Decoding: Identifying Improved Techniques and Approaches for Helping Children Learn to Read
Because reading is essential to overall academic success, one of the most serious and explosive issues in the United States today is how to meet the educational needs of an increasingly diverse population of students with a wide range of developmental needs. The situation is urgent as well, since current trends in educational achievement suggest that millions of students will not acquire the education necessary to fully participate in the economic and political aspects of society. Additionally, the inequality that results from differences in the educational achievement of children is likely to further widen the gap between the rich and poor. Children cannot learn to read without an understanding of phonics.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1996) points out that all children must know their ABCs and the sounds that letters make in order to communicate verbally. Therefore, the question in early childhood reading programs should not be whether to teach "phonics" or "whole language learning," but rather how to teach phonics in context instead of in isolation so that young learners make the appropriate connections between letters, sounds, and meaning.
Purpose. The purpose of this study is to identify the issues, research, procedures and materials that are related to the recent findings on word decoding.
Structure. This study employs a critical review of the scholarly and relevant literature concerning reading and decoding to determine what role, if any, the small group decoding instruction plays in the improvement of reading achievement for students. Determining the importance of this relationship has implications for how to effectively increase student achievement as well as how resources are allocated to achieve the best results. Given the current achievement gap between proficient readers and non-readers, the findings of this study will as a starting point, diminish this disparity and will ultimately help create more and better life-long readers. This research is significant in several ways. First, it addresses a crucial issue, important not only to school success, but the success of the public school system. It also addresses a problem that is widespread, and impacts most of America's public school students. School success seems to be an important precursor to success in careers. Therefore this study impacts not only success in school but throughout later life.
The need clearly exists and intervention programs in reading can greatly benefit struggling readers in this country, as most of them go to public schools that do not routinely offer such programs.
Review of the Relevant Literature
Background and Overview. Differences in the academic performance of children appear early. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) (1996) reported that students from low socio-economic backgrounds and many minority students consistently achieve below the national average in reading skills. Unfortunately, there is no relief as students continue on through the grade levels. In fact, according to the NAEP study, the gap widens. The longer some children stay in school, the greater the discrepancy between their educational performance and that of white and middle-class students. Steadily and inexorably, the chances for academic achievement diminish for poor and minority students as they are seemingly put on the paths toward failure. The elementary grades, subsequently, are an essential time for students to gain much needed literacy skills. When these skills are not acquired intervention mechanisms need to be put into action quickly if we, as educators, expect to change outcomes.
There can be no doubt that basic literacy and solid grounding in reading and writing skills are critical to academic performance and future success in higher education and continuing careers (Neuman & Bredekamp, 2000). In recent years, there has been a growing interest in improving children's reading and writing skills at an early age, to prevent the failures that lead to high-school dropouts rates and remedial English programs for many first-year college students. However, the teaching of reading, unlike any other topic in education, has generated much public debate. Because reading is an essential aspect of every child's learning, it has been and continues to be the focus in schools and political arenas. Differences in reading ability can be a mirror for societal discrepancies in jobless rates and wages. The achievement gap between affluent and poor and minority children in reading is therefore a matter of special concern for educators.
Research. Today, educators are faced with a number of challenges when choosing an appropriate reading program for adolescents. Based on the integrated nature of reading, together with the fact that most such programs only address one component of reading, determining which intervention is most appropriate for the needs of students requires a careful assessment of their needs and which interventions have been shown to be effective. According to Scheffel, Shroyer and Strongin (2003), this decision is made all the more difficult because of the lack of research into adolescent reading; however, the use of phonics instruction itself is by no means a new phenomenon and date to the mid-20th century.
The 1950s and 1960s represented the early era of teaching phonics by rules, where teachers would emphasize the written symbols of letters and combinations of letters sound like. It was believed that the child could utilize these rules to decode new and previously unseen words -- the "a" in "apple" would help the child read the "a" in "cat"; the "sh" in "rush" would assist in decoding the "sh" in "bush." In the early 1970s, it was already understood that our basic twenty-six-letter alphabet, if it included sounds represented by more than one letter, "ou," "th," and "ng," for instance, consisted of at least fifty-two major spelling units; thirty-two consonant units and twenty vowels. Further research identified 211 different ways that spelling units -- "gh," "oy," and "ch," as in "ghost," "ploy," and "rich,"-- could be related to different soundings of similar spellings -- "ph" as in "telephone" and "haphazard."
This study resulted in a 166 basic rules for teaching phonics (Itzkoff, 1996). Even all of these rules failed to cover all of the bases, and approximately 10% of the words that 6- to 9-year-old children encounter in their reading in the first years of schooling (over 6,000 one- and two-syllable words), were still exceptions to the 166 rules (Itzkoff, 1996).
Clearly, no ordinary child should be compelled to undergo learning that many rules and exceptions in order to learn how to comprehend language at an early age. "Just imagine what happens to children who are attempting to work their way through a sentence using systematic phonics, even with some efficiency. They must struggle against time through the sentence, before their short-term memory gives out. Then they have to bring to the front of their minds rules that were memorized earlier" (Itzkoff, 1996). In this regard, children are not only trying to read the meaning of the words, they are also trying to decode to sound and think about the rules that apply as they sound them out. Today, it is established that to sound out, no matter how many absolute rules the child learns, the unique meaning of the word will continue to be defined by the sounded-out pronunciation. According to Itzkoff, this is the tedious regimen that is required of a young novice reader who is forced to use the pedagogical rules of systematic phonics. In reality, in order to be a truly fluent reader, the transition from sight to meaning must be rapid and automatic. "For the child taught solely through systematic phonics instruction, the only result can be memory breakdown and mental fatigue, and ultimately, revulsion for the reading experience" (Itzkoff, 1996). According to Nicholson and Tan (1997), reading is a multicomponent skill in which the reader has to use a number of different cognitive processes involving word recognition, access of word meanings, parsing of sentences, semantic analysis of sentences, and interpretation of the overall text. A number of these linguistic processes are already automatic in that they demand little or no cognitive effort for the native speaker, inasfar as they are part of general language comprehension. However, one process that is not automatic, and one that must be taught to beginning readers, is word recognition. This is a skill that takes several years to learn, and even then most pupils will not have the speed and fluency of skilled adult readers (Gough & Hillinger, 1980). Nevertheless, there is more to the overall picture than that and the relationship between fast decoding and comprehension is not simply that the faster students read, the better they will comprehend. In fact, Carver (1990) showed that individuals increase their comprehension when they are provided with additional time to read. This adjustment serves to take into account the influence of text difficulty because some texts will require more or less time to comprehend. The concept of verbal efficiency, though, applies only to word recognition, which needs to be automatic, thereby enabling full use of a student's cognitive resources for comprehension and these processes may involve varying…