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Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0


Over the years, a number of researchers have developed models of reading development based on stages (Chall, 1979; Ehri, 1993, 1994; Frith, 1985). Are they worth knowing about? Is the attainment of literacy somehow related to successful negotiation of these stages? Even if there is no consensus about whether or which stages are important, might the stage approach still provide useful information to guide intervention? Can student progress and success be hastened through such information? Alternatively, might it be that a focus upon stages merely reflects a kind of educational voyeurism with no implications for practice? If this latter were the case, then the issues raised might be of academic interest but perhaps not assigned a high priority for curriculum attention.


Some have argued (e.g., Smith, 1973) that children have an innate propensity for reading, and require only a literate environment for reading to flourish. If this were true, then attention to stages would have neither instructional consequences nor any great appeal. However, it is now generally acknowledged that learning to read involves processes that are not equivalent to those involved in learning to speak (Liberman, 1997), and that it is, for too many children in our education system, a frustrating and fruitless pursuit.

The consequences for such children have been well documented. At the minimum, failure to read presents a major hurdle to educational progress (Binder, 1996; Lewis & Paik, 2001), a fast-acting self-esteem depressant (Chapman, Tunmer, & Prochnow, 2000), a cause of depression and anxiety (Nelson & Harwood, 2011; Sideridis, 2007). In fact, it is associated with every negative experience of anindividual’s life subsequently (National Institute for Literacy, 1998). “More suffer life-harm from illiteracy than from parental abuse, accidents, and all other childhood diseases and disorders combined” (Whitehurst, 2003).

From a 2008 report it is clear that lower levels of education are associated with:

  1. Lower wages and greater financial insecurity: an early school leaver can expect to earn approximately $500,000 less in the course of their working life than someone who completes Year 12;
  2. Poorer mental and physical health: Victorians who do not complete secondary school are almost four times more likely to report poorer health;
  3. A higher likelihood of child abuse and neglect when early leavers become parents;
  4. Higher instances of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal activity;
  5. Mortality rates up to nine times higher than the general population (Koen & Duigan, 2008).

There are great personal costs, and also economic costs to the nation. There is a strong drag on a nation’s growth produced by an inefficient education system.

In addressing our current fiscal and economic woes, too often we neglect a key ingredient of our nation's economic future—the human capital produced by our K-12 school system. An improved education system would lead to a dramatically different future for the U.S., because educational outcomes strongly affect economic growth and the distribution of income. … Greater educational disparity leads to greater income-distribution disparity. If we fail to reform our K-12 education system, we'll be locking in inequality problems that will plague us for decades if not generations to come (Schultz & Hanushek, 2012, p. 2).

Coulombe, Tremblay and Marchand (2004) concluded that a rise of 1% in a country’s literacy (that is, their average literacy and numeracy skills level as measured by the International Adult Literacy Survey) score relative to the international average is associated with an eventual 2.5% relative rise in labour productivity and a 1.5% increase in gross domestic product per head.

There is a problem

Research syntheses in recent times (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005; National Reading Panel, 2000; Rose Report, 2006; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) have produced considerable consensus concerning the variables critical in designing and presenting effective instruction to assist students become capable readers. Additionally, knowledge about early identification and intervention (Torgesen, 1998) holds promise of reducing the unacceptably high proportion of students who do not achieve adequately in school because of under-developed literacy skills. In 2010, the Journal of Learning Disabilities produced a special edition ''Advances in the early detection of reading risk'' which contained six studies and one synthesis focused on early identification of reading impairment with a view to minimising the deleterious and (usually) long-lasting effects of early reading failure.

Strong concerns about national literacy levels have been expressed in Great Britain, the USA, and Australia. These have been summarized in a previous blog “Literacy assessment based upon the National Reading Panel’s Big Five components at http://www.adihome.org/blog/latest

The role of education

Whatever literacy figure is acknowledged, it is apparent that it is beyond acceptability. There was a time when it was thought that teachers could have little impact upon student success. The Coleman Report (Coleman et al., 1966) and other studies deflated many in the educational community when they asserted that what occurred in schools could have little impact on student achievement. It was argued that the effects on educational outcomes of genetic inheritance, early childhood experiences and subsequent family environment vastly outweighed school effects (Jencks et al., 1972). That being the case, there would be little point in stressing a particular approach to curriculum since the effects would be negligible compared to other variables outside a school’s control.

In contrast to these perspectives, there is now a strong body of teacher effectiveness research, nicely exemplified in the Sanders and Rivers (1996) finding that students in classes with effective teachers for 3 years in a row achieved 50% more learning than those in classes with poor teachers over the same period. Further, the strongest benefit accrued to lower achieving students as teacher effectiveness increased. These advantages applied across diverse ethnic groups, and were cumulative. Students with similar abilities and initial skill levels attained very different educational outcomes depending upon the various teachers into whose charge they were placed.

Researchers for the Dallas Independent School District studied the correlation between teacher effectiveness and student performance on formal assessments. They found that the average reading scores of students assigned to three highly effective teachers in a row rose from the 59th percentile in fourth grade to the 76th percentile by the end of sixth grade, and students of similar ability assigned to ineffective teachers for three consecutive years fell from the 60th percentile in fourth grade to the 42nd percentile by the end of sixth grade (Starr, 2013, p.1).

In terms of literacy and numeracy test scores, a 75th percentile teacher can achieve in three-quarters of a year what a 25th percentile teacher can achieve in a full year; while a 90th percentile teacher can achieve in half a year what a 10th percentile teacher can achieve in a full year (Leigh, 2009, p.18).

So, there are now many studies that should direct our attention towards classroom instructional processes as a major variable impinging on student achievement (Raj Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2011). Based upon an analysis of empirical findings available since the 1970’s, Jencks has altered his earlier view, and subsequently argued for the potential of education to significantly reduce inequality in student achievement (Jencks & Phillips, 1998). Wenglinsky (2003) reported a total standardized effect for teacher variables as 0.70, larger than the total standard effect of background measures (0.56). In the area of reading, the high incidence of failure is now thought to be reducible to around 5% when empirically supported approaches are adopted from the beginning phase of school (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olsen, 1997; Fuchs & Fuchs, 2005: Torgesen et al., 2001; Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, Alexander, & Conway, 1997; Vellutino et al., 1996).

It is also becoming clearer that the role of teachers in promoting reading development is undergoing a change of emphasis, although many teachers feel under-trained to manage the transition from a largely facilitating role to one of direct instructor (Carnine, 2000; Ingersoll, 1999; Moats, 1994; National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005). This pessimism is not unreasonable, given the incidence figures for reading failure, and the finding (Hill, 1995) that the lowest 10% of students make no discernible reading progress between Year 4 and Year 10.

A national survey of 1000 teachers by Rohl and Greaves (2005) adds to this concern, reporting that 36% of beginning primary teachers felt unprepared to teach reading. Senior staff at their schools were even more pessimistic, considering that 49% of these beginning teachers were unprepared to teach reading. These figures rose dramatically (77% - 89%) when the beginning teachers were confronted with diverse learners (those with disabilities or learning difficulties, indigenous and low SES students, and students whose initial language was not English). Similar findings have been reported by Louden et al. (2005), and by Fielding-Barnsley and Purdie (2005). In the Barnyak and Paquette (2010) study, they attribute this mismatch between evidence-based instruction and typical classroom teaching to the consequences of inadequate teacher training and the tendency for teacher beliefs to be resistant to change.

Research can provide direction

So, there is a systemic problem, evidence that it is largely resolvable, and a first line of attack (the school system) that is inadequately prepared for its role. The crucial weakness in the system arises due to a lack of focus upon the vital aspects of beginning literacy instruction. Education has a long history of responding enthusiastically to gurus, fads, and philosophies whilst ignoring or decrying research-based methods and their findings (Hempenstall, 1997).

Times may be changing, however. For example, in the USA Reading First was a strong top-down initiative aimed at increased adoption of those literacy programs having evidence of effectiveness. Similarly focussed initiatives have been introduced in Great Britain and Australia. This process of tying funding to instructional method has been resisted strenuously by many teachers, some of their organisations, and the teacher training facilities (Manzo, 2002). Though it is certainly not a fait accompli, perhaps, the dreaded pendulum swing that has long afflicted education will been attenuated as a consequence.


Systematic synthetic phonics instruction has been espoused as useful for most beginning students by a number of august panels (National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005; National Reading Panel, 2000; Rose Report, 2006; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) in addition to similar conclusions having been reached by many individual researchers (Baker, Kameenui, Simmons, & Stahl, 1994; Bateman, 1991; Blachman, 1991; Felton & Pepper, 1995; Foorman, 1995; Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, & Fletcher, 1997; Moats, 1994; Simmons, Gunn, Smith, & Kameenui, 1995; Singh, Deitz, & Singh, 1992; Spector, 1995; Tunmer & Hoover, 1993; Weir, 1990). Analysis of research into phonics since the report of National Reading Panel was presented by Brady (2011), and confirmed the original findings. This approach recognises the demands of mastering an alphabetically-based writing system, and initially focuses upon teaching the sounds employed in words, their corresponding graphemes, and the processes of blending and segmenting.

