English Phonics Instruction On Word Recognition Ability English Language Essay

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English is an international language. Here in Taiwan, English is used as a foreign language and has been considered an important subject in schools. Many parents send their children to language institutions or cram schools before their children enter junior high school. The government decided to implement English teaching in elementary school from the year of 1999. Phonics obviously has been adopted as a complement in primary school in Taiwan since 1998. Many phonics material designers claim phonics is the easiest and the least time-consuming way to help children "speak" English and thus open the door to reading. In short, phonics can help children more easily find out the connection between "sound" and "reading."

According to Lin (1999), a high percentage of students he taught were afraid of English. He discovered that such students were unable to read English or did not even have the intention to read because they were not able to speak out. Hu (1999) also noticed that students of this kind tended to be labeled as "not hardworking enough", but she claimed that this problem could be investigated by examining students' phonological awareness and find the real cause. Huang (1999) indicates not all junior high school teachers understand what phonics is. Based on the researcher's twenty-year teaching experience, students lose their interest in English quickly once they have difficulty and fail to pronounce English words or sentences correctly. Besides, one dissertation by Chang in 2000 about measuring junior college students' phonological processing in English said they weren't provided with enough phonics information. Therefore, the researcher was eager to give herself a chance to know what phonics is and whether phonics instruction can help develop the seventh graders' phonological awareness and whether students can benefit in their English learning if their phonological awareness is fostered.


Table of Contents

2.1 Concepts of Phonics

2.2 The Nature of English Orthography

2.3 Review of Research Studies of Phonics Instruction

2,4 Concepts of Phonological Awareness

2.5 Phonological Awareness in Word Recognition

2.6 The Relation of Phonics Instruction and Phonological Awareness

2.7 Tasks for Measuring Phonological Awareness ---- Phonics Workbook (edited by

National Institute Compilation and Translation)

2.7.1 Phonemic Segmentation

2.7.2 Invented Spelling

2.7.3 Pseudo-word/ Nonsense Word Reading

2.7.4 Awareness of Rimes

2.7.5 Letter Sound & Name Knowledge

2.7.6 Phonemic Manipulation

2.7.7 Segmentation of Words Into Syllables

2.7.8 Segmental Identity


2.1 Concepts of Phonics

As we read books about reading and look at instructional materials for children, we will encounter several terms that mean about the same things as the word "phonics." These terms include "decoding", "sounding out", "unlocking" and "cracking the code." Whatever term is used , we prefer "phonics." The goal is to teach children:

The patterns of letter-sound relationship.

The "rules" which describe the patterns.

The strategies for using both patterns and rules so that unrecognized printed words may be sounded out and pronounced (Johnson &Pearson, 1978:60)

Johnson &Pearson then provided examples to show the differences among patterns, rules, and strategies:

Pattern: The letter c nearly always represents the sound of /k/ as in cup or /s/ as in


Rule: The letter c is pronounced /s/ before e, i, y, as in cent, cider, cycle.

Strategy: One instructional strategy is to teach the children several words with the

letter c in them. Then the children are asked to look carefully at the words to

discover the pattern and the rule (for example, c is /s/ before e, i ,y in cell,

city, cyst). A different instructional strategy is to teach the rule directly and

have children use it to pronounce unfamiliar words containing c (Cyclops,

cemetery, cipher).

Therefore, the content of phonics has to do with rules which explain how the speech code of our language is represented by the written code. Phonics refers to a body information about connections between letters and sounds which are designed to help readers figure out the pronunciation of words unknown in their written form (Durkin, 1993: 190). The purpose of phonics , then, is to help readers pronounce words they can't recognize in their written form, with the expectation that once they hear the word, they will discover that they know its meaning.

Hsu (2000) in her thesis also considers phonics to the knowledge about the letter-sound correspondence relationship. However, Gunning (1995:484) indicates that there was also limited use of the phonics rules, except the final-e generalization. As a result, we have to look at the nature of the English orthography to find the reasons.

2.2 The Nature of English Orthography

The English language is a system for human communication. There are many inconsistencies between its written and oral forms in English. The English alphabet and orthography fall far short of being ideal-grapheme-phoneme noncorrespondence (Johnson &Pearson, 1978; Waller, 1981; B & Treiman, 1992). No wonder phonics is so confusing to many young children!

