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Flexible Phonics Instruction

I’ve been spending time on the International Literacy Association (ILA) website. Notice the name change. As I suggested in a related article, “There appears to be a new sheriff in town.”

As a reading specialist, I once was quite involved with the affiliate California Reading Association of the International Reading Association (the old name for the ILA). I dutifully attended both organization’s conferences, was involved in my local council, and even served on the secondary board for the California Reading Association. However, I eventually decided to drop my membership and involvement in the late 1980s. Others did as well. The California Reading Association conference used to draw 20,000 to its annual northern and southern state conferences, but attendance dwindled to less than 3,000. My take is that the organizations’ advocacy of “balanced literacy” (an updated branding of “whole language”) was simply out of step with the findings of the National Reading Panel and the back-to-phonics movement.

Fast forward 30 years. Reading specialists, reading intervention teachers, and parents may be surprised to learn that new position papers published on the ILA website uphold the last thirty years of reading research and validate the findings of the National Reading Panel. The venerable institution now supports direct instruction of phonological awareness (phonemic awareness) and phonics. Plus, the organization’s position paper on reading fluency properly re-focuses fluency instruction on accuracy and warns against too-much attention to reading speed. Check out my article titled “Reading Fluency ILA Position” for more.

Now to the phonics issue…

The ILA website also includes a position paper with addendum regarding dyslexia. In “Dyslexia: Response to the International Dyslexia Association,” the ILA questions

Dyslexia Does Not Exist

Dyslexia Is Not Real

whether dyslexia is, indeed, a diagnosable condition and advocates abandoning the term, dyslexia, altogether. Wow. At last I can come out of the shadows on this issue. Check out my summary of the debate and my own position in”Dyslexia Is Not Real.”

Additionally, the ILA challenges the dyslexia organization’s interpretations of the research-base on explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) claims that “Dyslexia is a neurological condition caused by a different wiring of the brain. There is no cure for dyslexia and individuals with this condition must learn coping strategies (https://dyslexiaida.org/dyslexia-at-a-glance/). The key coping mechanism, according to the IDA, is explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The IDA does not advocate a specific phonics program, but the Orton-Gillingham Approach is clearly a favorite. After all, Orton coined the term, dyslexia, as early as 1925.

International Literacy Association’s Critique on Explicit, Systematic Phonics (See Research Advisory Addendum)

The writers of the ILA addendum agree with the the authors of the National Reading Panel (2000) that “The conclusion supported by these findings is that various types of systematic phonics approaches are significantly more effective than non-phonics approaches in promoting substantial growth in reading” (2-93).

Interpretation: The ILA supports systematic phonics instruction for developing and struggling (remedial) readers.

However, the ILA addendum states, “The (National Reading) Panel compared three different approaches to phonics instruction (synthetic, larger unit phonics, and miscellaneous phonics approaches) and found no difference between them—thus the approach advocated by IDA (explicit, systematic phonics) cannot be claimed to be preferable: There is no certifiable best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty.

Interpretation: The reading research does not support only one approach to phonics instruction as the dyslexia association claims.

The addendum continues, “In their report on the effects of specific programs, the Orton-Gillingham (O-G) program had the lowest average effect size (0.23). The remainder of the programs ranged from 0.35 to 0.68 (2-160). Looking further, only two of the O-G studies assessed comprehension, and the average effect size on comprehension was -0.03. Only one study reported a delayed assessment of comprehension, and the effect size was -0.81 (six months after the completion of the intervention). That is minus 0.81—thus participation in an O-G program appears to have had a large negative impact on reading achievement in comparison with other intervention methods evaluated in the study”

Magic Elixir for Reading Problems

Snake Oil Cure-All for Reading Problems

Interpretation: The pet program of many dyslexia advocates, Orton-Gillingham, is ineffective when used as the only component of reading instruction. However, the National Reading Panel Report, itself, adds an important caveat:

As with any instructional program, there is always the question: “Does one size fit all?” Teachers may be expected to use a particular phonics program with their class, yet it quickly becomes apparent that the program suits some students better than others. In the early grades, children are known to vary greatly in the skills they bring to school. There will be some children who already know most letter-sound correspondences, some children who can even decode words, and others who have little or no letter knowledge. Should teachers proceed through the program and ignore these students? Or should they assess their students’ needs and select the types and amounts of phonics suited to those needs? Although the latter is clearly preferable, this requires phonics programs that provide guidance in how to place students into flexible instructional groups and how to pace instruction. However, it is common for many phonics programs to present a fixed sequence of lessons scheduled from the beginning to the end of the school year. Finally, it is important to emphasize that systematic phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced reading program. Phonics instruction is never a total reading program.

Interpretation: The Orton-Gillingham, Wilson, Slingerland, Open Court, etc. explicit, systematic phonics programs may be ideal instructional components as part of a total reading program to some, but not all students in a class, but not as the only solution to all reading problems and to all readers.

Evaluation: The Need for Flexible, Assessment-based Phonics Instruction and More

There is no doubt that explicit, systematic phonics instruction has its place in reading instruction. As a reading specialist and reading intervention teacher, I have found much greater instructional continuity and success with an A to Z scope and sequence of comprehensive phonics instruction than with hodge-podge synthetic, analytic, embedded, or onset-rime approaches. However, explicit, systematic phonics instruction has to be quick and to the point with both developing and older remedial readers.

Additionally, good phonics instruction is assessment-based and flexible. As the National Reading Panel Report Conclusion points out, learners have different skill-sets. How does individualized instruction mesh with a comprehensive phonics program? In my Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program, the teacher begins each class with 5-minute sound-spelling blending practice in a 16-week instructional sequence to learn all the sounds and spellings of the alphabetic code. Students continue in 15-minute assessment-based phonics workshops. Some students need practice in diphthongs; some don’t. Diagnostic and formative assessments drive instruction.

Other students need phonemic awareness activities; most need work on syllabication, conventional spelling patterns, and fluency practice.

All students need reading comprehension practice. My expository comprehension articles and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books provide the means.

In other words, the teacher is front and center in my program and should be in whatever amalgamation of reading resources a good teacher uses to meet the needs of her students. Phonics instruction? Absolutely. Flexible phonics instruction? Even better.

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