There are different approaches to teaching phonics that influence what is taught: analytic and synthetic phonics instruction, and how it is taught: systematic and incidental. In a synthetic (or explicit) program, students will learn the associations between the letters and their sounds. This may comprise showing students the graphemes and teaching them the sounds that correspond to them, as in “This letter you are looking at makes the sound sss”. Alternatively, some teachers prefer teaching students single sounds first, and then later introducing the visual cue (the grapheme) for the sound, as in “We’ve been practising the mmm sound, and here’s the letter used in writing that tells us to make that sound”. In a synthetic program, the processes of blending (“What word do these sounds make when we put them together mmm-aaa-nnn?”), and segmenting (“Sound-out this word for me”) are also taught. It is of little value knowing what are the building blocks of our language’s structure if one does not know how to put those blocks together appropriately to allow written communication, or to separate the blocks to enable decoding of a letter grouping. After letter-sound correspondence has been taught, phonograms (such as: er, ir, ur, wor, ear, sh, ee, th) are introduced, and more complex words can be introduced into reading activities. In conjunction with this approach "controlled vocabulary" stories may be used - books using only words decodable using the students' current knowledge base.

The term “synthetic” (synonymous with “explicit”) implies the synthesis (or building up) of phonic skills from their smallest unit (graphemes). One alternative phonics model is known as analytic phonics. “Analytic” (synonymous with “implicit”) signifies the analysis (breaking down) of the whole word into its parts (an analysis only necessary when a child cannot read it as a whole word). In analytic phonics, students are expected to absorb or induce the required information from the word’s structure, largely from presentation of similar sounding words. For example, “The first sound you are seeking also occurs in these words: mad, muscle, moon”. The words may be pointed to, or spoken by the teacher, but the sounds in isolation from words are never presented to children. A major problem with implicit phonics methods is the assumption that all students will already have the fairly sophisticated phonemic awareness skills needed to enable the comparison of sounds within the various words.

An additional problem with most implicit phonics approaches are that children are provided with a variety of books correlated with their interest rather than with their skill level. They are encouraged as a first strategy to use the pictures and context of the stories to predict words, rather than employing the words’ alphabetic makeup (Johnston & Watson, 2003). This Three Cueing system has been criticised as inconsistent with what is known about skilled reading development (Adams, 1998; Hempenstall, 2003; Wixson, 1979).

The synthetic approach has been exciting much interest in Great Britain due to some very powerful and long-lasting effects reported from Clackmannanshire in Scotland (Johnston & Watson, 2003; Watson & Johnston, 1998). Three hundred Scottish school beginners were taught by either synthetic or analytic phonics programs over an intensive 16-week period at school commencement. Those who were taught by the synthetic phonics method were seven months above their chronological age and similarly advanced beyond their analytically taught peers. Seven years later the synthetic group’s word-reading ability was three-and-a-half years advanced, and almost two years ahead in spelling, and disadvantaged children achieved similar progress. Unaccountably, the progress of boys exceeded that of girls (by 11 months), and only 5.6% of the students taught synthetic phonics were behind in word reading at the five year follow-up.

Below are some recent follow-up findings from Johnston, McGeown, and Watson (2012).

Overall, the group taught by synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and reading comprehension. There was no evidence that the synthetic phonics approach, which early on teaches children to blend letter sounds in order to read unfamiliar words, led to any impairment in the reading of irregular words (p. 1365).

“It was found in Study 1 that, after 6 years at school, children taught by the synthetic phonics approach read words, spelt words and had reading comprehension skills significantly in advance of those taught by the analytic phonics method. This shows that despite English being an opaque orthography, children are not impaired when taught by an approach to reading that is common in transparent orthographies“(p.1378).

“The analytic phonics approach, having an early sight word element and late teaching of sounding and blending, may lead to some children reading largely by a form of sight word reading underpinned only by superficial connections between print and sounds” (p.1382).

“This present study makes an important contribution to documenting the long term effects of synthetic phonics teaching. Maintaining the gain in word reading for age would have been noteworthy, but in fact it increased over time, leading to a high level of attainment at the age of 10” (p. 1384).

Systematic instruction

There are also two approaches to the instructional process (as opposed to the instructional content), “systematic” and “incidental”. In systematic instruction, there will be attention to the detail of the teaching process. Instruction will usually be teacher-directed, based on a logical analysis of the skills required and their optimal presentation sequence. At its most systematic, it will probably involve massed and spaced practice of those skills (often isolated from text), corrective feedback of errors, and continuous evaluation of progress. An alternative perspective, incidental (or discovery, or embedded) instruction shifts the responsibility for making use of phonic cues from the teacher to the student. It assumes that students will develop a self-sustaining, natural, unique reading style that integrates the use of contextual and graphophonic cues, without the need for systematic instruction. Support for this latter position has not been forthcoming.

After half a century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of sound research that supports using the technique with anyone other than the most expert students. Evidence from controlled experimental (a.k.a. “gold standard”) studies almost uniformly supports full and explicit instructional guidance rather than partial or minimal guidance for novice to intermediate learners. These findings and their associated theories suggest teachers should provide their students with clear, explicit instruction rather than merely assisting students in attempting to discover knowledge themselves” (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012, p.11).

According to the research consensus, there are compelling theoretical and empirical reasons why teaching phonics to students in this systematic synthetic manner produces greater success than do the less directive approaches popular over the past 20 years. A theoretical rationale indicates whether, given the state of knowledge at the time, it is reasonable for a model to be successful. An empirical rationale indicates whether a particular approach is indeed successful.

Though many of the major whole language advocates were disparaging of the role of phonics in learning to read (Goodman, 1974, 1985; Smith, 1973; Weaver, 1988), there has been an apparent renewed interest in the potential of phonics instruction to provide some assistance to beginning readers. The approach that maintains most of the whole language philosophy with a sprinkling of phonics is often described as a “balanced approach” (Moats, 2000). Whether teachers have been adequately trained to optimally balance such unusual bedfellows was addressed in the Rohl and Greaves (2005) nation-wide survey. About 57% of beginning teachers felt unprepared to teach phonics, and experienced teachers at their schools considered that 65% of them were unprepared.

Not only have teachers been under-prepared, but many have been mis-prepared by teacher training that has decried both phonics and systematic instruction.

The special case of English: A perfect storm?

Note that the processes I have been outlining would in principle apply to any alphabetic writing system – they all code phonemes, and they are all morphological as well as phonological. But I propose that English creates special problems. The apparently unruly nature of the orthography, the existence of many words that do not follow straightforward one-to-one mapping of letter onto phoneme, may undermine the resolve of teachers to teach reading as if it were an exercise in alphabetic decoding. And teachers may not have such a resolve in the first place. We know that some do not because they have been trained to avoid explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle (Goodman, 1986; Shankweiler & Fowler, 2004). This in turn has been in part based on the conviction that reading cannot be done this way anyway, precisely because of the existence of irregular words like the, once, one, was, were, there … .So, we may have the beginnings of a perfect storm – children ill equipped to discover, all by themselves, the alphabetic nature of English writing, the same children well equipped, all by themselves, to discover its morphemic nature, and a teacher who advertently of inadvertently fosters the morphemic hypothesis and obscures the phonemic one, leading to children trapped in an initially successful strategy but one that will eventually leave them floundering (Byrne, Freebody, & Gates, 1992) (Byrne, 2011, p. 182).

There has also been an argument that differing learning styles make a structured approach inappropriate because children differ in important ways. It has been asserted that these differences are more significant than the similarities shared by learners. This view has not stood the test of empirical research. “It simply is not true that there are hundreds of ways to learn to read […] when it comes to reading we all have roughly the same brain that imposes the same constraints and the same learning sequence” (Dehaene, 2009, p. 218).

Stage models

Attendance to the stage model is of particular assistance in enhancing one’s theoretical understanding of the reading process, thereby also supplying appropriate emphases for instruction at various phases of a student’s progress. If one has an expectation as to what literacy behaviour to expect at a given stage of a student’s early reading, then it will be more evident when a problem arises. It also enables the interpretation of the problem locus, so that any intervention is matched to the area of concern. Ehri and McCormick (1998) referred to teachers developing a troubleshooting skill through the regular consideration of student reading behaviour within the reading stages context. While acknowledging the potential for this to occur, it is also important to remember that environmental effects and individual differences are likely to influence the saliency of the stages.

Identifying a problem quickly allows the possibility of a speedy intervention that prevents the downward spiral known as the Matthew Effect (Stanovich, 1986). This topic was covered in an earlier blog: “What are these Matthew Effects?” at http://www.adihome.org/blog/latest

Cumulative findings showed that matching a child’s initial strengths and weaknesses to instruction time and goal was beneficial for long-term reading success. Inversely, a mismatch between a child’s initial skill set and instructional time and goal resulted in no progress in reading or, in some cases, a decline in skills (Hogan & Thompson, 2010, p.385).

What do reading stages look like?

Although variations in emphasis occur among reading-stage writers, there is increasing general acceptance that the sequence of development of the word identification system moves from logographic to alphabetic to orthographic (Moats, 1998). Beginners attend to a word as they would a picture or logograph. The letters are not recognised other than as the peaks and troughs that produce the landscape. As they become familiar with letters, readers begin to use their sound values as important cues in discerning words; hence, the alphabet assumes significance. With experience, the capacity to attend to individual letters and groupings of letters expands to enable rapid recognition of whole words (orthographic recognition).

