I am a retired professor of neuropsychology who developed a research program on the relationship between the brain and learning disability. I want to outline one particular study and show its importance in how we diagnose and teach the children we now label learning disabled.

An identified group of poor readers who had clear phonological deficits in reading were compared to average readers on two simple tasks. A group of words preselected to be in the sight vocabulary of all participants were paired under two conditions. In one case the student had to say whether the words meant the same, opposite, or unrelated. In the second task the students had to say whether the two words rhymed.

In the semantic task there were no differences between the two groups, but the students with phonological deficits performed much worse on the rhyme task. Even though they knew what the word meant and its relationship with other words, they could not pronounce the word.

I was never a K-12 teacher but it seems to make more sense to build on strength than remediate weakness. The purpose of reading is to get meaning from the printed word and the all the children in the study could do that. A prime approach is phonetic decoding. The poor readers could not use that approach, but they learned to read despite it. What is ironic is that we call the way the poor readers do it without phonics as speed reading and pay for a course to learn it.

A phonetic approach worked for me and for many others, but it does not work for everyone. If phonetic decoding does not work for some children, use something that will.

Closing Questions

Phonetic decoding is a Means toward the End of reading. Are we confusing the End and the Means? Do we use phonics for deaf children?


Note: The study was a published Ph,D. dissertation and available on request.

Views: 110

Comment by Alice Mercer on April 26, 2009 at 1:41pm
As a teacher in the field, I would say you've correctly identified that phonics decoding is seen as a necessary foundation for learning to read. Here are guidelines for RTI (Response to Intervention), which is the program under IDEA (Special Ed) for what interventions potential special ed students should get before they are tested. The report is from What Works Clearinghouse, which is generally regarded as the most "scientifically" oriented federal education programs, and the quality of their stuff is better than many others.

I will not bore you with the controversies around "science" and "education" and "scientific studies in education" let's just say it's not always well regarded. Correlation is often mistaken for causation. The worst case of this is with reading "fluency" (speed) which correlates generally with higher reading comprehension, but not always, so now we work on getting kids reading fast because otherwise they will have low comprehension since reading speed is seen as foundational.

So, you will see they are looking at phonics as foundational. I will say from practice, some kids to improve in phonemic awareness with a bit of intervention, but you are correct that it can be time ill spent, and akin to banging your head against a wall.
Comment by Alice Mercer on April 26, 2009 at 2:15pm
Here are some links from Ira Socol, who is a PhD student and researcher who has LD himself. He blogs at http://speedchange.blogspot.com/
These all look at how reading instruction takes place in other languages, including non-phonemic ones like Chinese. I liked how you pointed out kids learn ASL without an phonetic knowledge.

Comment by Bob Zenhausern on April 26, 2009 at 2:24pm
Just because some think phonics as foundational, does not make it so. Let us look at it from several perspectives. This is an argument based on authority and assumes the authority is correct.

The Chinese do not have a phonetic language and they can read. So phonics is not fundamental to every language. The Japanese start young children an initial phonetic approach, but when they start to learn more serious material, there is a switch to the pictographic form.

If phonics is truly fundamental to reading, then the deaf could never learn to read.

Reading means deriving meaning from the printed word. Phonetic decoding is one way to do it. It is called the indirect phonological route to meaning.

The reading disabled children in the study knew what the words meant even though they could not say them.

I am well aware of the controversies around science and education. That is why I avoided academic jargon and said simply what the students could and could not do. Might the results be due to correlation and not causality? I really do not see how? Do you?
Comment by Alice Mercer on April 26, 2009 at 2:32pm
Let me think about it because I don't want to jump to conclusions.
Comment by Bob Zenhausern on April 30, 2009 at 8:40am
Alice, I took your suggestion and read Ira Socol's latest blog and found him very much a kindred spirit. I commented on his blog and offered my help in dissertation design and statistics.
Comment by Alice Mercer on April 30, 2009 at 8:45am
I think you'll find each other helpful given your differing backgrounds, but similar approaches. I was going to come back to this Friday or Saturday. I'm deep in testing, and other stuff this week.
Comment by Bob Zenhausern on April 30, 2009 at 8:46am
Alice, I tried following the other 3 links in your messge, but none of the them functioned. Can you repost them.
By the way, my comment on Ira's blog was directed to math disability not reading disability. I am even more passionate about that issue.
Comment by Alice Mercer on April 30, 2009 at 9:00am
Bob, I got them from Ira, so I would ask him for links?
Comment by Mark Pennington on January 9, 2010 at 4:26pm
The International Reading Association just published its RTI document with respect to establishing principles for reading interventions. Although I favor many of the reforms proposed by the commission, I do have problems with some of the initiatives.

I have written a review of this new document titled "Response to Intervention: What Just Won't Work." Included are links to the document itself.
Comment by Bob Zenhausern on January 10, 2010 at 12:19am
Where are the links and the new document? Did you mean to include them here?

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