By Heidi Anne E. Mesmer, Ph D
Learning to understand how words work is hard. A young child must focus on multiple visual symbols and then recall what each symbol refers to orally. Each part of the word must be understood in order. Effective phonics instruction isolates individual words so that children can study them. A purely embedded approach to phonics instruction is not effective. (Embedded means that phonics is taught only within the context of a book, during reading.)
In 2000, an experienced first-grade teacher, Johnston, did a very interesting study. She taught words in predictable big books using three different approaches: (1) reading the books repeatedly; (2) using sentence strips; and (3) analyzing the words in isolation, individually. The repeated readings involved reading the books about ten times. Students learned the least number of words by listening to words read in books and the most words in isolation (Johnston 2000).
The idea of this study was not that context and big books are bad. In fact, reading books and charts to young children, pointing to words, and showing them print in a connected, contextualized way are all essential practices, but teachers need to understand what shared reading accomplishes.
Shared reading usually helps children understand how letters are used to form words, how an alphabetic script encodes meaningful messages, and how we read connected texts (e.g., left to right, top to bottom). However, at the beginning stages, repeatedly reading words in a big book should not be the only approach to learning to read words because it does not specifically focus on the architecture of words and how they work. Learning words only through a contextualized approach will not lead to high levels of word learning for most children. Learners must carefully analyze each part of individual words. They must think about why the words can and cat are different.
Analyzing the letter-sounds in words is a form of metalinguistic awareness, a way of thinking about language. It requires children to suspend focus on the word’s meaning temporarily, in order to focus on features of the alphabetic system. To learn the system, students need to be freed from trying to balance both the meaning demands and the mechanical demands of words.
So, if you are teaching phonics make sure to give words their own time and space. Don’t be drawn into a forced choice about word analysis. Ignore people who say that it is “wrong” to analyze words out of context or people who say that all children need is out-of-context phonics instruction. Research simply does not support either of those positions, especially for beginning readers.
Heidi Anne E Mesmer is professor or literacy at Virginia Tech. She is coordinator of the Reading Specialist Program and the author of Letter Lessons and First Words: Phonics Foundations That Work. Her research has appeared in Reading Research Quarterly, The Educational Researcher, The Journal of Literacy Research, The Reading Teacher, and other books and journals. She has written and directed eight training grants in two states aimed at improving reading instruction in K-5 classrooms. Find her on Twitter @haemesmer.
Johnston, F. R. (2000). Word learning in predictable text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 248.