Reading words may take several forms. Readers may utilize decoding, analogizing, or predicting to read unfamiliar words. Readers read familiar words by accessing them in memory, called sight word reading. With practice, all words come to be read automatically by sight, which is the most efficient, unobtrusive way to read words in text. The process of learning sight words involves forming connections between graphemes and phonemes to bond spellings of the words to their pronunciations and meanings in memory. The process is enabled by phonemic awareness and by knowledge of the alphabetic system, which functions as a powerful mnemonic to secure spellings in memory. Recent studies show that alphabetic knowledge enhances children’s learning of new vocabulary words, and it influences their memory for doubled letters in words. Four phases characterize the course of development of sight word learning. The phases are distinguished according to the type of alphabetic knowledge used to form connections: pre-alphabetic, partial, full, and consolidated alphabetic phases. These processes appear to portray sight word learning in transparent as well as opaque writing systems (Ehri, 2005, p.167).

It should not be assumed that these stages are rigid dichotomies. Stage achievement may be fluid – a new stage only achieved temporarily. Ehri (1995) prefers to use the term phase in recognition of this fluidity. The stages may be hard won or achieved rapidly and effortlessly in an “Aha” manner. Some students reach school already at the relatively advanced alphabetic stage because they have taken advantage of a wide range of early literacy experiences (Adams, 1990). Instructional planning for students’ future reading progress may be enhanced by assessing their current status within the reading stage hierarchy. Action may be then initiated to provide appropriate instruction to accelerate movement to the next stage.

An alternative perspective to stages is provided by Seigler (2005):

“We suggest Seigler’s (2005) overlapping waves model may be more applicable to reading and spelling development than models based on notions of ‘stage’. In the overlapping waves model children make use of a variety of strategies to cope with a variety of cognitive tasks rather than moving sequentially from one strategy to another depending on stage.” (Devonshire, Morris, & Fluck, 2013, p. 92)

 The consequences of slow initial progress

Stanovich (1986) uses the label Matthew effects (after the Gospel according to St. Matthew) to describe how, in reading, the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. Children with a good understanding of how spoken words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) are well placed to make sense of our alphabetic system. Their typically rapid development of spelling-to-sound correspondences allows the development of independent reading, high levels of practice, and the subsequent fluency that is critical for comprehension and enjoyment of reading. On the other hand, students without either phonemic awareness developed prior to school entry or appropriate instruction in the beginning stages of reading are likely to commence a downward spiral of lesser achievement across the curriculum.

Contrary to the hope that initial slow progress is merely a maturational lag to be redressed by a developmental spurt at some later date, typically even relatively minor delays tend to become increasingly major over time (Stanovich, 1993). A study by Juel (1988) reported a probability that a poor reader in Year 1 would still be so classified in Year 4 was 0.88. Jorm, Share, Maclean, and Matthews (1984) in their longitudinal study noted similar outcomes. A performance difference in reading of 4 months in Year 1 had increased to 9 months in Year 2 in favour of the phonemically aware group (who had been matched in kindergarten on verbal IQ and sight word reading), over a low phonemic awareness group. Subsequent studies have been generally supportive of this view (Al Otaiba et al., 2008; Sideridis, 2011).

 How are these stages delineated?

Avoidance of this cascade of deficits that typically follows early failure is paramount. How might stage analysis help? By locating how far along the path to facile reading is a given student, or what should be expected of a student at a given age who is displaying normal progress.

Ehri (1995) argued for four phases: pre-alphabetic, partial alphabetic, full alphabetic, and consolidated alphabetic phases.

Pre-alphabetic (or logographic) stage

In the pre-alphabetic stage, children begin to recognise writing by attending to extraneous cues (Ehri, 1994) such as colour, size, location, and accompanying logos on advertising signs, for example, that for McDonalds food outlets. When they later begin to attend to the words themselves, the young readers begin to recognise some visual letter patterns by their shape (a landscape of squiggles). The shape is recognised largely as a whole, and significant alterations to the letter structure may be made without altering the child's response (e.g., a change in the McDonalds’ sign to McPomalds is unnoticed).

In some students, unawareness of the alphabetic nature of our written language can be gauged by their attention to unproductive cues, such as assuming that word length must be related to an object’s size. Using this faulty guide, the beginner may determine which of two given words must represent “elephant” and which must then be “bee”. Alternatively, the solution to word identification difficulty may be sought in extraneous visual cues within a word’s structure, such as the “g” in “dog” being interpreted as a tail, or the “oo” in “look” interpreted as eyes. Even though these strategies are moribund, their use nevertheless represents an advance over the earlier purely logographic recognition strategy. It is a more analytic approach – attention being paid to word sub-parts, but the attention is not alphabetic in nature - nor (as yet) is it directed to the word sub-parts’ position within the word.

Instruction that hinders progress

Students grasping for some means to make sense of the squiggles may attempt to predict upcoming words by second-guessing the author. Systematic teachers can readily recognise this semantic strategy and demonstrate to students its lack of utility. Students’ lack of alphabetic awareness may be detected when they respond inappropriately to the teacher substituting similar looking but semantically different words in a sentence (e.g., replacing “dog” with “log”, “hook” with “book”). Of course, some teachers are driven by the belief that students should rely primarily upon prediction strategies (Emmit, 1996; Weaver, 1988). They are less likely to be concerned about the non-alphabetic strategies in use, and even likely to suggest that the student attend to the picture that accompanies the text. This is generally an unhelpful suggestion as there is no word-level learning involved - the reading task is merely delayed or bypassed. They may also persuade their students to focus upon meaning cues rather than word-level cues, based upon a misplaced faith in miscue analysis and its underlying assumptions (Hempenstall, 1998). However, it is now recognised that errors that retain meaning, but not word structure, are not associated with efficient decoding and, hence, not to be encouraged (Savage, Stuart, & Hill, 2001).

Some teachers remain unaware that the use of context as a strategy to recognize words is ineffective (Kamhi & Catts, 1999). Context, as a cue to word recognition, is of only minor benefit even with non-content words, enabling only 40% comprehension at best (Stanovich, 1990). In a study by Gough, Alford, and Holley-Wilcox (1981), well educated, skilled readers, given adequate time, could correctly ascertain from context only one word in four. As for content words, only 10% are recognizable from context (Gough & Wren, 1998). This figure is lower because content words carry a great deal of the meaning in a sentence, and are less likely to be defined within the surrounding text.

Comprehension suffers further when reliance on context is promoted (Bruck, 1990), because significant working memory resources need be devoted to predicting and confirming words from context, thereby unnecessarily diverting the resources otherwise available for comprehension. Using context as a major strategy in recognising words should be discouraged. It is a characteristic of beginning and struggling readers, not of skilled readers (Alexander, 1998; Nicholson, 1991), and its use does not assist comprehension development. Indeed, a study by Shankweiler et al. (1999) noted that it is the ability to read aloud a list of English words that is most strongly associated with comprehension - accounting for 79% of the variance in reading comprehension.

Phonemic awareness

At this early stage, the child, has not learned to analyse the written word structure, and nor would it be necessary if our written language were logographic, as is Chinese (for the most part). English is alphabetic, and contains far too many words to be recognised by the visual pattern of peaks and troughs, whirls and intersections that comprise written English. The movement to the alphabetic stage is probably provoked by the gradual awareness of speech segmentation that the child induces or is taught (Adams, 1990). Phoneme awareness may more readily be established in children whose earlier experiences have included a focus on the structure of the spoken word, even if in larger units such as rhymes and syllables. Some children arrive at school quite alert to the sounds in words, whilst others have not - and some will not develop this awareness unaided (Chall, 1989). Without some assistance in developing phonemic awareness, they may never appreciate how the structure of spoken words forms the foundation for decoding written words. For many of these phonological novices, drawing attention to spoken word parts through rhymes, and other game-like activities can create interest and the beginnings of awareness.

Those who do not readily progress should be targeted for more intensive assistance, as difficulty with phonological awareness development is a strong predictor of reading problems (Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Share, 1995). Advancing beyond simple sensitivity to sounds, the more sophisticated phonological skills that involve sound manipulation, such as blending and segmenting, are best taught to ensure that the alphabetic principle becomes the wellspring of subsequent reading development (National Reading Panel, 2000). It is blending and segmenting that represents the productive linking of phonemic awareness to the alphabetic principle.

From phonemic awareness to the alphabetic principle

An interesting question involves how best to ensure that phonemic awareness develops into alphabetic insight. Is it necessary to teach phonemic awareness before introducing letters? Or is it more efficient (and as effective) to combine letter-sound correspondences with phonemic awareness activities? Ehri et al. (2001) argued that it was more beneficial to teach segmenting and blending rather than the full range of phonemic awareness activities, and to combine such activities with beginning reading, that is, through employing letters. Hatcher, Hulme, and Ellis (1994) describe the process as creating a “phonological linkage” (p. 42), and further support for this position is supplied by Spector (1995) and in the report of the National Reading Panel (2000). Children in dual-input programs have demonstrated more improvement in reading and spelling than have those exposed to oral phonemic awareness programs divorced from reading instruction. Presumably, the reason for this advantage lies with the manner in which phonemic awareness provides a signpost to beginning readers that there is a logic to the reading process (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989), and it is more effective when this signpost occurs in proximity to its primary function – that of enhancing reading development. It has even been argued (Ehri, 1998; Morais, Alegria, & Content, 1987) that it is not until students appreciate how our alphabet is designed to represent speech in phonemic form that more sophisticated levels of phonemic awareness result, a point made also by Byrne (2011).

