LINGUIST List 15.2362

Tue Aug 24 2004

Review: Applied Ling/Cog Sci: McGuinness (2004)

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  1. Stacia Levy, Early Reading Instruction

Message 1: Early Reading Instruction

Date: Mon, 23 Aug 2004 22:21:43 -0400 (EDT)
From: Stacia Levy <callmesalmsn.com>
Subject: Early Reading Instruction

AUTHOR: McGuinness, Diane
TITLE: Early Reading Instruction
SUBTITLE: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading
PUBLISHER: MIT Press
YEAR: 2004 
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-1547.html


Stacia Levy, University of the Pacific

OVERVIEW

In this book, the author provides for teachers and scholars a
comprehensive review of the research on effective reading methods,
starting with addressing early writing systems and how they developed
and continuing to the contemporary times. She critiques the work of
National Reading Panel (2000) in screening and reviewing thousands of
research studies on reading. Thoughout the book, the author addresses
the ''reading wars,'' that is, the conflict over which method works
best, ''phonics'' or ''whole word,'' coming down strongly on the side
of phonics, showing that all languages are based on sounds, and all
alphabetic languages are based on sound-letter correspondences which
must be explicitly taught. The English sound- letter system is
particularly complex or ''opaque,'' as the author calls it, leading to
a high failure of reading in English speaking countries. She also
critiques research methodology and develops a prototype for an ideal
phonics program. She ends by suggesting that the research needs to
move beyond the ''reading war'' of phonics or whole word, as we have
known for years that phonics is the only effective method of early
reading instruction, and now we must move forward to determine which
elements of phonic programs are most effective.

CHAPTER-BY-CHAPTER SUMMARY

Preface

The author addresses world writing systems and the high failure rate
in literacy in English-speaking countries. She introduces the work of
the National Reading Panel (NRP) and its attempt to sort through the
database of reading research of 1,075 studies over the past thirty
years, only 38 of which were found methodologically sound. The author
also addresses the notion of ''phoneme,'' or individual speech sound,
an important concept in reading instruction because in alphabetic
writing systems, letters represent phonemes: the spelling ''code.''

Introduction

The author provides an overview of the book's purposes: to review the
research on reading teaching methods, provide insights into our
spelling code and how to teach it, provide a prototype for an
effective reading program based on the research, and critique the
methodology of reading research. The author also touches on how to
teach writing systems, which are based on phonemes or other units
below the level of the word, such as syllables or consonant-vowel
units. Because there are so many words in a language, ''no one can
learn to read by memorizing whole words by sight'' (p. xiv), and
instruction should be based on whatever unit the writing system was
originally designed of. European languages are written in alphabets,
which are based on the phoneme. The author then touches on the
''opaqueness'' of the English alphabet system, with its many
exceptions and multiple spellings for the same phoneme. This leads
into chapter one.

Chapter 1

This chapter reviews statistics of literacy in different
countries. English-speaking countries have a high illiteracy rate
compared to European nations: e.g. 43% among American nine-year-olds
(Mullis, Campbell, Farstrup, 1993), compared to Austria, where even
''poor readers'' in fourth grade scored close to 100% correct on
reading accuracy and spelling tests (Wimmer 1993). This is due to the
''opaqueness'' of the English spelling code, according to the author,
with its many exceptions, compared to many European nations' codes
with their nearly ''one-to-one'' correspondence of phonemes and
letters. In addition, reading instruction is systematic in countries
like Austria, where children are taught the letters and the sounds
they represent, and reading and spelling are integrated. In
English-speaking countries, with an opaque writing system and
whole-word methods, neither of these is true.

The author also states that the notion of ''dyslexia,'' or reading
failure, presumed to be the property of individual children and of
biological basis, is untenable, as the disorder afflicts only English-
speaking children.

Chapter 2 On the Nature of Writing Systems

The author takes a historic view on the development of writing systems
and their properties. The author deals with writing systems as
''codes'' which can be broken and which are reversible: that is, what
can be put into code or encoded can also be decoded. So words that are
put into print can also be read. She again addresses the phoneme and
letter as the basic units in an alphabetic system. Writing systems are
invented by scholars; they do not ''evolve.'' As human memory has a
limit for the symbols it can contain, some writing systems
transitioned from whole-word to phonemic systems but did not
evolve. In addition, people do not develop the ability to hear
phonemes, an ability present at birth in normal-hearing
infants. Because writing systems are inventions and not a part of our
evolutionary heritage, as is speech, people have to be specifically
instructed in their use. And because our memory has a limit for the
amount of symbols it can contain, whole-word methods doom the majority
of its learners to failure.

