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Not the best for reading? Theories supporting phonics fail further tests


Thursday 12 September 2013 11:25am

Further evidence that a phonics approach may not offer the one effective path to success in learning to read has been provided by University of Otago-led research involving a Japanese writing script.

The new findings, published in the international journal Reading and Writing, are in line with those from the researchers’ previous studies into learning to read, which cast doubt on theories that support “sounding out” letters or parts of words as the only ‘best’ way for learning progress.

University of Otago College of Education Associate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flinn, Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Brian Thompson and other colleagues at the Hokkaido Pharmaceutical University and the University of Auckland undertook the research.

Assoc-Prof-Claire_Fletcher-FlinnAssociate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flinn

The researchers’ experimental tests of alternative theories involved Japanese and New Zealand students learning to read in the Hiragana script, which uses symbols for syllables, as well as for a few sounds within syllables.

Two experiments with five-year-old Japanese kindergarten children, and 14-year-old New Zealand adolescents learning Japanese revealed that by learning to read just a few words with particular hiragana symbols that represented sounds within syllables, they implicitly learnt a principle that enabled them to read other hiragana formed in a similar way, but only if they were in words. If the hiragana were not in words, the learners could not give a sound for them.

In a third experiment, Japanese children, and New Zealand adolescents, who were more advanced in their hiragana reading levels, and also Japanese university students, were asked to read very unfamiliar words with real hiragana, and some with novel hiragana combinations that do not exist in their writing system.

The researchers found that novel hiragana could only be read by using a principle that had already been learnt. Readers at all levels successfully read many of the unfamiliar words, including those with novel hiragana. Moreover, the university students could not sound out the novel hiragana when these were separated from the unfamiliar words.

Associate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flinn says these results may be surprising to teachers and parents, and are contrary to several theories that require, for beginners, the explicit teaching of parts of words, such as letter sounds.

“However, as in other research we have carried out on learning to read in English, these results match the predictions of the ‘Knowledge Sources’ theory Dr Thompson and I have developed.”

At the theory’s centre is the idea that children implicitly learn patterns of letter-sound relations among words of their accumulated reading experience.

The latest research was supported by a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Invitation Fellowship to Associate Professor Fletcher-Flinn, and was hosted by the University of Hokkaido Faculty of Letters.

For more information, contact:

Associate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flinn
University of Otago College of Education

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