Those who develop an appreciation for the alphabetic principle recognise that spoken words are amalgams of separate sounds, and that each of these sounds has been assigned at least one written symbol. In its simplest form, alphabetically-based reading requires blending of the sounds represented by these symbols to at least approximate a word’s pronunciation, and spelling involves segmenting the word into its constituent sounds and writing the associated symbols. Unless the alphabetic principle is understood, the beginner will attempt to memorise logographs - reliant on memory of the letter landscapes, supplemented with contextual guessing strategies (Spear-Swerling & Sternberg, 1994). Such readers are doomed, as eventually (sometimes not until middle to upper primary school) the demands on visual memory of a rapidly increasing vocabulary become overwhelming - a challenge that has been described as an “orthographic avalanche” (Share & Stanovich, 1995, p. 17). Whereas, some students appear to grasp the alphabetic concept readily, many require detailed and multiple teaching sequences before achieving this crucial understanding (National Reading Panel, 2000). It should be remembered that the alphabetic form of written language is one of the greatest of human inventions. It is not an intuitively obvious system, but arcane and ingenious. Without clear instructional guidance, many students will imagine that memory and contextual strategies provide the only access to reading prowess. See Byrne quote earlier.

Alphabetic written languages are relatively rare in the world compared with the number of spoken languages, and their stunning achievement is to enable the visual representation of all of a culture’s oral language in a structure that is decodable by almost all of its citizens. In contrast, written Chinese comprises about 40,000 ideograms, yet Chinese adults are said to have a working familiarity with only about 4000-5000 of them (Adams, 1990). This number presumably approaches the limits of visual memory for shapes. By Year 3, a Japanese student of Kanji has been taught about 1000 ideograms (Beck & Juel, 1992). Yet, the normally developing Year 3 reader is able to read 80,000 English words (Adams, 1990), because the written form comprises a relatively small number of working parts. The demands remain within the young reader’s memory capacity if the alphabetic principle underpinning the construction of the written language is understood, and learners do not attempt to recognise words as unique entities.

Immature sight reading, as opposed to the mature (orthographic) sight reading characteristic of the skilled reader, is not alphabetic in nature, and should provide the cue for teachers to avoid engaging students in memorising word lists, or intensively using flashcards at this time. It is intuitively attractive to promote the memorisation of common words in initial reading instruction. After all, initial texts contain many common words, the pictorial recognition of which can engage students in the process. In fact, only 300 words form 75% of the words that children typically employ in their writing (Croft, 1997). Immature sight reading enables beginners the illusion that they are genuinely reading, and the teacher belief may be that real reading will follow because the beginning reader’s interest has been piqued. Whilst having children memorise common irregular words may not be harmful, there is the risk in a strong initial “look-say” focus (such as in memorising Dolch lists) that beginners will be distracted from an appreciation of the alphabetic principle, and assume that all reading proceeds in this fashion as did the adult reader quoted by Johnston (1985).

I had learned symbols … 1 and 2 and 3 … so I wanted that for five letter words … I had this idea I was going to know just by looking. … But there is no way you could possibly take all the words in the dictionary and just learn them by sight (p.157).

Partial alphabetic (or phonetic cue reading) phase

In the partial alphabetic stage, simple letter pattern-to-sound conversion begins to provide a means of decoding unknown words, though the process is necessarily laborious (as is any new skill prior to its automatization). Initially, this may involve use of only partial letter-sound cues (Spear-Swerling & Sternberg, 1994) often accompanied by attention to other supports such as those provided by pictures. So a student aware of the correspondence between the letter “d” and the sound /d/ is more likely to pronounce the written word “dog” as “dog” than as “puppy”, particularly when a picture would allow for either response. As it happens, pictures, though popular in stories for young readers, can be a hindrance rather than an aid in learning to read when presented simultaneously with the text. They can, however, be useful when seen after the text has been decoded (say over the page), as an aid to comprehension.

Findings from various studies (e.g., Solman & Adepoju, 1995; Solman & Chung, 1996; Wu & Solman, 1993) indicate the conventional simultaneous presentation of words with their extra cues blocks meaning and pronunciation acquisition, whereas the use of extra cues in the feedback presentation enhances learning since the delayed presentation of these prompts neutralise the negative effect of blocking (Chung & Elliott, 1996).

With the arrival of alphabetic insight (Byrne, 1991), this decoding strategy becomes reliable, at least with regular words. The necessary stage of practising sounding-out is, however, a fragile one. Successful experiences help cement the process, but they are more likely to eventuate when teachers ensure that students are not flooded with inconsiderate (for example, authentic) text, containing varying proportions of irregular words. The sounding-out strategy is a prerequisite for skilled reading, but does not itself constitute skilled reading. Irregular words are a different hurdle, one best addressed without undermining the student’s willingness to decode. When authentic text is the major source of reading material, students are likely to become confused by the range of irregular words, and attracted towards a faster (if unreliable) guessing approach. Authentic text, if well written, promotes engagement with readers. However, its attraction is based upon the premise that reading will proceed naturally and effortlessly simply because the prose is engaging. It is part of the discredited reading-is-as-natural-as-speech proposition. As authentic text has the potential to hinder progress, its motivational benefits as the major source of beginner texts may be outweighed by its costs.

It is intuitively persuasive that this whole process can be made more efficient and effective when controlled vocabulary is employed in the early stages. Students are more likely to persevere with a reading strategy when it is highly successful (Juel, 1996), and there is some evidence that decodable text enhances this process of appropriate strategy adoption (Juel & Roper-Schneider, 1985), though another study was unable to show the same benefits (Jenkins, Peyton, Sanders, & Vadasy, 2004). If uncontrolled text is a major element of the student’s reading diet, some students may become disheartened with the difficulties wrought by the number of irregular words encountered. Uncontrolled or inconsiderate text for a beginning reader is analogous to teaching a beginning swimmer in rough surf. Learning and practising the new skill to fluency in the calm of a pool is more likely to produce eventual surf swimming success than is overwhelming the young swimmer with multiple challenges from the outset.

Of course, decoding strategies continue to provide some clues for irregular words (Goulandris & Snowling, 1995). In such words, it is vowels that provide the quality of irregularity, but consonants remain regular for the most part, and it is the consonants that are most important in word recognition (Share & Stanovich, 1995). Hence, the phonological recoding strategy at least enables partial cues to assist the decoding of most words along the regular-irregular continuum.

Full alphabetic phase

It is not be possible to explain skilled reading in terms of such a slow fragmented system of decoding words letter by letter. The next level involves the recognition of parts of words. Reading whole words by sight becomes faster as groups of letters begin to be recognised as single units, thereby reducing the sounding-out and blending demands, and the memory load entailed. It also enables the further regularisation of our eclectic language, because many of these word parts have similar pronunciation across a wide range of words (e.g., “igh”, “ain”). Since many different words share similar spelling patterns, practice on any one word may simultaneously enhance the recognition of other similar words. The practice of this technique assists consolidation of the alphabetic principle, and makes multi-syllabic words less daunting. The facility, sometimes known as decoding-by-analogy, may provide a partial explanation for the speed with which avid readers develop their reading vocabulary. It should be noted, however, that very young students may not benefit from a strong emphasis on analogy training. Nation, Allen, and Hulme (2001) found that, at least for 6-year-olds, children did not perceive the orthographic similarities across similar words, but instead relied upon phonological priming. They only derived benefit when they could hear a ‘clue word’ pronounced by an adult. Savage, Deault, Daki, and Aouad (2011) also noted that “most of theimprovement in target word reading reflects purely phonological activation” (p.190). Given the uncertainty about the research into decoding by analogy, it may be prudent to emphasise the mastery of basic decoding skills in the beginning stages of reading acquisition, and emphasise analogies later on.

Consolidated alphabetic (or orthographic) phase

There are far too many words in our written language to be learned through direct teaching, and at some point it is necessary for students to realise their capacity to teach themselves the pronunciations of new words. The alphabetic period is crucial for the rise of self-teaching (Share, 1995), as students begin to appreciate that every time they decode an unfamiliar wordit subsequently becomes easier and faster to do so. In fact, this practice enables them to become adept at storing letter-patterns – orthographic information that can dramatically hasten word recognition (Torgesen, 1998).

As they read the same words repeatedly, the spellings of the words become amalgamated or bonded to syntactic, semantic and phonological identities already stored in memory. When readers see words that they have learned in this way, they read them not by guessing or sounding out, but rather by accessing the amalgams in memory. … sounding out strategies are used mainly to read unfamiliar words (Ehri, 1998, p.100).