What are the problems in the English orthography? Due to the historical and linguistic factors, the English language has been made complicated and thus the sound and letter correspondences are somewhat irregular. According to O'Grady & Dobrovosky (1988: 401),there are five problems. The first problem is that some letters do not represent any sound in a particular word, e.g.: through, sigh. The second one is that a group of two or more letters are used together to represent a sound, e.g.: think, chip, ship, watch. The third one is that a single letter can represent a cluster of two or more sounds, e.g.: saxophone, exile. The fourth one is that the same sound can represent different sounds in different words, e.g.: on, bone, one. The fifth one is that the same sound can be represented by different letters in different words, e.g.: rude, loop, soup, Sue, to, two.

Huang (1982: 9-10) explains the historical and linguistic changes in the English orthography. He divided the history of the English language development into three periods. The first period is Old English period (450-1150). The second period is Middle English period (1150-1500). The third period is Modern English period (1500- now)…..

The inconsistency in English letter-sound relationship is the main problem of phonics instruction. English being a phonetic language, it is easy to sound out a word from its spelling. However, with so much historical and linguistic influence, the inconsistency in the letter-sound relationship makes it hard to read all the English words right. Fortunately, about 75% to 80% of the English vocabulary contains regular letter and sound relationship (Huang, 1999: 24). That is to say, it is predictable.

2.3 Review of Research Studies on Phonics Instruction

Since at least about 75% to 80% of the English vocabulary contains regular letter and sound relationship, it is necessary to teach letter-sound relationship in teaching English word recognition in order that children can become proficient readers and writers. However, the necessity of phonics knowledge as a prerequisite to reading has long been a point of heated debate. Rudolf Flesch, with the publication of his book in 1955 What Johnny can't read?, initiated the great debate. Flesch made a historical research on beginning reading far into colonial times in America and challenged the prevailing views on beginning reading instruction, which emphasized teaching children by a sight method. He advocated a return to a phonic approach as the only method to use in beginning instruction (Chall, 1967: 3).

In the foreword of the book Why Johnny Still Can't Read? By Rudolf Flesch in 1981, Burkhardt mentioned:

Any teacher who has ever taught children using p phonics-first program

can explain the reasons for the high success rate to you.

Here, "phonics-first" method is the term used by Flesch to refer to one of the two schools of thoughts about how to teach children to read. The other school is "look-and-say" method. Flesch attacked the prevailing look-and-say method and accused it for lowering rate of literacy in America. In 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the "look and-say" approach was being promoted in most of the "basal reader series" so widely used for reading instruction, and it was based of the idea that whole words, in the reading act, were much more important than letters. In fact, look-and-say advocates claimed that readers seldom notice the letters as separate entities; they see them as "whole words." But the research done in the 1960s demonstrated that readers do study the letters during the reading process (May, 1998: 88). Therefore, he demanded that phonics-first should be used in all schools because the look-and-say method could never teach a child to read independently and extensively. He discussed the differences between phonics-first and lool-and-say by comparing learning to read to learning to drive a car. He said:

Learning to read is like learning to drive a car. You take lessons and learn the mechanics and the rules of the road…. When you're ready, you take a road test, and if you pass, you can drive"(Flesch, 1981: 3)

He further explained that phonics-first helps a child learn the mechanics of reading, but, if, on the contrary, a child is taught to read before he or she has learned the mechanics--- the sounds of the letters--- then this is how look-and-say method works differently. How do the two methods work with reading? As far as phonics-first is concerned, a child is first taught the letters of the alphabet and what sounds these letters stand for. A child can see only words whose letter sounds they have already learned. Butt look-and-say method works on the principle that a child learns to read by reading (Flesch, 1981: 4). It gradually builds up a "sight vocabulary." A child learns to read by seeing those words over and over again. Children who use look-and-say method recognize far less words than those who receive phonics instruction. Though look-and-say readers nowadays adopt a minimum of phonics, Flesch still feels sorry because they regard phonics as "a look-and-say sauce of context clues and guesswork", and this does the children no good at all. He suggested that teachers should provide plenty of words for students to practice over and over again and parents should spend time reading fairy tales, nursery rhymes, classic literature and other stimulation texts to their children to cultivate children's literary competence.

