Posted on Schools Week (UK)
Kevin Courtney is right about the negative influence of poverty on PIRLS tests; two of our studies confirm this. He is also right in rejecting phonics instruction as the force responsible for the recent improvement in PIRLS scores: Studies show that intensive phonics instruction only improves performance on tests in which children have to pronounce words presented in a list. Heavy phonics does not contribute to performance on tests of reading comprehension. In fact, several scholars have concluded that knowledge of phonics rules, beyond the simplest ones, is acquired from reading.
But Mr. Courtney is not quite right when he says that evidence shows that “a diversity of approaches” is most effective for teaching reading. Rather, the last few decades of research consistently shows that self-selected reading for pleasure has a positive and strong impact on developing literacy. A bit of phonics (“basic phonics”) is of some help for beginning readers, but a wide variety of studies confirm that those who read more read better, have larger vocabularies, better spelling, write better, and have better control of complex grammatical constructions.
Forget phonics screening. Support libraries, often the only source of reading materials for children living in poverty.
Our studies confirm this: Predictors of PIRLS scores: Krashen, S., S. Y. Lee, and J. McQuillan. 2012. Is the library important? Multi-variate studies at the national and international level. Journal of Language and Literacy Education 8(1): 26–36; Krashen, S., Lee, S.Y. and Lao, C. 2017. Comprehensible and Compelling: The Causes and Effects of Free Voluntary Reading. Libraries Unlimited.
Phonics & tests of reading comprehension: 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; Krashen, S. 2009. Does intensive reading instruction contribute to reading comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37(4): 72–74.
Phonics acquired from reading: See, for example, the influential Becoming a Nation of Readers, published in the US in 1985 by the National Academy of Education Commission on Reading, concluded that: “…phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships … once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive” (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott and Wilkinson, 1985, p.38; Becoming A Nation of Readers.)
Those who read more: Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Heinemann Publishing Company and Libraries Unlimited.
Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. 2013. Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London www.cls.ioe.ac.uk