This gradual “lexicalization” (Share & Stanovich, 1995, p. 18) occurs through repeated opportunities to use letter-sound correspondences for decoding. The original decoding strategy is used with less frequency as the range of familiar word patterns increases through this self-teaching mechanism. The phonological recoding strategy remains useful for decoding unfamiliar words - and our language has many low frequency words. Eighty percent of English words have a frequency of less than one in a million (Carroll, Davies, & Richman, 1971, cited in Share & Stanovich, 1995). Thus, the phonological recoding mechanism has a usefulness that survives beyond its initial ability to provide the opportunities for the formation of orthographic representations. Even in adults, this ability to decode unfamiliar words is a hallmark of skilled reading, and continues to be of significance. One example of its value occurs when individuals are faced with a new technical vocabulary related to their occupation or interests. Even bright well-compensated adults with dyslexia (whose primary difficulty is in decoding) find it distressing that they need to laboriously remember word shapes, constantly battle with new words, and have very little idea how to spell (Greenberg, Ehri, & Perin, 1997). Ehri emphasises that the process in this phase does not involve rote memory, but rather bonding between the spelling of the words and their pronunciation.

A crucial and often misunderstood requirement for skilled reading is that the sought-after orthographic strategies can only be developed through multiple examples of success in decoding phonologically (Ehri, 1998, Share & Stanovich, 1995). Thus, it does matter how children read.

Some research using brain imaging techniques (Joseph, Noble, & Eden, 2001; Pugh et al., 2002) has added to our understanding of this link. It appears that the left brain’s parieto-temporal region is employed in decoding (sounding out), and in good readers this area is very active during reading. In struggling readers there is little activity in the left hemisphere, but considerably more in the right hemisphere.


When beginning readers have decoded a word correctly a number of times, they develop a neural model that is an exact replica of the printed word, reflecting the word’s pronunciation, spelling, and meaning. This internal representation is maintained in the occipito-temporal region of the left hemisphere. Subsequent recognition of that word becomes automatic, taking less than 150 milliseconds (less than a heartbeat). It is the key to fluent reading. However, the occipito-temporal region does not become available without building up the parieto-temporal region.

On average, from 4-14 accurate sounding-outs (Apel & Swank, 1999)will create the firm links necessary; although some children may require many times that number (Lyon, 2001; Swanson, 2001) to facilitate the growth of connections between those regions. Not all children have a strong phonological talent (Ehri, 2005; Reitsma, 1983), and there may be both genetic and environmental influences producing these individual differences.

Those who continue to struggle to read do not use the same brain regions for reading. Instead, they create an alternative neural pathway, reading mostly with regions on the right side of the brain - areas not well suited for reading. However, all is not lost as the brain’s plasticity enables it to respond to a remedial environment to establish the appropriate connections (Halfon, Schulman, & Hochstein, 2001). In a Shaywitz et al. (2004) intervention, it was revealed that the appropriate left hemisphere regions can be stimulated into activity through the use of systematic synthetic phonics instruction. Increased fluency, accuracy and comprehension were noted in the intervention group at post-test and at one year later. Additionally, the occipito-temporal region continued to develop 1 year after the intervention had ended.

So, it is the practice at sounding-out a word that gradually causes an imprint of that word (or word segment) in the memory, not the vague instruction to "remember this word - picture it". This imprint is not of a diffuse word shape - but of a letter sequence that becomes recognisable as quickly as would a letter or two when one is reading. The position of the letters is as firmly entrenched as are the actual letters themselves. It is why proofreading is possible for good alphabetic readers, why a misspelling stands out so clearly. Savage, Stuart, and Hill (2001) found, through reading-error analysis, that the more attention young readers paid to all the letters and their position in words at age 6, the more advanced they were in reading by age 8. Those young readers whose errors may have retained meaning, but not initial and final phonemes (for example, saying “people” for “crowd”), were not among those making good progress.

This is an important issue as some have argued that comprehension occurs prior to word recognition (Goodman, 1985), and if that were so then word level processes would be of minimal importance. Teaching practices hinge upon this issue, so it does require careful consideration.

Macmillan (2002) summarizes the results of eye movement and brain researchstudies:

Semantic processing occurs last (e.g. Lee, Rayner, & Pollatsek, 1999; Perry & Ziegler, 2002; Sereno, Rayner, & Posner, 1998). As readers become more adept, instead of letter-by-letter symbol-to-sound translation occurring in a series, it has been shown that this process speeds up, and gradually groups of letters, common spelling patterns, and high frequency words begin to be recognised all at once, in parallel (Aghababian & Nazir, 2000; Jared, Levy, & Rayner, 1999) (p.13).

The developing students become more and more sensitised to letters and their position rather than to a vague word picture. Thus, word analysis is a precursor to recognising words instantly as a whole. Only by understanding the details of word construction can they take in the larger unit of the whole word – orthographic processing. If prompted, they begin by noticing sub-word units like syllables and become aware that those syllables occur in other words too, and have (in most cases) the same sound value. When they have a store of such subword units, and the sounding-out skills - they have grounds for confidence in addressing words not before seen (Ehri, 1997). To see a student, who previously baulked at novel words, now attack them with gusto is a heart-warming outcome of effective teaching of word structure and blending/segmenting. The task of reading no longer appears arcane, but rather a game - the rules of which are being rapidly mastered. Success in employing these tools to decode new words is what self-teaching entails, and the discovery process further expands the range of sub-word units able to be brought to bear on increasingly difficult words.

A feature of the consolidated alphabetic (or orthographic) phase is fluency

The crawling-before-walking dictum can be bemusing to those who consider that beginners should be encouraged to read in the way that skilled readers do (Goodman, 1973, 1974). However, and analogous to many other life skills, to ensure that students develop instantaneous word recognition, teachers must first emphasise the minutiae of decoding, and ensure that all students obtain their requisite levels of practice to enable the achievement of that most important quality, automaticity. It is a state of skill development in which tasks that formerly required concentration to complete competently, having been practised to the point of over-learning, are now able to be completed without conscious attention (Baker, Kame’enui, Simmons, & Stahl, 1994; Thompson & Nicholson, 1998).

All readers have a limited amount of attentional capacity to devote to the reading task. If the basic process of extracting the words from the page is laboured (slow and usually error-prone), readers will lose track of that which already has been read (Mastropieri, Leinart, & Scruggs, 1999), and be unable to follow the text’s sequence of ideas (Kamhi & Catts, 1999). They will also remain essentially passive during the reading task, not able to bring their own experiences to bear on the all-important meaning-making process, and hence their comprehension is doubly hindered. Because of the additional effort required, they are likely to be reading less than their peers and their resultant slower vocabulary development further impedes comprehension (Mastropieri et al., 1999). Sometimes these struggling readers are exhorted to pay more attention to meaning (Newman, 1985) than to the words in front of them - a cruel, if unintentionally so, diversion away from the problem source. With automaticity, all available attention can be directed to the meaning-making task, because the lower-level decoding process is effortless. Unsurprisingly then, research has shown that fluency and comprehension are mutually interdependent (Kim, Wagner, & Foster, 2011; Mathes, Howard, Allen, & Fuchs, 1998).

Some students who have reached the stage of reading grade level materials with accuracy may continue to be characterized by a slow and halting style, read without expression, and, despite their excellent word recognition accuracy, their comprehension may be compromised. Hence, as reading accuracy becomes facile, the role of reading speed assumes greater importance. For some students, fluency (speed combined with accuracy) may develop simply from practice at reading, but can be enhanced when students’ attention is drawn to the goal of increasing their reading speed. The greater the volume of appropriately constructed text read at a student’s independent reading level (95% accuracy), the more rapidly fluency is likely to develop (Lyon, 1998). Students whose fluency does not develop normally may require significant additional support, a circumstance easily overlooked unless regular fluency checks are an element in the reading program.

Various methods have been employed to assist fluency further, including repeated reading, speed drills, computer-guided practice, and rapid word recognition charts (Mather & Goldstein, 2001). The general intention is to assist students to realise the value of more fluent reading, and to provide regular opportunities for them to test and chart their developing rate and accuracy. There has been ample research demonstrating that the number of words students read correctly in 1 minute provides a reliable and valid measure of overall reading ability (Baker, Gersten, & Keating, 2000).

While suggested rates vary, Howell and Nolet (2000) recommend the following benchmarks. From early Year 1 to late Year 1, the anticipated progression is from 35 - 50 words correct per minute; whilst from early Year 2 to Late Year 2, the target is from 70 - 100 correct wpm; and from early Year 3 to late Year 3 the progression is from 120 - 140 correct wpm. A slightly different trajectory is suggested by Binder, Haughton, and Bateman (2002). They anticipate a more rapid progression throughout Year 1 reaching between 60 - 100 correct wpm. They also provide additional yearly expectations: Year 2 – Year 3 100 - 120 correct wpm, Year 4 - Year 5 120 – 150 correct wpm, Year 6 - Year 8 150 – 180 correct wpm, and Year 9 and above 180 – 200 correct wpm.