However, Flesch's opinions were not accepted but rejected unanimously by the reviewers in educational periodicals because of propagandistic argument and lack o research evidence. Heilman (1985: 7) mentioned that Flesch's suggestions for teaching were quite primitive, consisting primarily of lists of words, each presention different letter-sound patterns. Thus, Flesch did not actually provide teaching materials that schools and teachers could use. In order to look deeper into the debate whether to include phonics in teaching reading, Jeanne Chall offered a well-established and scientific research and conducted a landmark study of reading--- Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967) by interviewing leading proponents of reading programs and observing the practice in use, and shed light on the disagreement about whether phonics should be taught to children or whether they should be taught to read words as whole. In an attempt to compare the two methods (look-and-say vs. phonics-first), Chall (1967: 161) cited the following reading methods presented by Nila B. Smith (1963, 1965) for the period from 1890 to 1955:

1890-1920: Elaborate, synthetic phonics systems were used, in which the child was started out immediately with practice on sounds of isolated letters and 'family words' (e.g., hall, ball, tall, etc.)

1920- 1935: The new emphasis became that of reading silently to get the thought and the use of phonics was looked upon as an outmoded procedure.

1935-1955: Phonics began to come back gradually… supplemented with the use of picture clues, context clues, structural analysis and dictionary skills.

In addition, Chall reviewed relevant research studies and came to a surprising conclusion. In the beginning, Chall herself did not expect that phonics method would work better than look-and-say method, but her findings suggested that systemic phonics was a valuable component of beginning reading instruction and a complement to connected and meaningful reading. Chall indicated that after 1930s, people were asking how much and what kind of phonics to teach rather than whether to teach it (1967: 105) and concluded that direct, systematic instruction in phonics was necessary for children to develop word identification skill and reading fluency in an efficient manner.

Adams reviewed literature of phonics and the nature of reading in her book. She also focused on the question of why phonics instruction, in particular, is so often seen as the proper cure for children's reading ills. He reviewed some research about the impact of connected test o children's word recognition skills. Connie Juel and Diane Roper/ Schneider (1985, cited in Adams, 1990: 275-278) worked with 11 classrooms in three schools. There were tow sets of basal materials used in reading group activities. One of these basal series emphasized phonics, and the core vocabulary of its three initial texts stressed words with regular, decodable spelling patterns. The other series was not phonic oriented, and the word selection in its texts stressed frequent words instead. The growth of the children's decoding ability at each test were significantly better able than their peers to read the list of pseudo-words, which was a strong predictor of core vocabulary recognition. In other words, the children in the phonic-oriented basal program developed a more general appreciation and reliance of spelling-sound relations than their peers in the other program. Adams concluded:

"In summary, deep and thorough knowledge of letters, spelling patterns, and

words, and of the phonological translations of all three, are of inescapable

importance to both skilled reading and its acquisition. By extension, instruction

designed to develop children's sensitivity to spellings and their relations to

pronunciations should be of paramount importance in the development of

reading skills. This is , of course, precisely what is intended of good phonics

instruction" (1990: 416)

Adams's strong words showed how important phonics is . However, Adams still held a conservative attitude toward the right amount of phonics instruction. She did not state specifically how it should be taught. She even suggested that extra amount of phonics instruction would not help enhance children's decoding ability. She found that these studies kept positive and negative opinions about the effectiveness of phonics instruction: Systematic phonics instruction led to higher achievement in both word recognition and spelling, but these studies did not identify the contributing factors underlying the phonics advantage.

