Cheryl is excited about new research supporting what many teachers have understood for a long time, but which has been ignored by programs such as Reading First: in order to teach children how the read, the curriculum must include lots of writing and writing instruction.
by Cheryl Sigmon
Regular contributor to the Gazette
October 1, 2008
Every time we turn on the television or pick up a newspaper during this season steeped with politics, we’re bombarded with chants for CHANGE! CHANGE! CHANGE! After reading an article in September’s issue of Educational Leadership, “Why Phonics Teaching Must Change,” I’m ready to carry a placard and attend a convention to campaign for some major changes in the way we do business in our classrooms! Just what has gotten me excited?
First, let me share why the changes proposed in this article are particularly exciting to me and probably will be to you as well. Reading First totally ignored writing as a critical part of a balanced literacy program. Writing not only wasn’t considered an equal partner in reading instruction, it wasn’t considered a necessary element AT ALL as evidenced by the resulting publications of the National Reading Panel (NRP). Most practitioners knew that wasn’t right. Some of us had the luxury of continuing to make writing a part of our balanced program in spite of the “medical research” that the Panel urged. We just knew better. Not everyone was as fortunate to be allowed to use their best professional judgment. Many states began wholesale to eliminate writing from their testing programs, which, as we’re all well aware, also ultimately purged it from their curriculum and classrooms. Sad but true.
As another repercussion of NRP, phonics gained clout in the curriculum, often receiving a disproportionate amount of time and skewing the balance of many programs. Now, don’t get me wrong. I realize that, as supported by many studies and much experience, phonics and phonemic awareness are essential skills for good reading. But, there are other important elements that produce good readers and which shouldn’t be ignored—such as encouraging a love of reading. We still need balance—not just drill on phonics and phonemic awareness, and, certainly not to the extent that they are taught in a monotonous, disconnected way. It’s been happening. Sad but true.
So now… what is this research that has me energized? The research and implications for instruction were included in an article entitled, “Why Phonics Teaching Must Change,” (Educational Leadership, September, 2008, Vol. 86, No. 1, pp. 77 – 81) written by research neuropsychologist, Jeannine Herron who has been the principal investigator on several reading research studies funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The NRP enthusiasts will appreciate that the study is based on brain research (a.k.a. medical research—the only research which the NRP considered valid), using fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and MRIs, which exposed how reading processes are performed in the brain.
Cutting to the main point, this research reveals that encoding, rather than decoding, appears to be the most effective way to teach young children to read. Years ago, I heard someone share research that said that 60% of our children learn to read first through their own writing rather than through decoding text. I was not able to verify that statistic in any study that I could find. I did, however, think it sounded reasonable. So, Herron’s research didn’t surprise me. It confirmed my suspicions, and it validated my efforts in classrooms that I support. I had always explained the phenomenon through Lucy Calkins’ words: “Writing is reading from the inside out.” And, actually, that’s what this research pretty much concluded. However, the researchers substantiated their claim in clear, tangible ways.
One main point revealed in the research is that the speech area of the brain, in the left-hemisphere, sequences and remembers phonemes. In writing, students must first pronounce sounds, stimulating the speech center of the brain. In good readers, critical reading elements are stored and accessed directly in the left hemisphere—the speech center. In poor readers, dyslexics in particular, the right hemisphere is accessed and is neurally distant from the speech and comprehension center of the brain, complicating the process.
The explanations and examples in this article are comprehensible and powerful in their presentation. The author also takes the opportunity to recommend seven changes based on the research findings that could make a tremendous difference in students’ academic performance. I won’t outline those here since the article should be the source of further exploration. However, there are some broad implications for change in our classrooms which I’ll mention.
One change is that writing needs to be a primary method through which children are taught phonics and phonemic awareness. Writing, or what we technically refer to as encoding (*see note below), is the way that students learn to organize and apply their phonetic understanding. This is one reason why we don’t want to spell for students during our writing workshops. If we spell for students, we take away the opportunity for students to apply their phonetic understanding. Further advantageous for such a powerful reading approach, writing isn’t limited to a certain time of the day and isn’t limited to a certain topic or subject. Writing can—and should—permeate the entire curriculum. It’s one of the best ways to evaluate students’ understanding of what they are learning. It’s also a necessary way to communicate, particularly powerful when used skillfully, and a valuable life skill. Many teachers will be glad to have the research to support the need for time in the curriculum to include lots of writing and writing instruction. (Note: Encoding and decoding merely refer to the process of matching either sounds to symbols or symbols to sounds. “Real” reading, as we know is more than “calling words,” and “real” writing is more than putting words on the page. We also strive for comprehension and craft in our instruction of these literacy skills.)
Another implication of this research is, of course, how phonics is taught. We need to teach the sounds systematically and then guide and support students as they think through the connection of sound and symbol, using speech as they put those symbols on paper—in other words as they write. No longer can we use rote workbook activities that don’t require students to think and apply what they’ve learned in an authentic context. No longer should we have students identifying digraphs and blends or circling and matching pictures and sounds. And, if the current research is correct, no longer should we teach phonics primarily through decoding.
Encoding—moving from sound to symbol—according to this research, is clearly the most effective way and may well be the most engaging instructional method as well. In test studies, where two different methods of encoding instruction were used, both groups showed significant gains—not only at the word level but also gains in comprehension as well. The approaches used in the studies are referenced in Herron’s article.
I would encourage you to access the article I’ve alluded to and study it carefully. Most of our schools and students aren’t yet performing where we want them to be. We need to read the research for ourselves and advocate for those principles that we know are best for our students—even when bureaucracies guide us in other ways. Yes, the presidential candidates are right—change is what we need!
Cheryl Sigmon has been an educator for nearly 30 years as a classroom teacher, a Dept. of Ed. language arts consultant, and currently as a seminar presenter, trainer and consultant in schools and districts around the US and Europe. She owns her own consulting firm, Sigmon & Associates, Inc., that brokers consulting services. She is co-author with Pat Cunningham and Dottie Hall of the bestselling Teacher's Guide to Four-Blocks and author of Modifying Four-Blocks for Upper Grades. Also, she is the author of numerous other professional books on literacy, including a writing mini-lesson series, Just-Right Writing Mini-Lessons (grade 1, 2-3, 4-6) and her newest comprehension mini-lesson series, Just-Right Comprehension Lessons (grades 1-6) with Scholastic Publishing Co.
On a personal note, she and her husband, Ray, live in SC, where they enjoy their state’s beautiful beaches and spend time with their three daughters, two grandchildren, and a multitude of grand-dogs and grand–cats!