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March 1, 2004

False Claims About Literacy Development

Despite what many people believe, the National Reading Panel's conclusions about literacy development are not proven facts.

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  • Phonemic awareness training significantly improves children's reading ability.

  • Systematic phonics instruction is more effective than less systematic phonics instruction.

  • Skills-based approaches are superior to whole language approaches.

  • There is no clear evidence that encouraging students to read more in school improves reading achievement.

In fact, sufficient evidence exists to challenge all four claims.

Rebutting the Evidence

False Claim #1: Phonemic awareness training significantly improves children's reading ability.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to divide a word into its component sounds. Looking at a number of studies involving students who received direct teaching or “training” in phonemic awareness, some individuals have claimed that such training is “clearly effective,” helps students “learn to read and spell,” and improves reading comprehension and word reading (National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 40).

In my review of the research on phonemic awareness (Krashen, 2001a), I sought studies that looked at pure phonemic awareness—not phonemic awareness combined with phonics—and that tested students on reading comprehension, not just on phonemic awareness or reading isolated words. I found only six published studies, covering a total of 11 comparisons of phonemic awareness-trained students and students untrained in phonemic awareness. Only three of the six studies dealt with English-speaking students; the others dealt with students who spoke Spanish, Hebrew, or Norwegian.

  • In one study (Weiner, 1994), the effect size was positive for one of two comparisons (+.40) but negative for the other (-.41).

  • In three comparisons (two from Defior & Tudela, 1994; one from Hatcher, Helm, & Ellis, 1994), effect sizes were low: +.13 or less.

  • In four studies (six comparisons), the number of students who underwent phonemic awareness training was small: Bradley & Bryant, 1983, 13 students; Defior & Tudela, 1994, 9 students; Kozminsky & Kozminsky, 1995, 15 students; Weiner, 1994, 5 students.

  • Only one study reported substantial effect sizes as well as statistically significant results in favor of phonemic awareness training: a study conducted in Israel with Hebrew-speaking students, involving only 15 students who underwent phonemic awareness training (Kozminsky & Kozminsky, 1995).

No reasonable person would conclude on the basis of this evidence that phonemic awareness training is essential, or even particularly important. Evidence supporting the phonemic awareness claims that appear to have gripped the schools in a kind of hysteria should be made of much sterner stuff.

The National Reading Panel's comments on my conclusions expressed no real disagreement (Ehri, Shanahan, & Nunes, 2002), noting that when we consider only studies dealing with English speakers, the average effect size is +.28, which, they point out, falls short of statistical significance. Ehri and colleagues conclude that this “supports Krashen's claim,” but they add that “more comparisons would yield a firmer conclusion” (p. 129). Of course, I agree. But most important, they do not contest the claim that few studies have been conducted to test the impact of phonemic awareness training on reading comprehension.

There are other reasons to suspect that phonemic awareness is not a crucial element in learning to read. For example, children without phonemic awareness or with very low phonemic awareness often learn to read quite well (Bradley & Bryant, 1985; Stuart-Hamilton, 1986), and some adults who are excellent readers do poorly on tests of phonemic awareness (Campbell & Butterworth, 1985).

False Claim #2: Systematic phonics instruction is more effective than less systematic phonics instruction.

The National Reading Panel claimed to findsolid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children's growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction. (2000, p. 92)

A close look, however, reveals that the National Reading Panel's analysis actually showed that intensive, systematic phonics instruction has a limited impact. The Panel reported an overall effect size of +.46 favoring systematic, intensive phonics programs over programs providing less or no phonics instruction. The effect, however, depended on the kind of measure used, with systematic phonics showing a greater effect (+.67) on reading single, regularly spelled words aloud, and a smaller effect (+.27) on tests involving reading texts (for details, see Garan, 2001, 2002).

The +.27 effect size for reading comprehension deserves more comment. The Panel found a small, nonsignificant relationship between systematic phonics training and performance on tests of reading comprehension for older students (grades 2–6; +.12).

Garan (2001, 2002) argues that the relationship between intensive phonics instruction and reading comprehension is stronger for younger students because reading comprehension tests for young students contain short passages with many phonetically regular words. The relationship diminishes when passages become more complex and include more words with irregular sound-spelling correspondences, as is the case with reading comprehension measurements used with older students.

Camilli, Vargas, and Yurecko (2003) have come to similar conclusions. They examined the same studies that the National Reading Panel reviewed and used a more sophisticated statistical model, one that takes into account more than one factor at a time. These researchers concluded that the effect of systematic phonics instruction was considerably less than that reported by the National Reading Panel and that other factors—individual tutoring and “language activities” (defined as whole word or whole language activities)—had a significant effect as well.

False Claim #3: Skills-based approaches are superior to whole language approaches.