There was negative evaluation of teaching word recognition through phonics. Flesch listed a lot of researchers who held an opposite attitude toward teaching beginning reading. Flesch (1955: 53) found an opposing point of view raised by Huey (1908, cited in Flesch, 1955) was found in The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. Huey contended that the dominating purpose of reading was to get information and express meanings, and he treated phonics as a "pure, unadulterated evil that must be destroyed", because "until the insidious thought of reading as word-pronouncing is well worked out of our heads, it is well to place the emphasis strongly where it belongs, on reading as thought-getting, independently of expression." Besides, Anderson and Dearborn (1952. cited in Flesch, 1955: 50) in The Psychology of Teaching Reading that readers did not ordinarily read letter by letter but by whole-word units. In other words, phonics was against and did not fit the authentic situation and was thus of little help in teaching reading. Griff (1986, cited in Gunning, 1992: 80) noted that linguists claimed that it was improper to isolate speech sounds and it was contrary to the productive development of children's word recognition skills, one of whom was Leonard Bloomfield. Bloomfield insisted that teaching should begin with words which are spelt regularly. The term analytic phonics has traditionally been used in reference to a method of teaching reading developed by Bloomfield (Bloomfield & Bamhart, 1961, cited in Rieben & Perdetti, 1991: 201). That is, the probability of learning letter sounds will be maximized if the child is presented with minimally contrasting, phonetically regular words, and then he/ she will be able to induce the alphabetic principle (e.g., cat, rat, fat, fan, etc.) from minimal pairs. He disagreed with teaching word recognition by isolating sounds. What he agreed is that the child can discover the relationship between the corresponding letters and sounds by himself. To sum up, Bloomfield was against teaching the letter-sound correspondence.

In addition to the analytic approach, Gunning (1992) stated that there is another approach and provided clear explanation. There are two approaches of teaching phonics: analytic and synthetic. In the analytic approach, teachers first provide a list of words and teach sounds in a word context, such as ch in chain, chair, … That is, provide children with "target words" in context. Ask them what letters are the same in the target words. Return to the target words in context and this will not distort sounds as the synthetic approach. In the analytic/ implicit approach, consonants are generally not isolated but are taught within the context of a whole word. For example, the sound /b/ in the beginning of ball and boy is not pronounced in isolation because that would distort it to "buh." In the synthetic/ explicit approach, words are decoded sound by sound, and both consonant and vowel sounds are pronounced in isolation. For example, a child decoding cat would say, "kub-ah-tuh." With the synthetic method, children learn first to decode letters (called "sounds") in isolation and then learn how to put them together to make words. Gunning considered this approach is very direct but distorts consonants, which cannot be pronounced accurately without a vowel. Although it is true that consonant sounds spoken in isolation are distorted, but after working with underachieving readers, Gunning (1992: 79-80) found that it is true that some students do better with a combined analytic and synthetic approach. Hsu (2000) interviewed several elementary and junior high school teachers about teaching phonics and found out that although some teachers prefer the implicit method to the explicit method, the explicit method will still be employed if the instruction time is limited or the teaching progress is delayed (147).

The current dispute among reading instruction specialists as to how phonics information is learned best has been flaming since 1973. One side of the controversy over whether to teach phonics has contended that phonics is not an indispensable part of word recognition. Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman (1973, cited in Groff, 1998: 138) held a negative viewpoint and suggested that "teaching children to master phonics information and apply it to reading is one of the 12 easy ways to make learning to read difficult." The other side of this controversy points to relevant experimental research findings that suggest phonics knowledge is a prerequisite to novice readers' accurate identification of written words (Chall, 1983; Share & Stanovich, 1995, both cited in Groff, 1998: 138).

Here in Taiwan, according to the interview with junior high school teachers by Hsu (2000), teachers teach phonics not only according to their students but also to their teaching time available. Without too much time available for developing phonics knowledge, teachers in junior high teach phonics with a more direct and explicit method. They will choose to tell the students the sound underlying a grapheme without too much exercise on other similar words containing the same sound-letter relationship (149). That is to say teachers tend to teach elder students with a direct rule-giving method. To sum up, in classrooms, teachers always have the right to embrace the merits of these teaching methods and the teaching of reading is never limited to any single method. In spite of the controversy, most teachers today agree that children's acquisition of phonics skills is an essential part of their reading development. They also agree to the fact that "children who start slowly in acquiring decoding skills rarely become strong readers" (Lapp & Flood, 1997: 698, cited in Groff, 1998: 138). May (1998: 88) indicated that phonics should be taught in a very systematic way, very directly rather than indirectly, very explicitly rather than implicitly. Teachers, whenever possible, should tell children rather than allow them to discover phonic patterns on their own. She considered "phonics to be far more important than any other program component --- at least in the first two or three graders". A lot of experimental evidence indicates that considerable time should be devoted in reading lessons to explicit and comprehensive development of beginning readers' phonics skills, because the more phonics information that a child acquires, and learn to apply to decode written words, the better. In Taiwan, phonics is treated as an innovative method in teaching children English pronunciation (Hsu, 2000). Phonics is playing the role of helping children sound out unfamiliar printed English words; therefore, we need to look into the process how effective readers recognize words.

