Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Does Intensive Decoding Instruction Contribute to Reading Comprehension? (2009)

Does Intensive Decoding Instruction Contribute to Reading Comprehension?
Stephen Krashen
Knowledge Quest
37 (4): 72-74, 2009

In the recent Reading First Impact Final Report, children participating in Reading First classrooms did better than comparisons on a test of decoding given in grade one. Reading First children did not, however, do better on tests of reading comprehension in grades one, two, and three, despite considerable extra instructional time (Gamse, Jacob, Horst, Boulay, and Unlu, 2008).

Not mentioned in the Final Report is that we have seen this pattern before: Children following an intensive, decoding-based curriculum do better on tests of decoding (pronouncing words out-loud) when compared to regular students but do not better on measures of reading comprehension.

Evidence from The National Reading Panel

The pattern of success at decoding and failure at comprehension as a result of intensive phonics instruction was present in the foundation document for Reading First, the report of the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).

The reading panel claimed, on the basis of their review of the research, that intensive systematic phonics was superior to less intensive approaches, but as Garan (2001) has noted, this superiority was present only on tests of decoding, specifically tests on which children pronounce lists of words presented out of context. Children trained with intensive phonics did not do significantly better on tests in which they had to understand what they read: For tests of reading comprehension given after grade 1, the impact of intensive systematic phonics was small and statistically insignificant. [For tests given in grades 2 through 6, the effect size in favor of intensive phonics was substantial: .49 for "decoding regular words" (17 studies) .52 for "decoding irregular words" (13 studies), but it was only .12 for "comprehending texts" (11 studies).]

Evidence from Direct Instruction

The same pattern is present in research on "Direct Instruction" (DI). Direct Instruction's approach to teaching reading is based on training children in phonemic awareness, followed by drills on phonics. DI maintains that students need to know how to sound out words before they can actually read with understanding.

On "decoding" tests (e.g. the WRAT, Wide Range Achievement Test), DI children do quite well, but their scores are clearly much lower on tests of reading comprehension (e.g. the MAT, Metropolitan Achievement Test, which also includes vocabulary).

This is true when DI children are tested in grade three (Becker et. al. 1981) and in grades four, five and six (summarized in Becker and Gersten, 1982, who note that while Direct Instruction children scored at national norms on decoding skills, they only scored between the 25th and 35th percentiles in reading comprehension).

Other follow-up studies show that when DI children are tested in the upper grades on standardized tests that include reading comprehension, the results are extremely modest (grades three, four and five; Meyer, Gersten and Gutkin 1984; grade nine (Meyer, 1984; Gersten, Darch and Gleason, 1988; Gersten, Keating, and Becker, 1988; summarized in Adams and Engelmann, 1996, p. 94). The average score in grade nine for DI students is only at about the 34th percentile.

The Clackmannanshire study

The Clackmannanshire study, done in Scotland, has been cited frequently as a victory for systematic phonics instruction. In first grade (primary 1), two different ways of teaching phonics were compared, and the lessons lasted for 16 weeks. A total of 177 children who received the winning approach, synthetic ("first and fast") phonics, were followed up to grade 7 (Johnson and Watson, 2005). The comparison group, the one that did not get synthetic phonics but had a different method of learning phonics, was not followed up.

In grade 7, the children were found to be unusually good at pronouncing lists of words presented in isolation, 3.6 years ahead of norms. But they weren't nearly as impressive on tests of reading comprehension, scoring only three months above the expected level.

The children's superior ability to read words out of context did not translate into better reading comprehension ability. In fact, the children were farther above norms in reading comprehension in grade 2 than in grade 7.

Is Decoding Proficiency Part of Learning to Read?

The results of these studies suggest that a high level of proficiency in decoding is not a preliminary step in learning to read. One could argue, however, that intensive decoding practice is only the first step, necessary but not sufficient, and it needs to be followed by a great deal of practice in applying the principles learned.

Heavy Skills Instruction not Necessary

If instruction in decoding is necessary as a first step, the results of other studies indicate that heavy, systematic phonics instruction of the kind supplied by Reading First is not necessary. These studies show that children who have been given the opportunity to do a great deal of interesting, comprehensible reading and have less decoding instruction perform as well as or better than children in decoding-emphasis classes on decoding tests, and typically score higher on tests that test what really counts in reading: comprehension (Morrow, O'Conner and Smith, 1990, Eldridge, 1991; Klesius, Griffith, and Zielonka, 1991). There are also many attested cases of children who learned to read on their own with little or no explicit decoding instruction and who appear to be able to decode quite well (e.g. Goodman and Goodman, 1982, McQuillan, 1998).

In summary: Those who receive only intensive instruction in decoding do not do well on tests of reading comprehension, but those who learn to read by reading, by understanding what is on page, do well on tests of both decoding and reading comprehension.

Result, not Cause

This conclusion is consistent with the views of Frank Smith (2004) and Kenneth Goodman (see Flurkey and Xu, 2003) who have maintained that our ability to decode complex words is the result of reading, not the cause.

This position does not exclude the teaching of "basic" phonics (Krashen, 2004; Garan, 2004). A small amount of consciously learned knowledge of the rules of phonics can help in the beginning stages to make texts comprehensible, but there are severe limits on how much phonics can be learned and applied because of the complexity of many of the rules (Smith, 2004).

The Reading First Final Report thus confirms the common-sense view that the path to reading proficiency is not through worksheets but through books and stories.

