Friday, March 28, 2008

Krashen on phonics

Sent to the Shanghai Daily (March 27)

Anne Ross ("Synthetic phonics: The new linguistic buzz
at WISS," March 16) presents an enthusiastic
endorsement of intensive synthetic phonics (teaching
phonics "first, fast, and only"), claiming that
government reviews in several countries have endorsed
it, a study in Scotland supports it, and that she has
had success with it in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Ms. Ross does not mention that the government reviews
have been thoroughly dismantled by scholars who took a
closer look at the data. For example, Prof. E. Garan
of the US has shown that intensive systematic phonics
is effective only for performance on tests in which
children read lists of words in isolation: Intensive
phonics has only a microscopic influence on tests in
which children have to understand what they read --
tests of reading comprehension given after first
grade. Study after study has shown that performance on
tests of reading comprehension is heavily influenced
by the amount of self-selected free voluntary reading
that children do.
Garan's conclusion fits the results of the study in
Scotland that Ms. Ross mentions. A careful reading of
the study shows that children taught with synthetic
phonics were not "three years ahead" of children who
were taught using a different method of phonics. They
were ahead only on a test that asked them to pronounce
words presented in a list. On a test of reading
comprehension, which required understanding the text,
they were only three months ahead of national norms
when tested six years after their synthetic phonics
experience. This is an insignificant advantage.
The American government has based its "Reading First"
program on intensive phonics. Despite adding a
considerable amount of reading instruction to the
school day in the lower grades, there has been no sign
of impact on state or national tests of reading.
The success Ms. Ross describes in Hong Kong and at the International School in Shanghai may be due to the fact that she regards phonics as a "small but essential component" of a literacy program. In the US, it dominates the program.

Stephen Krashen

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Krashen on the best time to learn English

Sent to the Taipei Times, March 25, 2008

Newspapers are not the best place to engage in
scholarly discussions, but I need to comment on Prof.
Kao Shih-fan's letter, "The best time for learning
English" (March 25). Prof. Kao is correct in
concluding that "the earlier the better" is not
true for second language acquisition. In earlier
stages of second language acquisition, older children
are faster than younger children, and adults are
faster than children. Prof. Kao is also correct in
noting that the research shows that those who begin as
adults typically have some accent.
I need to add these points, however: Adults and
children do not use different mechanisms for language acquisition. Even though the adult has a greater capacity for consciously understanding the rules of language, thanks to greater "abstract thinking capacities", this doesn't help very much. In my view, the research shows that nearly all of adult second language competence, like the child's, is subconscious and is acquired subconsciously, by understanding messages.
Also, adults may not achieve perfection, but they
often do very well, acquiring nearly all of the second language, including an extremely complex grammatical system and thousands of words. Many of my colleagues in Taiwan are good examples of adults who have achieved high levels of competence in English. The "imperfections" in their English are very small, e.g. an occasional grammatical slip, or a slight accent. None of them would claim that hard study was responsible for their attainment, but all have read and continue to read English a great deal, and all have heard a great deal of comprehensible English, similar to the high level English acquirers Prof. Kao has studied.
Starting English super-early is not necessary, or even
helpful, and those who start as adults can achieve
very high levels of competence, not through work and
grim determination, but through enjoying good books
and movies and getting other kinds of comprehensible

Stephen Krashen