When the author was working in a Florida school in 2004, there was consternation about a new state 3rd Year reading comprehension test, known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). The alarming new mandate was that any student failing this test could not progress to Year 4, an eventuality that tended to attract schools’ attention and efforts. It was discovered that 91% of students who read at or above 110 correct words per minute on grade level text achieved adequate performance on the reading section of the FCAT. Of students reading below 80 correct words per minute, 81% failed the FCAT (Buck & Torgesen, 2003). Fluency suddenly became a firm focus for identifying at risk students and as a focus for intervention. Similar findings with respect to oral reading fluency and state reading tests have been reported in Michigan (Carlisle, Schilling, Scott, & Zeng, 2004) and North Carolina (Barger, 2003)

Reading fluency is amenable to intervention

Students who seriously struggle with reading may have a developmental reading trajectory as little as half that of the average student (Wheldall & Beaman, 2000). This difficulty is clearly reflected in their fluency rates, and in the stagnation of those rates over time. In a 2 year study of 3000 students, Fuchs, Fuchs, Hamlett, Walz, and Germann (1993) found, with an effective reading program, that students in Year 1 to Year 3 should improve their fluency by two correct words per minute per week of instruction, whilst those in Year 4 to Year 6 should improve by one correct word per minute per week of instruction. This study did not focus upon low progress readers, and an important issue is the degree to which such readers can also display progress in fluency.

There are fluency-based instructional programs that have produced strong gains in programs for students diagnosed with learning difficulties (Johnson and Layng, 1992). The one correct word per minute per week of instruction figure was exceeded in the Wheldall and Beaman (2000) evaluation of the Making Up Lost Time In Literacy (MULTILIT) program for students from Year 3 to Year 6. An increase of 38 words per minute was attained by low progress readers after two school terms of intensive, systematic, direct instruction that emphasised phonological decoding skills, word recognition and supported text reading. Wheldall and Beaman argue that a reasonable target for low progress readers, when provided with effective remedial instruction, is a rate of 135 wpm corresponding to a mid Year 5 level, an attainment they consider represents functional literacy.

Both standardized and informal assessments of oral reading accuracy, rate and comprehension are recommended and referenced in the National Reading Panel Report (National Reading Panel, 2000). The Report recommends guided oral reading as a valuable fluency enhancing activity, yet both fluency assessment and instruction are notably absent from the reading curricula of many schools. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that reading fluency is not mentioned in the English curriculum standards documents from at least three Australian states: Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland (Department of Education, Employment & Training, 2001). Teaching approaches that include a fluency component, such as MULTILIT (Wheldall & Beaman, 2000) and the Corrective Reading program (Adams & Engelmann, 1996; Gunn, Biglan, Smolkowski, & Ary, 2000) have demonstrated their effectiveness in this domain but have not yet achieved the mainstream recognition they deserve.

It is in reaching the stage of automaticity that the apparent magic of skilled reading becomes evident – whole words are recognised as quickly as are individual letters. The actual process of reading, of transforming squiggles into language, appears transparent – that is, the words seem to leap off the page and into consciousness without any noticeable effort or strategy (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). The issue of variation in the effort required to make sense of print has been addressed by employing neuro-imaging techniques when both capable and struggling students are engaged in reading. Richards et al. (1999) noted that the poor readers used four to five times as much physical energy as the capable readers to complete the same phonological tasks in the left anterior lobe of the brain. This difference was not observed when non-language tasks were presented. It is unsurprising that motivation to read is a serious obstacle to overcome with struggling readers.

For skilled readers, there is no further need to resort to the slow, unreliable process of prediction based upon context, followed by confirmation. Though it may remain of value in understanding the meaning of a new word, attendance to such contextual cues is not required by competent readers as a strategy for obtaining the pronunciation of words.

Isn’t skilled performance a wondrous thing? Wouldn’t it be marvellous if our brains were already wired for reading, so that teachers could simply evoke from students an existing but unexpressed reading talent (as was speech so evoked)? But, really, is there any area of skilled performance at a man-made task that does not require real dedication and serious practice from learners? Reading has not been part of human experience for long enough for evolution to have allowed us a specialised “reading area”, as we have with speech and language. The consequence is that there is no fast and dirty way of building the neural structures while avoiding the sounding-out sequence. Any such avoidance will divert students into a reading cul-de-sac, leaving them doomed to rely upon their memory for overall shape rather than for letter position, to look for pictures, or to second-guess the authors, and left battling with novel and technical words throughout their life.

Morphemic sources of information are also useful in coping with the challenges caused by the different (and sometimes contradictory) spelling conventions of English’ parent languages. Given that more than half the words in written English are derived from Greek or Latin (Henry, 1997), then much benefit in reading fluency, comprehension, and spelling can be gained from a systematic study of prefixes, suffixes and root words. This benefit is even more evident in the decoding and comprehension of technical words.

The brain

Some support for Ehri’s stages (phases) can be found in the neuro-imaging research. There is much unsubstantiated hype surrounding the current contributions of neuroscience to education (Alferink, & Farmer-Dougan, 2010) and these have been uncritically accepted by many in education. In one study, teachers believed 49% of the neuromyths presented to them in a survey (Dekker, Lee1, Howard-Jones, & Jolles, 2012). Some of the myths were: We only use 10% of our brain; Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners; Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function.

Nevertheless, neuroscience has provided some evidence, through a different methodology, that adds weight to the conclusions of a great number of behavioural studies into phonological skills as a major determinant of skilled reading. Brain-imaging techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), and Diffuser Tensing Imaging (DTI) have been shedding light recently on how our brain adapts optimally to the tasks of reading and spelling.

When good readers confront text, they can be seen to rely heavily on separate areas in the left side of the brain (Molfese et al., 2006). These areas are employed cooperatively to convert letters into sounds, to fit the sounds together to make words, and to do so fluently. Flourishing students have learned the letters of the alphabet, the sounds that the letters represent, and how the sounds are blended to build words. In the brain images, the three areas light up quite clearly while such students are reading.

With this capacity, the left brain’s parieto-temporal region becomes primed to decode (sound out) words, whether they be known or novel words. Progressively, as the readers see words in print, they start to build a neural model of that word. After they've correctly decoded a word a number of times, their neural model is an exact replica of the printed word. It specifies the way the word is pronounced, the way it's spelled, and what it means. In an accurate neural model, all these features are bonded together (Shaywitz, 2003).

They clarify and store these new internal representations in the occipito-temporal region. When that word becomes represented in the occipito-temporal region, its recognition subsequently becomes automatic and instant - in about one sixth of a second. This is faster than one can predict the upcoming word. When this process occurs, students begin to display rapid, effortless word recognition rather than the slower sounding out strategy.

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It’s tempting of course to suggest that children not be taught to sound out because it isn’t the way skilled readers are seen to respond to print. However, you can’t develop the occipito-temporal region without first building up the parieto-temporal region. On average, from 4-14 accurate sounding-outs will create the firm links necessary. For some children, it may take many times that number – not all children have strong phonological skills (a talent for discerning small units of sound). Either a genetic component or an instructional component may be involved in their lack of progress.

Those who struggle to read do not use the same brain regions for reading. Instead, they create an alternative neural pathway, reading mostly with regions on the right side of the brain - areas not well suited for reading (Pugh & Hagan, 2010; Simos et al., 2007). It is purely a compensatory strategy involving the visual centres of the right hemisphere - looking at words as if they were pictures. Little activity is observed in the phonological areas of the left hemisphere where capable readers’ activity is dominant. The brains of people who can't sound out words look different - there is less blood flow to the language centres of the brain.

If this sequential developmental process (from sounding out to whole word recognition) does not occur, then children will be forced to employ less rapid and accurate systems such as prediction from context, memorising word shapes, guessing from pictures, and guessing from the first letter. Up to 40% of children will discover the alphabetic principle for themselves quite readily - regardless of instruction. About 30% will get there, but slowly, and about 20-30% will not achieve it without intensive, appropriate direct teaching (Lyon, 1998).

It is not only the low level process of decoding that is affected – so, it appears, is comprehension when these brain areas are under-activated.

While only a few studies have examined cortical function among poor readers in higher-level reading tasks, evidence is beginning to emerge indicating that underactivation in the parieto-temporal and occipito-temporal regions may likewise characterize poor readers when they are reading sentences for comprehension (e.g. [Kronbichler et al., 2006], [Meyler et al., 2007] and [Seki et al., 2001]). Together, the findings from word-level and sentence-level studies support the view that underfunctioning of these regions represents a neural signature of poor reading ability (e.g. Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2005) (Meyler, Keller, Cherkassky, Gabrieli, & Just, 2008).

We now understand that the brain has the quality of plasticity. It responds to experiences that stimulate activity in particular areas of the brain, thereby facilitating the growth of neural connections in and between those active regions. That is why practice makes permanent. Practising productive reading strategies forms and strengthens task-optimal neural connections that enhance subsequent reading development (Richards et al., 2006). In the same way, routinely engaging in ineffective strategies similarly builds circuits in the brain not optimal to the task. These routines are not easy to break as students grow older, perhaps because between ages 5 to 10 there’s a pruning process that erases the neural cells in the brain that remain under-utilised and unconnected (D'Arcangelo, 2003). Forming neural links for language is relatively easy up to about age 6, with window of opportunity up to about age 12, and achievable though more effortful after that time (Thompson et al., 2000).

