is necessary for struggling learners.
But we are beginning to see that even if low readers have not mastered the general strategies, they can still benefit from disciplinary ones.
The order that these are currently learned is imposed by the curriculum—not by any natural learning sequence. Don’t be afraid to teach disciplinary literacy strategies to students who haven’t yet shown that they can apply the common ones.
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