Monday, January 05, 2009

In support of early explicit phonics teaching

Human speech has long been present in every culture, and our brains have evolved specialized features to enable its rapid development when we are exposed to the speech of others. Reading however is a relatively recent skill, and we have no such dedicated reading module to guarantee success. Fortunately, our brains are able to adapt to the task, although there is considerable variation in the assistance learners require to achieve it.

Humans have produced numerous writing systems in their attempts to create a concrete form of communication, and those languages employing an alphabet have provided the most powerful means of achieving this goal.

The invention of the alphabet was one of the greatest of human achievements. It required the appreciation that the spoken word can be split into its component sound parts, and that each part can be assigned a symbol or letter. All that is additionally required to have an amazingly productive writing system is for the learner to be able to identify the sound for each letter, and blend the sounds together to recreate the spoken word. This is known as the alphabetic principle, and allows us to write any word we can say. Our written language is thus a code, and phonics is simply the key to unlocking the code.

Should we explain to our students through phonics teaching how our speech is codified into English writing? It sounds obvious that we should; indeed, that not to do so would be cruel. But perhaps there is a better way. English is after all a complicated language, having absorbed so many words from other languages with differing spelling patterns. But, no, it turns out from years of research that there is a significant advantage in demonstrating from the beginning how the alphabetic principle works. This benefit is particularly evident in the 30% or so of our students who struggle with learning to read. It also has become clear that demonstrating this principle systematically is more effective than merely sprinkling a few clues here and there as a story is read with or to a student.

If we do not introduce this principle early, there is a risk of students developing less productive strategies in their efforts to make sense of print. Some of these strategies have a surface appeal because they provide a veneer of reading progress, but become self-limiting over time.

For example, routinely using pictures to determine word identity draws student attention away from print, thereby diminishing the central importance to students of the alphabetic principle. Asking students to remember words as a primary strategy gives the unhelpful message that reading involves the visual memory of shapes, of letter landscapes devoid of alphabetic significance. Stressing the integrated use of multiple cues leaves students with too many ill-defined options, and produces marked variability in the first approach most favoured by students. Of course, many of the better students will gravitate to phonics as a foundation anyway; however, those less fortunate will be left to scour their memories for word shapes or attempt to predict upcoming words based on sentence/passage meaning or on the sound of initial letters. Syntactic cues tend to be less employed among this group as their skills in grammar are likely to be under-developed also.

The problem is often not identified until about the fourth grade; hence, the term fourth grade slump. In truth, the problem was there from the beginning, and had an instructional source, but was unrecognised because of some teachers' misunderstanding of reading development.

What happens to these apparently progressing students? As text becomes more complex, prediction becomes less and less accurate. Many sentences now include difficult-to-decode words that carry non-redundant information, and hence become more difficult targets for prediction. There are now increasing numbers of such words. For the memorisers, the number of words that must be recalled from visual memory outgrows students' visual memory capacity.

These moribund strategies collapse, but in the absence of a productive course of action, students often hold on to them, resisting a return to decoding as a first option as too hard or too babyish. Resolution of the problems of these older readers is very difficult for both teacher and student. Better not to create this situation in the first place.

Even when the value of early phonics teaching is recognised by educators, students vary significantly in the ease with which they develop from their initial painstaking attempts at decoding through to effortless fluent orthographic-dominant reading. Our challenge as educators is to be truly sensitive to every reader's progress through careful monitoring, and to ensure the intensity and duration of instruction is appropriate to their needs. Once they are on their way, future progress becomes a self-teaching issue, driven largely by how much they choose to read. However, until reading is effortless, we cannot expect children to choose books over the many alternative communication modes available to them today.


Useless credentialism

BARACK OBAMA has two attractive ideas for improving post-secondary education - expanding the use of community colleges and tuition tax credits - but he needs to hitch them to a broader platform. As president, Mr. Obama should use his bully pulpit to undermine the bachelor's degree as a job qualification. Here's a suggested battle cry, to be repeated in every speech on the subject: "It's what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it."

The residential college leading to a bachelor's degree at the end of four years works fine for the children of parents who have plenty of money. It works fine for top students from all backgrounds who are drawn toward academics. But most 18-year-olds are not from families with plenty of money, not top students, and not drawn toward academics. They want to learn how to get a satisfying job that also pays well. That almost always means education beyond high school, but it need not mean four years on a campus, nor cost a small fortune. It need not mean getting a bachelor's degree.

I am not discounting the merits of a liberal education. Students at every level should be encouraged to explore subjects that will not be part of their vocation. It would be even better if more colleges required a rigorous core curriculum for students who seek a traditional bachelor's degree. My beef is not with liberal education, but with the use of the degree as a job qualification.

For most of the nation's youths, making the bachelor's degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach. It is a truth that politicians and educators cannot bring themselves to say out loud: A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.

If you doubt it, go back and look through your old college textbooks, and then do a little homework on the reading ability of high school seniors. About 10 percent to 20 percent of all 18-year-olds can absorb the material in your old liberal arts textbooks. For engineering and the hard sciences, the percentage is probably not as high as 10.

No improvements in primary and secondary education will do more than tweak those percentages. The core disciplines taught at a true college level are tough, requiring high levels of linguistic and logical-mathematical ability. Those abilities are no more malleable than athletic or musical talent.

You think I'm too pessimistic? Too elitist? Readers who graduated with honors in English literature or Renaissance history should ask themselves if they could have gotten a B.S. in physics, no matter how hard they tried. (I wouldn't have survived freshman year.) Except for the freakishly gifted, all of us are too dumb to get through college in many majors.

But I'm not thinking just about students who are not smart enough to deal with college-level material. Many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses don't want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters.

A century ago, these students would happily have gone to work after high school. Now they know they need to acquire additional skills, but they want to treat college as vocational training, not as a leisurely journey to well-roundedness.

As more and more students who cannot get or don't want a liberal education have appeared on campuses, colleges have adapted by expanding the range of courses and adding vocationally oriented majors. That's appropriate. What's not appropriate is keeping the bachelor's degree as the measure of job preparedness, as the minimal requirement to get your foot in the door for vast numbers of jobs that don't really require a B.A. or B.S.

Discarding the bachelor's degree as a job qualification would not be difficult. The solution is to substitute certification tests, which would provide evidence that the applicant has acquired the skills the employer needs.

Certification tests can take many forms. For some jobs, a multiple-choice test might be appropriate. But there's no reason to limit certifications to academic tests. For centuries, the crafts have used work samples to certify journeymen and master craftsmen. Today, many computer programmers without college degrees get jobs by presenting examples of their work. With a little imagination, almost any corporation can come up with analogous work samples.

The benefits of discarding the bachelor's degree as a job qualification would be huge for both employers and job applicants. Certifications would tell employers far more about their applicants' qualifications than a B.A. does, and hundreds of thousands of young people would be able to get what they want from post-secondary education without having to twist themselves into knots to comply with the rituals of getting a bachelor's degree.

Certification tests would not eliminate the role of innate ability - the most gifted applicants would still have an edge - but they would strip away much of the unwarranted halo effect that goes with a degree from a prestigious university. They would put everyone under the same spotlight.

Discrediting the bachelor's degree is within reach because so many employers already sense that it has become education's Wizard of Oz. All we need is someone willing to yank the curtain aside. Barack Obama is ideally positioned to do it. He just needs to say it over and over: "It's what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it."


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