Chapter 3 The Structure of the English Alphabet Code

The author again addresses the nature of the English writing code and
ways to teach it: teach the sound units first, then the symbols that
represent them, from simple to complex. Students must see that this is
a reversible code: reading and spelling are connected at every level
through seeing, hearing, and writing. The author also addresses the
reason for the opaqueness of the English spelling code: the influences
of a number of languages on English and attempts historically to
reform our spelling system.

Chapter 4 How to Teach Reading: Lessons from the Past

Here the author revisits a lot of ground already covered: the
opaqueness of our writing system, the NRP's review of the literature
and how it has provided ''incontrovertible support'' that whole word
methods ''lead to consistently lower reading test scores than methods
that emphasize phoneme-grapheme correspondences'' (p. 74) or
correspondences between sounds and letters. The author also covers
past research on effective reading instruction and problems in doing
research on teaching methods. An example is the 1963 Cooperative
Research Program, a massive project which set out to study first
graders and reading methods to ''settle'' the phonics/basal reader
debate. Basal readers tended to emphasize whole-word methods; phonics
programs teach sound-symbol correspondences. A number of classrooms
were observed and pre-and-post test scores reported. However, because
of problems in the final statistical analysis, such as looking at mean
test scores from each classroom rather than individual student scores,
the research results were ambiguous. This was the last study of its
kind, possibly due to later budget cut backs.

Chapter 5 How to Teach Reading: Modern Research

The author addresses the ''whole language'' movement, popular
throughout the seventies and eighties: the ''natural language''
approach of listening to stories, reading along, creative writing, and
invented spelling. It was fun, according to the author, and ''and it
took the English speaking world by storm ... with catastrophic
consequences'' (p. 108).

Research in the 1960s and 1970s had found that activities such as
sound-to-letter analysis, writing letters and words, teaching the
basic code of 40 phonemes (sound units and their letters), identifying
the sequence of sounds in words, integration of reading and spelling,
segmenting and blending, lots of writing activities, led to increases
in reading scores; memorizing words, vocabulary lessons, using
invented spelling, and listening to stories all led to lower
scores. In a review of the literature (Stahl and Miller, 1989), whole
language's advantages were mostly in ''nonreading'' effects, such as
print readiness and attitudes toward reading.

>From the research, the author provides a ''prototype of an effective
reading/spelling program'': no sight words, no letter names,
sound-to-print orientation, teach phonemes only, begin with the basic
code, teach children to write each letter, and link writing to
reading. '' Linguistic phonics,'' a phonics program designed by
linguists, is closest to this prototype. The author also reviews a
number of reading programs, such as Reading Recovery and Open Court.

Chapter 6: Phoneme-Awareness Training

Here the author addresses programs in ''phonemic awareness,'' based on
the theory that phonemic awareness is developmental and proceeds from
words to phonemes. This idea is not supported in the
literature. Phonemic awareness training has a low effect size on
standardized reading tests (Bus and Van Ijzendoorn 1999) but does have
an effect on phonemic awareness tests.

In addition, it appears that awareness of phonemes is present at birth
or shortly thereafter as this is how children learn language: by
perceiving the individual speech sounds in their environment and
repeating them.

Chapter 7 Reading Fluency

The author addresses other reading instruction issues, such as
improving speed. Slow readers often are inaccurate readers as
well. There are effective methods to improve their reading rates, such
as rereading the same passages and setting target rates over a period
of several weeks.

Chapter 8 Vocabulary and Comprehension Instruction

There is solid evidence on effective vocabulary instruction, such as
repeated exposure to the same words over a short period of
time. Exposing children to new words though stories is effective but
only if the students are guided in understanding the words; allowing
them to try to arrive at meaning through ''context'' is not
effective. Apparently this is too demanding a cognitive task for most
children. Vocabulary can be learned as part of an overall reading
comprehension program.

Chapter 9 How Does Anyone Learn to Spell?

