Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
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This study examines the effects of an explicit phonics-emphasis Direct Instruction beginning reading program on the phonological processes of students with teacher-identified serious reading problems attending a northern Melbourne reading intervention centre. The students (16 males and 10 females, mean age 8.8 years) were assigned to the treatment condition or to a wait-list comparison group. The 13 students in the intervention group received 100 lessons (in 2 groups) of the Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons program from a teacher at the reading intervention centre.
When compared with a similar cohort of wait-list students, the students made statistically significant and educationally large gains in the phonologically-related processes of word attack, phonemic awareness, phonological recoding in lexical access, phonological recoding in working memory and spelling. The study contributes to the long-standing debate on how best to ensure that children learn to read; to the understanding of the relationship between phonological processes and reading; to an understanding of the effects of the current instructional approach to reading on at-risk children; and, how additional or alternative approaches more attuned to the findings of reading research may improve the effectiveness of the educational system.
Education has a history of regularly adopting new ideas, but it has done so without the wide-scale assessment and scientific research that is necessary to distinguish effective from ineffective reforms. This absence of a scientific perspective has precluded systematic improvement in the education system, and it has impeded growth in the teaching profession for a long time (Carnine, 1995; Hempenstall, 1996; Marshall, 1993; Stone, 1996).
Over the past dozen years, there has been a marked acceptance of employing an evidence basis for teaching practice. This has been particularly noticeable in the USA and England, though only recently, in Australia. It is a change that is evident in fields other than education, for example, the rise of Evidence-Based Medicine in patient care (Sackett, Rosenberg, Gray, Haynes, & Richardson, 1996), and Empirically Validated Treatment in psychotherapy (American Psychological Association, 1996).
This has been driven partly by governments wanting to ensure that the costs associated with education are well spent. However, governments too are beginning to adopt evidence-based practice in their own domains. Most notably:
Since taking office, the President has emphasized the need to use evidence and rigorous evaluation in budget, management, and policy decisions to make government work effectively. This need has only grown in the current fiscal environment. Where evidence is strong, we should act on it. Where evidence is suggestive, we should consider it. Where evidence is weak, we should build the knowledge to support better decisions in the future (Zient, 2012).
Another factor driving this move relates to the similarity in recommendations between numerous national and state reports. In the USA, for example, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (Lyon, 1998), the National Reading Panel (National Reading Panel, 2000), the National Institute of the American Institutes for Research (1999), the National Research Council (Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998), the Texas Reading Initiative (1996), and the National Early Literacy Panel (National Early Literacy Panel, 2009) highlighted the considerable consensus existing about the crucial elements of reading development and instruction. The importance of phonemic awareness and systematic synthetic phonics instruction is clearly explicated in these reports that relied heavily on empirical evidence for their findings.
In England, the National Literacy Strategy (Department of Education and Employment, 1998) was released to all primary schools, requiring them to abandon the current Whole Language approach to reading. Components of the former system, such as teaching students to rely on context clues to aid word reading, were discredited in the Strategy, and explicit phonics instruction was mandated from the earliest stages of reading instruction. “There must be systematic, regular, and frequent teaching of phonological awareness, phonics and spelling.” p.11 (Department for Education and Employment, 1998). This apparently firm position made little impact on what occurred in classrooms, and England went through the process again. This time the Rose Report (2006) was more forthright about implementing evidence-based approaches to instruction, and despite much opposition a Primary National Strategy (2006) was introduced - with substantially more impact.
The development of criteria for acceptable research evidence is a common element in the re-weighting of empirical research in the professional fields mentioned above. In the case of reading, it has made easier the task of convincing the educational community how valuable in informing practice can be the findings of rigorous research. Having established these criteria, it becomes easier to determine which of the plethora of reading programs available do have adequate research support at any given time.
The examination of existing evidence employing stringent criteria by a range of groups has supported Direct Instruction as a valuable approach to reading instruction for both regular and struggling readers. The Direct Instruction model has a relatively long history in reading education, the first program having been published in 1969. However, there has been surprisingly little serious attention paid to it from both the education and wider educational research communities, despite its strong body of supportive empirical evidence. Reports of Operation Follow Through (Engelmann, Becker, Carnine, & Gersten, 1988; Grossen, 1996), and the studies reported in meta-analyses by the American Institute for Research (2006), Borman (2007), Hattie (2009), White (1988) and by Adams and Engelmann (1996) have not been accorded the attention that might have been expected. Other studies and reports have also been supportive of Direct Instruction: For example, the American Federation of Teachers series of documents Building From The Best, Learning From What Works names Direct Instruction programs among each of its recommendations across different facets of education: Seven Promising Reading and English Language Arts Programs, Three Promising High School Remedial Reading Programs, Five Promising Remedial Reading Intervention Program, and Six Promising Schoolwide Reform Programs.
A report from the American Institutes for Research (1999), An Educators' Guide to School-wide Reform, found that only three programs, Direct Instruction among them, had adequate evidence of effectiveness in reading instruction. Another report, Reading Programs that Work: A Review of Programs for Pre-Kindergarten to 4th Grade (Schacter, 1999), similarly includes Direct Instruction among six school-wide effective reading models. A comprehensive bibliography of Direct Instruction studies can be found at the Association for Direct Instruction website (ADI, 2013).