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Illusory Phonics

Illusory phonics: Balanced magic

Illusory phonics - simply sprinkle a little phonics into your literature-based program and poof! - your program is balanced.

We know from a strong consensus of research that effective programs include phonics (among other components), so it is tempting to conclude that simply adding some phonics to a list of activities in an existing program will supply some vital catalyzing ingredient, strengthening the existing program, and thereby make it research-based. However, program effectiveness is not ensured solely by the presence of a portion of this vital program element. It also depends on the proportions in the final curriculum mix, in the quantity and quality of the elements, and when and how the curriculum is taught.

The proper role of phonics in a literacy program can be compared to a building’s foundation. We understand that stable buildings invariably have foundations. However, foundations may be weak or strong or in-between. It is not the mere presence of a foundation that provides the fundamental strength and stability of a building. It derives from the presence of the correct foundation. The difference between a strong and weak foundation lie in the details of the former’s make-up, such as appropriate concrete composition and the correct grade of reinforcing mesh - evenly laid through the site. A foundation’s preparation is equally critical. Trenches are meticulously prepared to ensure that the poured foundation is correctly sited to support the walls, and of adequate breadth and depth. Also, formwork or scaffolding is employed to provide initial support to any exposed or potential weak points, and to avoid any risk of slump.

The concrete of phonics requires the additional strength of reinforcing mesh if it is to avoid cracking under pressure. Thus, those approaches ensuring that students have or develop sensitivity to the sound structure of spoken words at the time that letter-sound correspondences are presented - have an increased likelihood that the phonics teaching will evoke in students appreciation of the alphabetic principle. Gradually, it will produce a generative strategy to handle the eventual heavy load presented by previously unseen words.

The foundation for a building is formed and poured before any other task, because all the construction that follows is reliant on the integrity of this initial base. If a fundamental element of the foundation is missing, then the structure is inevitably compromised. The building will be unable to attain its anticipated integrity and performance. Indeed it may fail, catastrophically or sequentially, either initially or later in its lifespan.

This foundation is allowed curing time to ensure it sets hard (thereby providing strength) before it is expected to carry a load. If this load is applied too early, the foundation will be weakened or deformed, and the building may not have the strength to handle its own weight much less the additional load of the building’s superstructure itself. So, in explicit phonics students are taught the foundations of spoken and written word structure before attempting to carry the load of reading increasingly sophisticated texts. They are provided with carefully planned, rather than incidental, instructional sequences.

During the curing time in effective synthetic phonics programs, students are supplied with decodable text that does not weigh too heavily upon their fragile load-bearing capacity. However, once they have developed an ability to manage the decodable text comfortably, the new challenges of a variety of text forms and a rapidly escalating number of new words do not threaten their ability to thrive as readers. If young readers are presented with an avalanche of inconsiderate text, they may discontinue the decoding strategy in favour of attractive, short-term, but ultimately catastrophic strategies. These include prediction (guessing) from context, pictures, and initial letters. Unfortunately, students are often encouraged by their teachers to make use of such guesses. Apart from hindering the development of early literacy, these strategies will jeopardise the proper development of lexical skills so necessary to manage the decoding demands of the huge increase in print vocabulary that occurs from mid primary school. Not for nothing is this delayed phenomenon known as the 4th grade slump. Just as the construction of a building’s foundation proceeds according to a standard sequence, so too a systematic phonics approach will attend to the details of instruction as well as to the content - incorporating such techniques as error correction procedures, adequate massed and spaced practice, and daily, short intensive sessions.

In each stage of building, an inspection is carried out to ensure that each element of the critical processes has in fact faithfully been carried out. Though builders grumble about this requirement – after all, they are professionals who know the relevant building regulations – they have learned to accept this requirement. Clients of these builders know that the regulatory scrutiny of building surveyors is necessary to avoid poor workmanship. Exemplary builders, too, accept the need for inspections - as they do not wish their reputations to be sullied by those in an industry who have unacceptably low skill levels or are prone to a lack of care. Similarly, in reading instruction, professional teachers want to know that their input is having a positive effect. Though some rely on intuition to ascertain progress, many teachers appreciate that carefully prepared assessments can be more valid and reliable. These tools help to increase confidence that their teaching is indeed effective as demonstrated by objective instruments. The proposed phonics check is one such tool that provides early information about the success of phonics teaching. This helps preclude the worrying difficulty in intervening effectively at a later date when a lack of student success has produced additional hurdles to catch-up.