The English spelling system is ''deeply opaque,'' with multiple
spellings for phonemes, only eight of which are reliable, but even
half of those have double spellings. Spelling requires recall memory,
while reading only requires recognition, so spelling is more
difficult. The author addresses issues of spelling ability predictors:
IQ, sex, and reading scores. She provides data on poor instructional
methods: learning letter names rather than sound-symbol
correspondences, reliance on sight-word memory and random word lists,
and divorcing reading and spelling instruction. The author then
addresses ''stage models,'' which are based on the assumption that
children teach themselves to spell and is grounded in Freudian and
Piagetan psychology: stages follow a fixed sequence, do not progress
backward; old learning is integrated into a new stage and is
generalized to new tasks. Stages cannot be taught. This is in contrast
to a learning model, in which new skills are gained through training
and not a biological program, as is implicit in the stage model. And,
according to the author, reading and spelling are the result of
learning, not of biological stages. She critically evaluates the
literature on ''spelling stages,'' which is weak. Research on poor
spellers has found they score below good spellers on reading tests
although they did not differ on tests of verbal IQ. They are likely to
be poor spellers because they are poor readers and do not read enough
to see different spelling patterns. The author also includes
instructional tips for teaching spelling, such as writing out words.

Chapter 10: The Many-Word Problem

The English spelling code is made up of hundreds of patterns worth
teaching: this is the ''many word problem.'' It is impossible to teach
all of the exceptions. This problem doesn't exist in languages with
''transparent'' writing systems. For the brain to solve the many-word
problem, it must see a lot of print. Stanovich and West (1989)
explored this: the best predictor of spelling ability was the author
recognition test, designed to determine reading habits.

Aaron et al. (1998) studied the spelling of profoundly deaf children
compared to hearing children to tease out the effects of phonological
awareness on spelling. Aaron proposed that deaf readers rely on
''statistical probabilities in spelling sequences,'' a ''frequency
model'' (p. 284). In addition, while hearing children rely more on
phoneme-grapheme patterns, deaf children rely on visual
processing. However, on further tests, it was found this visual memory
alone is not enough to spell common English words that were flashed on
a screen for a short period of time; deaf children performed worse on
this test than hearing children. Here the author moves into a
discussion of computer models of reading and the question of which
model fit the way humans read. Computer models of reading are
statistical and process structural redundancy in the input, using
feedback from the environment about success. Input on a word is
processed in a parallel rather than disconnected pathway, taking into
consideration the contextual dependencies of the entire word. All
information about a word, such as phonology and syntax, is accessed at
once. The author found methodological problems with the research on
computer models: there were too many factors involved in reading for
the computer programs to account for. Seidenburg and McClelland
(1989) and Plaut et al. (1996) found that ''attractor networks'' in
computers can decode new words as well as humans, through ''recurrent
connections,'' feedback within the system, in deciding on the most
consistent interpretation of input (p. 311). Whether or not the human
brain does this, the author points out, is a problem for the future
(p. 312).

Chapter 11 New Directions for the Twentieth Century

This chapter summarizes the book and makes suggestions for
future. Whole word methods don't work; teach the code: that is, the
sounds of the language and the written symbols that represent them. We
have a prototype for effective phonics instruction. We need to know
now which specific features of phonics methodology works best:
e.g. are kinesthetic/actions and other ''extras'' incorporated into
phonics lessons really helpful to learning to read? Is phonemic
awareness training beyond linguistic phonics needed in beginning
readers? In addition, some research should be done on the effects of
rereading and its effect on speed, accuracy, comprehension, and
transfer effects. More work also needs to be done researching and
designing programs that teach the advanced spelling code: that is, the
136 common spelling alternatives: work to date suggests that teaching
this not only improves spelling but also reading and reading
comprehension (Smith 1999).

