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


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