Once the foundations have set, a house may be constructed with the confidence that it will able to handle the exceptional loads the environment places upon it over a long period of time. When students have a firm foundation in reading, they have been freed from the limitations on vocabulary development offered by conversation and television. When they can read fluently, recognizing effortlessly most of the words, and applying decoding skills only when necessary on particularly complex text, they have reached the point at which self-teaching occurs. They are now able to accelerate their vocabulary development, depending now upon the amount of reading they choose to do, rather than on the limited number of words able to be taught in school.

Of course, there’s much more to building a house than constructing a firm foundation. A strong foundation does not guarantee that the subsequent house will be habitable and safe. Other components, such as walls and roof also play an important role; however, these other components cannot compensate for an inadequate foundation, and indeed the whole above-ground structure may be rendered unsafe because of this initial failure. So, too, in reading development – a grasp of the alphabetic principle alone does not guarantee success. Other components such as phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension have been shown to be important.

When builders attempt to shore up faulty foundations, the task is difficult, takes a great deal of time, and is compromised at best. When literature-based programs belatedly sprinkle some phonics teaching, the effects are similar to those that eventuate when attempts are made to provide foundations after a home is finished.

Three students with differing characteristic commence school. How do they fare?

Three students with differing characteristic commence school. How do they fare?

Sarah is looking forward to beginning school next year. Her preschool year was fun, but two hours or so was not enough time to do all the things she wanted to do and learn all the things that schools can teach over a whole day. Of course, she has already learned so much – she speaks clearly in well-constructed sentences, she relates well with her age-peers, having worked out or been taught the rules of games, sharing, listening, when to behave and when to "let go".

Sarah is especially keen to learn to read and has been primed by her parents. Since before she could remember, her parents have read to her for about thirty minutes each evening – nursery rhymes and fascinating stories. She pores over alphabet books, never misses Sesame Street and regularly records it on preschool days – spending nearly an hour a day watching, answering and singing along with them.

Sarah loves creating ridiculous rhymes and word games (especially when on car trips) and speaks to her friends in a strange tongue called Pig Latin that only she and her friends seem to understand. It involves systematic intentional word mutilation that creates a secret code. The initial consonant(s) of a word is shifted to the end of the word and followed by /ay/. So junk becomes unkjay, person becomes ersonpay.

She makes up words with magnetic letters on the fridge, she copies letters on butchers' paper using crayons, and she teaches her dolly how to hold a book and run her finger under the words from left to right. Sarah's interest in letters has increased even further since she began learning how to use the keyboard on the family's computer so she can enjoy the games it can provide. Sarah will have spent several thousand hours on experiences important for the development of reading skills before she even steps over the formal education threshold.

Johnny is the same age as Sarah. He is healthy, active ("Active? Are you kidding?" says his mother) and can only be found indoors when he's asleep, in trouble, or when his action heroes are on the box. He loves activity, whether riding his bike over home-made obstacles, shooting baskets, or playing football with friends. His parents did read stories to him, but he was always asleep within two minutes, or was too distractible, or complained about them reading him "baby stuff". So the reading routine gradually faded out, and "Besides", said Dad, "He's just a happy healthy little boy; he'll have plenty of time to learn stuff like reading at school".

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How might protocols and program fidelity of implementation improve instruction?

How might protocols and program fidelity of implementation improve instruction?

“Here, then, is our situation at the start of the twenty−first century: We have accumulated stupendous know-how. We have put it in the hands of some of the most highly trained, highly skilled, and hardworking people in our society. And with it, they have indeed accomplished extraordinary things. Nonetheless, that know−how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields—from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.