The good news is that certain teaching strategies can alter this pattern of brain activation. A number of recent studies have indicated that about 60 hours of structured intensive daily phonics teaching alters the way the brain responds to print. Less right hemisphere involvement occurs, accompanied by more left hemisphere phonologically-based activity as reading improves. These new MRI images now correspond more closely to the pattern displayed by good readers. Importantly, in the Shaywitz et al. (2004) study, the occipito-temporal region continued to develop 1 year after the intervention had ended. The outcomes included increased fluency, accuracy, and reading comprehension.

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In summary, these data demonstrate that an intensive evidence- based (phonologic) reading intervention brings about significant and durable changes in brain organization, so that brain activation patterns resemble those of typical readers, with the appearance of the left occipitotemporal area and improvement in reading fluency. These data have important implications for public policy regarding teaching children to read: the provision of an evidence-based reading intervention at an early age improves reading fluency and facilitates the development of those neural systems that underlie skilled reading. (Shaywitz et al., 2004, p.933).

A MRI study of spelling produced similarly interesting outcomes (Richards et al., 2006). The brain activity of struggling spellers was discernibly different to that of competent spellers. However, when systematic spelling instruction was provided, spelling improved and the MRI profiles altered, becoming more like those of good spellers. Beginning with a need for phonological knowledge, the brain of the emergent speller (given adequate practice opportunities) establishes a new organizational pattern known as an autonomous orthographic lexicon. It enables automatic, rapid responses, without the phonological encoding previously necessary. However, English is a morphophonemic language, and expert spelling encompasses a further knowledge form. It involves an understanding of root words, affixes, and how they are assembled. This third interrelated level is morphological. Their intervention was based upon the Direct Instruction program, Spelling through Morphographs (Dixon & Engelmann, 2001).


These interventions require work and practice to achieve such positive outcomes, but many skills are hard won in our lives. Why should we expect these crucial abilities to arrive incidentally?

The brain imaging studies have also shown how difficult and exhausting is the task of reading for struggling students. These students have been shown to use up to five times as much energy as do fluent readers when reading (Richards et al., 1999). It is unsurprising then that they do not choose to read, and may become actively resistant to the task. Unfortunately, slow early progress predicts a decline in academic progress generally across their primary and, even more dramatically, in their secondary career, as they increasingly lose access to the curriculum.

Converging research findings have demonstrated that reading trajectories, which are established early in children's school careers, are remarkably stable and therefore difficult to change (Coyne et al., 2004; Good et al., 2001; Juel, 1988; Torgesen and Burgess, 1998). … A gap between weak and strong reading achievement in these two domains (decoding & comprehension) begins early and subsequently widens over the elementary years (Allington, 2002; Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997; Stanovich, 1986), and becomes increasingly difficult to close, particularly after third grade (Fletcher & Foorman, 1994; Kennedy et al., 1986; Lyon, 1985; Spira et al., 2005). (Al Otaiba et al., 2008, p.283).

So the sobering message here is that if children don't have the right experiences during these sensitive periods for the development of a variety of skills, including many cognitive and language capacities, that's a burden that those kids are going to carry; the sensitive period is over, and it's going to be harder for them. Their architecture is not as well developed in their brain as it would have been if they had had the right experiences during the sensitive period. That's the sobering message. But there's also a hopeful message there, which is unlike a critical period where it's too late. The sensitive period says: It's not too late to kind of try to remediate that later. And you can develop good, healthy, normal competencies in many areas, even if your earlier wiring was somewhat faulty. But it's harder. It costs more in energy costs to the brain. The brain has to work at adapting to earlier circuits that were not laid down the way they should have been. And from a society's point of view, it costs more in terms of more expensive programming, more specialized help (Shonkoff, 2007).

The brain imaging research is fascinating, perhaps because it offers a glimpse of what appears to be happening when we teach effectively, and students learn something new. However, we don’t actually need this information about which areas of the brain tend to be active when most people engage skilfully or otherwise in a task. We can always assess their competence directly using behavioural assessments, such as with reading tests. Observing changed brain function consequent upon effective instruction can be affirming to the teacher, but really, what did we think was happening during learning? Was it the kidneys we thought we were affecting?

Another interesting brain imaging issue relates to the oft heard comment “All children learn differently”. It is difficult to argue with such an assertion, partly because it is difficult to operationalise it. However, it usually presented as though it were self-evidently true, despite a lack of supporting evidence. In similar vein, there is a whole industry devoted to the need to attend to children’s learning styles, again a notion lacking in empirical support. Within the broader context of whether humans’ uniqueness or commonality truly defines them, it would appear that, at least for literacy skills, competence arises for each of us in much the same manner.

The National Enquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005) has directed our attention toward the findings of scientific research. These findings that can make a huge difference to the many students for whom the reading task is made unnecessarily difficult, whether the cause is due to brain anomalies (very few) or instructional inadequacy (the vast majority).

Stages and older struggling readers

Intervention for older students requires far more intensity and duration than that for younger students (Swanson, 2001; Torgesen, 1998). Until recently, intervention programs for older students provided little cause for optimism, most involving “eclectic approaches to teaching reading that were provided in an inconsistent fashion and for relatively brief periods” (Shaywitz et al. 1999, p.1336). In fact, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olsen (1997) claimed that reading improvement typically occurs twice as fast in first grade as it does in third grade, whilst Hall and Moats (1999) reported the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development finding that it takes four times as much assistance to improve a child’s reading skills if help is delayed until Year 4 than if it is begun in the kindergarten year. Apart from the efficiency gains for a system enabled by early identification and intervention, there are also pressing issues of social justice to be considered. Nevertheless, progress is achievable for older students when systematic research-validated approaches are well implemented (Wheldall & Beaman, 2000).

For older struggling readers, one focus of intervention remains the same, as the majority of reading difficulties displayed by older students are fundamentally phonological (Al-Otaiba & Fuchs, 2002; Ehri, 1995; Lovett & Steinbach, 1997; Shaywitz et al., 1999). Thus, instruction should continue to emphasize letter-sound correspondences, blending, segmenting, and adequate practice (Bruck, 1998; Shankweiler, Lundquist, Dreyer, & Dickinson, 1996). As for younger students, it is only through such laborious letter-by-letter decoding can precise letter-order become entrenched in the orthographic representation that forms the basis for accurate spelling and fluent reading (Adams, 1990; Jorm & Share, 1983; Williams, 1991). Of course, older students may also require attention to vocabulary enhancement, metacognitive strategies, and, possibly, motivational supports - the Matthew Effects having added to the student’s burden. For example, it can be difficult persuading students to discard their existing focus on context-and-initial-letters in favour of careful attention to all the letters and their positions in words. It usually involves a temporary slowing of the students’ reading rate - a price that some students are loath to pay (Apel & Swank, 1999). Subtle persuasion may be initially necessary, and the intensive daily practice over a period of a year or more (Swanson, 2001; Vaughn, Denton, & Fletcher, 2010; Wong, 2001) may be eventually considered worthwhile by the students when they begin to appreciate that reading can be enjoyable and meaningful. At this point, decoding skills and comprehension exert influences that assist each other (Berninger, 2001).

It is being increasingly noted that persistently poor readers may represent a different sub-group among struggling readers, and they typically rely heavily on memory networks to cope with written language:

Genetic studies, too, provide support for the notion that accuracy-improved and persistently poor readers may represent different etiologies. Twin studies report that subjects with relatively higher IQs, as is true of accuracy-improved readers or those with dyslexia, tend to have stronger genetic influence, whereas shared environment is a stronger influence for those with lower IQs, comparable to that found in persistently poor readers or those with general reading backwardness. Here, the investigators postulate that “poor home and educational environment could be jointly responsible for the concurrent expression of low IQ’’ and poor reading (Olson, 1999, p.13). In contrast, in accuracy-improved readers or those with dyslexia, reading difficulties are more likely to be unexpected and to reflect stronger genetic influences … persistently poor readers read real words using memory systems, suggesting brain systems for analyzing and reading words have not developed (Shaywitz, Mody, & Shaywitz, 2006, p.280).

Despite advances in the science of teaching reading, there remain a percentage of students who have proven resistant even to evidence-based interventions. Even when decoding is painstakingly developed, there often remain issues of low reading fluency (Spencer & Manis, 2010; Torgesen, 2006; Wanzek & Vaughn, 2008). Significant research is still required to adequately address the needs of older struggling readers and of those younger strugglers described by as treatment resistors Torgesen (2000) or treatment non-responders or those unresponsive-to-intervention (Al Otaiba, 2003). Al Otaiba argued that this group should be seen to comprise the truly learning disabled, as opposed to those Lyon (2003) described as instructional casualties.

For older students with LD who continue to struggle in reading, the challenge is providing instruction that is powerful enough to narrow or close the gap with grade-level standards in reading. This means that students who previously have struggled to even keep pace with expectations for average yearly growth in reading must now make considerably more than expected yearly growth each year if they are to catch up. While adolescence is not too late to intervene, intervention must be commensurate with the amount and breadth of improvement students must make to eventually participate in grade-level reading tasks. Because most intervention studies provide only a limited amount of instruction over a relatively short period of time, we do not yet have a clear understanding of all the conditions that must be in place to close the gap for older students with serious reading disabilities. However, it does seem likely that the intensity and amounts of instruction necessary to close the gap for many older students with LD will be considerably beyond what is currently being provided in most middle and high schools (Roberts, Torgesen, Boardman, & Scammacca, 2008).