Computer models of reading imply that computer programs simulate how
the human brain reads. The author has found problems in the research
design of these studies, such as their word lists used to ''train''
the computer program on the input. In addition, the research is based
on logical fallacies: e.g., that speed of reading words aloud
indicates brain processing time, that fluent readers recognize words
by sight because it seems that way. ''The idea that you can infer
something about perception, cognition, and brain processing from a
single measure of simple response time is extremely na�vey"y"No
single measure can reliably predict a reader's efficiency in decoding
text'' (p. 342-343). In addition, the author states, ''Our sense that
we read whole words instantly by sight via some direct pipeline from
the eye to meaning is an illusion. No matter how much something 'seems
like' it happens instantly, it does not. Conscious awareness and brain
processing run on different clocks'' (p. 344). However, more recent
research has shown that the expectations readers bring to the text
based on syntax and semantics govern how the text is read''
(p. 344-345). More research should be done in this area.

Appendices:
1. How Nations Cheat on International Literacy Studies
2. Misuse of Statistics
3. Analysis of Word Lists from Treiman et al.
4. Glossary
5. References
6. Author Index 
7. Subject Index

CRITICAL EVALUATION 

Overall this is a very thorough review of the current and past
literature on reading instruction. The author's main thesis is that
this research shows that phonics is superior to whole word methods in
early reading instruction and that we have a prototype of good phonics
instruction; it is now time to move on and stop investigating the
differences between whole word and phonics methods. She repeats this
point ad nauseam. Her evaluation of the state of reading research is
scathing, from the poorly designed studies that nevertheless make it
into refereed journals, poor dissemination of results due to
publication policies that allow poorly designed studies into the top
journals while well-designed studies go begging, to repeated
investigation of the same research questions we already the answer
to. Throughout the author calls for more and better research.

The book is densely packed with ideas, information, and statistics
throughout and can be hard to follow. It is at times repetitive,
making the same points over and over again: e.g. we now know the best
method to teach reading and the prototype of a good phonics
program. The last chapter basically just reiterates these points.

In addition, some of the chapters are jumbled. For example, chapter 10
covers too many topics from spelling instruction to computer models of
reading, making the chapter difficult for the reader to process.

A last quibble is that the author seems to spend a lot of time
promoting her own phonics program. Her bias for phonics instruction
over whole word methods is apparent, but after reading the evidence,
it would appear with due cause. Apart from the concerns mentioned,
this is a thorough and thoughtful review of the literature on early
reading instruction.

REFERENCES

Aaron, P. G., Keetay, V., Boyd, M., Palmatier, S, and Wacks,
J. (1998). Spelling without phonology: A study of deaf
children. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 10, 1-22.

Bus, A. G., and van Ijzendoorn, M. H. (1999). Phonological awareness
and early reading: A meta- analysis of experimental training
studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 403-414.

Mullis, I. V. S., Campbell, J. R., and Farstrup, A. E.
(1993). National assessment of educational progress 1992: Reading
report card for the nation and states. Washington, D.C.: Office of
Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.

National Reading Panel (2000). Report. Washington, D.C.: National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Plaut, D. C., McClelland, J. L., Seidenberg, M. S., and Patterson,
K. (1996). Understanding normal and impaired word reading:
Computational principles in quasi-regular domains. Psychology Review,
103, 56- 115.

Samuels, S. J. (1972). The effect of letter-name knowledge on learning
to read. American Educational Research Journal, 9, 65-74.

Seidenburg, M. S. and McClelland, J. L. (1989) A distributed,
developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological
Review, 96, 523-568.

Smith, A. A. (1999). The simple logic of sound-to- letter mapping: A
reversible code. Unpublished master's thesis, Massey University,
Albany, New Zealand.

Stahl, S. A. and Miller, P. D. (1989). Whole language and language
experience approaches for beginning reading: A quantitative research
synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 59, 87-116.

Stanovich, K. E. and West, R. (1989) Exposure to print and
orthographic processing. Reading Research Quarterly, 24, 402-433.

Treiman, R. (1994).Use of consonant letter names in beginning
spelling. Developmental Psychology, 30, 567-580.

Varnhagen, C. K., McCallum, M., and Burstown, M. (1997). Is
children's spelling naturally stage-like? Reading and Writing: An
Interdisciplinary Journal, 9, 451- 481

Wimmer, H. (1993). Characteristics of developmental dyslexia in a
regular writing system. Applied Psycholinguistics, 14, 1-33.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Stacia Levy is an English and education professor in California. She
recently completed her dissertation, which examined the vocabulary
patterns found in college student and professional writing. Her areas
of research interest include academic writing instruction, adolescent
literacy, and vocabulary acquisition.
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