Adams, Gary and Siegfried Engelmann (1996). Research on Direct Instruction: 25 Years Beyond DISTAR. Seattle: Educational Achievement Systems.
Becker, Wesley and Russell Gersten (1982). Follow-up of Follow-Through: The later effects of the direct instruction model on children in fifth and sixth grades. American Educational Research Journal 19, no. 1 (Spring), 75-92.
Eldridge, Lloyd (1991). An experiment with a modified whole language approach in first-grade classrooms. Reading Research and Instruction 30, no. 3, 21-38.
Flurkey, Alan and Jingguo Xu, Eds. (2003). On the Revolution in Reading: The Selected Writings of Kenneth S. Goodman. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gamse, B., R. Jacob, R., M. Horst, B. Boulay, and F. Unlu (2008). Reading First Impact Study Final Report (NCEE 2009-4038). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Garan, Elaine. (2001). Beyond the smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan 82, no. 7 (March), 500-506.
Garan, Elaine. (2004). In Defense of Our Children. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Gersten, Russell, Thomas Keating and Wesley Becker (1988). Continued impact of the Direct Instruction model: Longitudinal studies of Follow Through students. Education and Treatment of Children 11: 318- 327.
Goodman, Kenneth and Yetta Goodman. (1982). Spelling ability of a self Taught reader. In Language and Literacy: The Selected Writings of Kenneth S. Goodman, vol. 2. ed. F. Gollasch. London: Routledge, pp. 135-142.
Johnson, Rhona and Joyce Watson (2005). The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment. Scottish Government Publications. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/sptrs-00.asp
Morrow, Lesley, Ellen O'Conner, and Jeffrey Smith (1990). Effects of a story reading program and literacy development of at-risk kindergarten children. Journal of Reading Behavior 22, 250-275.
Klesius, Janell, Priscilla Griffith, and Paula Zielonkia, (1991). A whole language and traditional instruction comparison: Overall effectiveness and development of the alphabetic principle. Reading Research and Instruction 30, 47-61.
Krashen, Stephen. (2004). Basic Phonics. TexTESOL III Newsletter, November 2004, 2-4. Available at http://www.sdkrashen.com.
McQuillan, Jeff. (1998). Is learning to read without formal instruction common? Journal of Reading Education 33, no. 4 (Fall), 15-17.
Meyer, Linda. (1984). Long-term academic effects of the Direct Instruction project Follow Through. The Elementary School Journal 84, no.4, 380-394.
Meyer, Linda., Russell Gersten, and Joan Gutkin (1983). Direct Instruction: A Project Follow Through Success Story in an Inner-City school. The Elementary School Journal 84, no. 2, 241-252.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Smith, Frank. (2004). Understanding Reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Sixth Edition. 


  1. In your post, you conclude ‘The Reading First Final Report thus confirms the common-sense view that the path to reading proficiency is not through worksheets but through books and stories’.

    Yes and no!
    What I think you mean is that reading proficiency starts with vocabulary development that comes from books and stories.

    But even that it is a very restrictive concept. It reflects a by-gone middle-class world of parents happily reading books to children in bed. We need to address the issue that we are in an age of growing poverty. 1 in 4 parents don't know where the next meal is coming from and 40% of children are born to single parents. It’s fact - these kids don't have access to books! And there parents are almost certainly functionally illiterate.

    "Demographics isn't destiny, but vocabulary might be." said Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Foundation, commenting a few weeks ago on the vocabulary scores published in the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)'Report Card'.

    If we want kids to be 'richer' than their parents, then we have to address word-deficits of children entering the school system. Vocabulary requires social interaction, discussions, exploration, curiosity, kids working in pairs and groups on 'engaging project's that will encourage group research (internet) and extend vocabulary even further.

    Vocabulary linked with knowledge is the single very best predictor of success in all school subject areas. Yet research consistently finds teachers spend as little as 6% of their time on vocabulary development and even less (only 1.4%) allotted to content area vocabulary.
    (See http://wp.me/p39ibb-5u )

    So is there a silver bullet??
    Our program, www.JazzlesELA.com, strategically uses 'arts integration' to engage all children, irrespective of socio-economic status - in all the six big ideas of reading – particularly vocabulary and comprehension. Decoding skills are acquired virtually intuitively.

    The hardest issue for teachers is to establish a common teaching vocabulary base when they have no control over the wide range of vocabulary levels within their mixed ability class!
    That's why children can get left behind, become discouraged, bored or disruptive.

    So the basis of Jazzles ELA is the systematic use of animated, prolifically alliterative songs with captions and visuals synchronized for meaning.
    It’s the only program in the world using this methodology.

    Because of the mnemonic power of the catchy songs, teachers can easily create a class-wide common activated vocabulary bases (familiar song lyric texts) from which to teach grammatical features, sight words, comprehension, concepts about print, phonemic awareness, the use of punctuation and creative writing.

    The whole class creative approach using songs, gives the classroom teacher whole class teaching power. It is a very powerful way to teach because children are learning from what they know. It makes sense to learn sight words and spelling etc.from familiar text.

    To extend vocabulary and comprehension, Jazzles uses drama to create ‘virtual experiences’ - bringing language to life. Think how powerful a package of literacy skills thi is - plus it also develops vital no-cognitive skills.

    Arts Integration is truly a silver bullet - because it can be used, as we do, to automatically engage every child's learning styles to differentiate instruction and slash (really slash) disruption.
    IMPORTANTLY, at its focus is vocabulary development with understanding.
    In conclusion, Jazzles ELA delivers well on tests of both decoding and reading comprehension.
    Actually not just well – but exceptionally well. We have independent theses to support this claim that we are happy to provide.
    Why? Well apart from all the deficiencies mentioned about an intensive, decoding-based curriculum, you forget one of the most important.
    Its BORING – for everyone. Arts Integration is engaging.

  2. Vocabulary is the body of words used in a particular language. In order to communicate through speech or writing one needs to be able to use the words within a language and understand that a word has a particular meaning. https://vocabmonk.com helps to enhance your vocabulary by giving better understanding of the words.