Comprehension strategies

This is not the end of the story however – comprehension strategies assume greater significance as the texts students are required to read become increasingly demanding. Without the capacity for rapid context-free decoding, significant reading comprehension advances are unlikely to occur. When the orthographic stage has been achieved, students are at least able to employ in the reading task those oral language comprehension skills they have developed thus far (Crowley, Shrager, & Siegler, 1997). In the earlier stages, their oral comprehension far exceeded their reading comprehension because of the decoding constraints. Their comprehension skills should continue to develop if teachers have incorporated plenty of age appropriate oral language activities into their program (Clarke, Snowling, Truelove, & Hulme, 2010).

Of course, as the volume and complexity of reading increases so, one expects, does the sophistication of their reading comprehension strategies. This process is not guaranteed, however. For some students with earlier decoding problems, reduced exposure to text has hampered overall reading progress, leaving lingering hurdles, such as vocabulary gaps or even chasms (Nagy, 1998). Whereas, good readers continuously increase their vocabulary and understanding of the world through their reading (Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Osborn & Armbruster, 2001), struggling students may read as little as one hundredth of that devoured by good readers thus compromising their vocabulary development and hence comprehension (Lyon, 2001). Such vocabulary development is vitally dependent on the amount of reading, as conversation and television have much less impact on vocabulary growth than does reading (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998), and vocabulary and reading comprehension are strongly related (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012).

Knowledge about the teaching of comprehension is less well advanced than it is for the lower-order decoding processes. It is known that passive reading is not consistent with adequate comprehension, and that when teachers model their own active comprehension processes for their students, and provide encouragement, guidance and regular practice opportunities - then students make superior progress than when teachers assume that such processes will develop naturally. Unfortunately, much of what passes for comprehension activities in schools involves testing students for their capacity to comprehend, rather than actually providing instruction. Activities that involve reading a text and subsequently answering questions are typical of this approach. One reason for the lack of direct teaching is that (as with decoding) few teachers receive training in research-based methods of comprehension instruction (Snow, 2002).

Some of the techniques that show promise in enhancing comprehension include learning how to monitor and query one’s own comprehension, to organise the text information in a meaningful manner, or employ visualisation techniques (Mastropieri, Leinart, & Scruggs, 1999). A task once common in schools was instruction in how to produce a précis – a summary of what has just been read. Directly teaching the strategies involved in précis production, along with the active processing of information required by the task have also been shown to improve comprehension.

Active comprehension strategies. Good readers are extremely active as they read, as is apparent whenever excellent adult readers are asked to think aloud as they go through text (Pressley & Afflerbach, 1995). Good readers are aware of why they are reading a text, gain an overview of the text before reading, make predictions about the upcoming text, read selectively based on their overview, associate ideas in text to what they already know, note whether their predictions and expectations about text content are being met, revise their prior knowledge when compelling new ideas conflicting with prior knowledge are encountered, figure out the meanings of unfamiliar vocabulary based on context clues, underline and reread and make notes and paraphrase to remember important points, interpret the text, evaluate its quality, review important points as they conclude reading, and think about how ideas encountered in the text might be used in the future. Young and less skilled readers, in contrast, exhibit a lack of such activity (e.g., Cordón & Day, 1996) (Pressley, 2000, p.548).

Obviously, comprehension instruction assumes even greater importance for struggling students. Many of these are simultaneously hindered in both of the areas described in Hoover and Gough’s (1990) Simple View of reading: decoding and language comprehension. Solis et al. (2012) analysed 30 years of research into comprehension interventions for learning disabled students in middle school.

The findings from this synthesis support the use of summarization or main idea strategy instruction as a means to improve understanding of text. Providing students with self-monitoring tools or ways to record the results of their efforts related to a particular behavior also may improve comprehension outcomes. Other strategies that were found to be effective include mnemonics, mapping, and questioning. The most consistent finding across this body of studies was the use of explicit instruction including modeling, feedback, and opportunities for practice (Solis et al., 2012, p. 338).

The importance of explicit instruction in comprehension strategies should not be under-estimated (National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005).Self-regulated learning is sometimes proposed as a better approach, but research has not been supportive (Shiu & Chen, 2013). Self-regulation of comprehension strategies is a crucial objective, but for some students achieving this objective may require scaffolding and systematic instruction (Coyle et al., 2009; Swanson, 2001; Swanson, Hoskyn, & Lee, 1999).

Self-regulated learning (SRL) is often portrayed as an active, dynamic process in which self-motivated learners set their learning goals, employ effective learning strategies, monitor their learning progress, evaluate their progress against some self-set standards and use this information to regulate their study (Metcalfe, 2009; Pintrich, 2000; Thiede & Dunlosky, 1999; Winne & Hadwin, 1998; Zimmerman, 1998). However, research has shown that most people are far from being effective self-regulated learners. One of the reasons is that self-monitoring of learning is usually inaccurate (Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger, 2009; Koriat & Bjork, 2005). This is true whether the learning materials are word pairs (Nelson & Dunlosky, 1991), passages of text (Glenberg & Epstein, 1985), or school subject materials (Hacker, Bol, Horgan, & Rakow, 2000; Kostons, van Gog, & Paas, 2010) and whether the learning context is the laboratory (Dunlosky & Lipko, 2007; Maki, 1998), the classroom (Hacker et al., 2000), or computer-based learning environments (Kostons et al., 2010). Inaccurate monitoring is detrimental to SRL because initiation of self-regulatory processes, such as redefinition of a learning task, adjustment of task goals and standards, and changes in study strategies, is contingent on the outcomes of monitoring and evaluation of learning (Winne & Hadwin, 1998) (p.78).

So, assisting readers to enhance their capacity to comprehend that which they read is a worthwhile activity, and one that assumes greater importance for older students. However, Mastropieri, Leinart, and Scruggs (1999), researchers with a long history in devising and evaluating metacognitive strategies, offer this timely caveat to those tempted to focus exclusively on or over-emphasise comprehension strategies. “. … reading programs that do not attempt directly to enhance the reading fluency of dysfluent readers cannot be considered complete - no amount of comprehension training can compensate for a slow, labored rate of reading” (p.278). A study by Crowley, Shrager, and Siegler (1997) similarly noted that young students were best able to think metacognitively when a lower level cognitive skill, like decoding, became automated.


What then might be the value of considering stages? Teachers indicate a strong desire to assist students whose progress is a problem, but they report feel under-prepared. They are in need of workable approaches that can make a difference for students with diverse instructional needs (Schumm & Vaughn, 1995). The framework provided by the stage model assists teachers to make decisions about the type and level of assistance required by each of their students, an expectation especially relevant given the increasing penetration of Response to Intervention in education, and the demands it places on teachers and schools.

Because of the large number of students who struggle to master reading, efficiency in the provision of initial teaching and subsequent support is very important for education systems (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001). There are several components of effective whole-system or whole-school approaches. Adequate time must be assigned to the task of providing initial reading instruction. Yet, it is increasingly recognized that not all students require the same level of direct teacher input. A reduction in the number of students requiring significant 1:1 teacher time allows additional time to be provided for the seriously struggling students. This circumstance can eventuate when initial instruction reflects effective, research-supported approaches, thereby producing fewer casualties and enabling the school costs of providing intensive support to be maintained at realistic levels.

Apart from the time variable, the other components of effective whole-system or whole-school approaches involve instructional content and delivery. Providing the appropriate content at different grade levels can be assisted through a consideration of stages and through employing empirically tested strategies for enhancing student development through those stages.

Basing decisions on reading stages avoids the cul-de-sacs that eventuate for many students when the flawed three-cueing system and miscue analysis together form the basis for assessment and instruction (Hempenstall, 1998). These frameworks, though popular, are based upon unsupported assertions about reading development and contribute to the literacy problems experienced by many students.

We now know that the whole-language approach is inefficient; all children regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from explicit and early teaching of the correspondences between letters and speech sounds. This is a well-established fact, corroborated by a great many classroom experiments. Furthermore, it is coherent with our present understanding of how the reader’s brain works (Dehaene, 2009, p. 326).

A focus upon stages can also have social justice implications in that it enhances the likelihood that each of the students in our charge will receive the assistance appropriate to that student’s needs. The analysis also reduces the likelihood of overlooking students in difficulty or of wasting students’ time on those tasks at which they are already adept.


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Implementing Direct Instruction Successfully

When implemented fully, Direct Instruction (DI) is unparalleled in its ability to improve student performance and enhance students’ self-esteem. In order to implement DI effectively, much more is required than simply purchasing instructional materials. The following two-part tutorial guides administrators, teachers, and coaches through the key features of a successful DI implementation. Part I provides an overview of the steps schools need to take in preparation for a DI implementation before school starts, while Part II provides an overview of the steps schools need to take after school has started.

IMPORTANT: This tutorial is an intensive video series comprised of 18 segments, each followed by a series of questions. Users should allow approximately three hours to watch the videos and complete the questions. NIFDI recognizes the high demand for time placed on school officials and, for this reason, has structured the tutorial so users may stop at any time and later resume where they left off.

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