That means we need a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies. And there is such a strategy—though it will seem almost ridiculous in its simplicity, maybe even crazy to those of us who have spent years carefully developing ever more advanced skills and technologies. It is a checklist.” (Gawande, 2010).

   Gawande, A. (2010). The checklist manifesto: How to get things right. London: Profile Books. Summary retrieved from


What are protocols?


There are several different meanings to be found in a dictionary. However, in this context a protocol refers to an accepted way of doing something. A procedure’s acceptance should be based upon the best available evidence that the specified approach is the best choice in a given situation. For example, airlines flight operations manuals that provide the appropriate crew actions for almost any situation. They were developed over time as it became evident that even highly skilled crew make errors, that can be diminished by use of, for example, a pre-flight checklist.

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Phonics instruction: Grapheme to phoneme or phoneme to grapheme?

Phonics instruction: Grapheme to phoneme or phoneme to grapheme? Sounds first - then letters or vv?

We know that beginners' knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds is highly predictive of their subsequent reading success.

“The strongest single predictor of first grade reading performance, among the measures administered in kindergarten, was letter identification (as measured by the letter identification subtest of the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised) (Woodcock, 1987).” (p.32)

Mazzocco, M., Denckla, M., Singer, H., Scanlon, D., Vellutino, F., & Reiss, A. (1997). Neurogenic and neurodevelopmental pathways to learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 8, 31-42.

“Letter knowledge among prekindergartners and kindergartners is one of the best predictors of reading and spelling acquisition later in school. This holds true in English, French, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, and Hebrew (e.g., Adams, 1990, Ball and Blachman, 1991, Bradley and Bryant, 1983, Bruck et al., 1997, Byrne and Fielding-Barnsley, 1989, de Jong and van der Leij, 1999 and Muter et al., 1998). Letter knowledge as a predictor not only surpasses IQ and vocabulary (e.g., Caravolas et al., 2001, Cardoso-Martins, 1995, McBride-Chang, 1999, Shatil et al., 2000 and Stuart and Coltheart, 1988) but at times also competes successfully with some tests of phonological awareness (e.g., Johnston, Anderson, & Holligan, 1996).” (p. 139)

Levin, I., Shatil-Carmon, S., & Asif-Rave, O. (2006). Learning of letter names and sounds and their contribution to word recognition. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 93(2), 139-165.

See also:

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

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More Articles ...

  1. Direct Instruction: Explicit, systematic, detailed, and complex
  2. Hundreds of quotes from the literacy research
  3. Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading
  4. Vocabulary/Oral Language/Comprehension: Some research findings
  5. Corrective Reading Decoding: An evaluation
  6. Phonemic Awareness: Yea, nay?
  7. Part 1: Whole Language! What was that all about?
  8. Part 2: What whole language writers have had to say about literacy.
  9. KEEPING AN EYE ON READING: Is difficulty with reading a visual problem?
  10. Older students’ literacy problems (updated 2016)
  11. Evidence-based practice in the classroom.
  12. Literacy And Behaviour (updated 2016)
  13. Literacy and mental health (updated 2016)
  14. Reviews supporting Direct Instruction program effectiveness Updated 23/8/2016
  15. The three-cueing system in reading: Will it ever go away?
  16. Content modality or learner modality? Various quotes on learning styles
  17. Can people with an intellectual disability learn to read?
  18. What are these Matthew Effects?
  19. Fluency: Its significance and promotion
  20. Failure to learn: Causes and consequences
  21. A history of disputes about reading instruction
  22. Using the 100 Lessons program to effect change in phonological processing.
  23. Miscue mischief
  24. Literacy assessment based upon the National Reading Panel’s Big Five components
  25. Pages and pages on stages (reading stages, that is).
  26. Seriously good online educational resources
  27. Feel like a spell? (Updated 2016)
  28. Why does Direct Instruction evoke such rancour?
  29. Evidence-based practice: What is it?
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