The National Reading Panel concluded that systematic phonics approaches were superior to whole language approaches, claiming that the average effect size in favor of phonics was +.32 (based on 12 comparisons). They did not, however, analyze effect sizes separately for each kind of measurement used. Some measurements involved reading single, isolated words; some involved real texts. Also, the issue should not center on whether a treatment is labeled “whole language” or “skills-based,” but rather on how much reading the students actually do. In Evans and Carr (1985), for example, the skills-based, “traditional” group did significantly more silent reading than the “whole language” group did.

I reanalyzed these studies considering only tests of reading comprehension (Krashen, 2002). I also considered not whether a treatment was labeled “whole language” or “phonics” but whether the students in one treatment did more real reading than the students in the other treatment did. In addition, I included some studies that the National Reading Panel had missed. In the end, I found a small advantage favoring whole language on tests of reading comprehension (+.17).

False Claim #4: There is no clear evidence that encouraging children to read more in school improves reading achievement.

The National Reading Panel reached this startling conclusion on the basis of only 10 studies of sustained silent reading with control groups. In sustained silent reading, some class time is set aside for free voluntary reading with little or no “accountability.” The 10 studies contained 14 separate comparisons. Of the 14 comparisons, 4 had positive results (students who engaged in free voluntary reading outperformed control groups in traditional language arts classes), and 10 showed no difference between the two groups. In no case did students in sustained silent reading do worse. The Panel considered this result to be unimpressive.

The Panel report left out many studies. A look at additional studies of sustained silent reading and similar in-school recreational reading programs showed that sustained silent reading students did as well as or better than students in traditional language arts classes in 50 out of 53 comparisons (Krashen, 2001b). In long-term studies (those longer than one year), sustained silent reading students performed better in 8 out of 10 studies, and the remaining 2 studies showed no difference. The Panel did not include any studies lasting longer than one year.

In addition, the Panel misinterpreted some of the studies that it did include and included some that it should have omitted. In one study (Carver & Liebert, 1995), students in the reading group were limited to only 135 titles; “the regular library stacks were off limits during the study” (p. 33). Students in this study were provided with incentives, had to take tests on what they read, and had to read in two-hour blocks. Successful sustained silent reading programs do not use extrinsic motivators, do not test students on what they read, provide a wide variety of books, and typically meet for a short time each day over a long period.

Axioms or Hypotheses?

The National Reading Panel's conclusions have become “the law of the land,” reflected in reading plans developed by state and local agencies across the United States. Federal funding requires adherence to these conclusions. They have, in fact, become axioms, considered by some to be proven facts rather than hypotheses. Obviously, if the National Reading Panel's claims are false, the implications are staggering. At a minimum, educators and policymakers should demote the status of the Panel's conclusions from axioms back to hypotheses.

References

Bradley, L., & Bryant, P. (1983). Categorizing sounds and learning to read—a causal connection. Nature, 301, 419–421.

Bradley, L., & Bryant, P. (1985). Rhyme and reason in reading and spelling. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., & Yurecko, M. (2003). Teaching children to read: The fragile link between science and federal policy. Education Policy Archives, 11(15). Available: http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v11n15

Campbell, R., & Butterworth, B. (1985). Phonological dyslexia and dysgraphia in a highly literate subject: A developmental case with associated deficits of phonemic processing and awareness. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 37A, 435–475.

Carver, R., & Liebert, R. (1995). The effect of reading library books at different levels of difficulty upon gains in reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 26–48.

Defior, S., & Tudela, P. (1994). Effect of phonological training on reading and writing acquisition. Reading and Writing, 6, 299–320.

Ehri, L., Shanahan, T., & Nunes, S. (2002). Response to Krashen. Reading Research Quarterly, 37(2), 128–129.

Evans, M., & Carr, T. (1985). Cognitive abilities, conditions of learning, and the early development of reading skill. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(3), 327–350.

Garan, E. (2001). Beyond the smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(7), 500–506.

Garan, E. (2002). Resisting reading mandates. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hatcher, P., Helm, C., & Ellis, A. (1994). Ameliorating early reading failure by integrating the teaching of reading and phonological skills: The phonological linkage hypothesis. Child Development, 65, 41–57.

Kozminsky, L., & Kozminsky, E. (1995). The effects of early phonological awareness training on reading success. Learning and Instruction, 5, 187–201.

Krashen, S. (2001a). Does “pure” phonemic awareness training affect reading comprehension? Perceptual and Motor Skills, 93, 356–358.

Krashen, S. (2001b). More smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on fluency. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 119–123.

Krashen, S. (2002). The NRP comparison of whole language and phonics: Ignoring the crucial variable in reading. Talking Points, 13(3), 22–28.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Stuart-Hamilton, I. (1986). The role of phonemic awareness in the reading style of beginning readers. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 56, 271–285.

Weiner, S. (1994). Effects of phonemic awareness training on low- and middle-achieving first graders' phonemic awareness and reading ability. Journal of Reading Behavior, 26(3), 277–300.

Wolf, F. (1986). Meta-analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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