2.4 Concepts of Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is a very crucial element in learning a phonetic language. Adams (1991a) defined phonological awareness as the "recognition that syllables and words can be broken into a relatively small set or sounds (i.e., phonemes) which correspond to graphemes." Obviously, the relationship between phonological awareness and learning to read is extremely important. However, how do children become phonemically aware? To answer the question, we have to know what phonemic awareness means. Phonemic awareness is the awareness of phonemes, or sounds, in the speech stream. It is the awareness that speech consists of a series of sounds. Uhry & Shepherd (1993: 231) said, "In our study, children needed training to become better decoders". Gunning (1992: 65) defined phonemic awareness as the consciousness of the sounds in words. It includes the ability to detect rhyme, separate the sounds in words, and the sounds in words, and detect consonants and vowels. It may be learned through interaction with print, through specific training in segmenting and other skills. Studies reveal that the ability to segment and otherwise manipulate sounds in speech can be explicitly taught to children and that those children who receive training phonemic awareness perform at higher levels on subsequent reading and spelling achievement tests than their control counterparts (Cited in Yopp, 1995b: 538). Goldsworthy (1998: 1-2) explains the link between phonological awareness and reading: During the development of speech, the child processes through a series of stages. Articulatory gestures become integrated into automatic phonetic routines as the child practiced producing speech. Consequently, the phonological code becomes a more efficient code for encoding and retrieving structures in verbal working memory. As phonemes begin to emerge as definite forms, the child becomes aware of them as structures in and of themselves. Becoming aware of these structures is critical for the language learner to develop strong, efficient phonological representations. Words can be broken into parts; syllables and sounds within syllables can be added, and/ or moved around in words.

For children, words seem like a continuation of a single sound and they do not have to deal with individual sounds in their natural environment. However, the ability to segment words is absolutely important for literacy development. The listener's ability to discriminate individual phonemes of word segments in speech and to remember their order is called phonological processing. Phonological processing may play a causal role in subsequent reading success, but learning to read also changes one's phonological sensitivity (Mcguinness, Mcguinness & Donohue, 1995: 830). If children cannot hear the separate sounds in a primitive way. That is, they may learn to know a few words by sheer rote memory but will not be able to sound out words (Gunning, 1992: 58). Therefore, phonological awareness is a necessary factor for learning to read.

2.5 Phonological Awareness in Word Recognition

Written word recognition is an important part of reading skills. Phonological recoding involves translating letters into sounds by application of the knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences and then recognizing the words from their pronunciations. To the contrary, sight word recognition involves the establishment of direct connections between the visual forms of written words and their meaning in memory. A word is recognized by reading many times. Phonics knowledge makes decoding efficient only when the decoding process consumes the least energy and produces the highest reading rate. Readers need to translate graphemic representations into speech code in order to be successful in reading. Lapp & Flood (1997: 689) said, "All readers use a different level of attention to apply their knowledge of the code as they read. At one extreme, when they encounter familiar, well-practiced words, they apply their knowledge without any apparent attention; this phenomenon has been labeled word recognition, word identification, and/ or sight word recognition. At the other extreme, readers need to consciously apply their knowledge, and this happens when they encounter new words they do not know and they have to work to produce a plausible pronunciation for the new words." In order to read fluently, readers start the reading process with "word attack", which is a system that can help readers apply their knowledge of the code (phonics) by attacking an unfamiliar word in order to get a plausible pronunciation. That means readers need to phonologically decode graphemic representation.s into speech codes to access the internal lexical recognition….

2.6 The Relation of Phonics Instruction and Phonological Awareness

2.7 Tasks for Measuring Phonological Awareness--- through Phonics Workbook

2.7.1 Phonemic Segmentation

2.7.2 Invented Spelling

2.7.3 Pseudo-word/ Nonsense Word Reading

2.7.4 Awareness of Rimes

2.7.5 Letter Sound & Name Knowledge

2.7.6 Phonemic Manipulation

2.7.7 Segmentation of Words Into Syllables

2.7.8 Segmental Identity