Phonics teaching method downplayed

The phonics method of teaching children to read is not necessary past the initial stages of learning and continuing with it may disadvantage them in the long term, according to new research comparing Scottish and New Zealand children.

The results of two studies, conducted by Brian Thompson, of Victoria University, and Claire Fletcher-Flinn of the University of Otago College of Education, were announced at the 17th Biennial Australasian Human Development Association Conference in Dunedin today.

The first research project found that six-year-old Scottish children taught through phonics read at a much slower speed than comparable children taught through New Zealand's more book-centred approach.

They also performed more poorly in deciding whether words were real or not at ages eight and 11, with non-words such as "blud" being picked more often as real words.

The researchers also found that Scottish university students who had been taught through phonics as children were worse at reading new or unfamiliar words that do not follow regular taught letter-sounds than their New Zealand counterparts.

The researchers said it was becoming clear that explicit phonics instruction left a "cognitive footprint", resulting in a long-term disadvantage when the reader attempted new words.

"These findings suggest that educators and policymakers need to look beyond any claimed short-term advantages of particular teaching methods, and take into account longer-term effects when considering the merits of different approaches to teaching reading," said Professor Fletcher-Flinn.

The second study looked at Japanese kindergarten children, Japanese adults learning to read and New Zealand students taking Japanese in high school as a second language.

The researchers found that the same cognitive processes in learning to read words in an alphabet-based system occurred in children learning to read a syllable-based writing system, such as Japanese.

This means that the same process of learning to read occurs in both children learning English and those learning Japanese, despite these being two different writing systems.

"This is a very important finding which suggests a general learning process for learning to read, regardless of the way the language is written," Prof Fletcher-Flinn said.

Both researchers agreed that from the beginning, teachers should strongly support the child's storage of vocabulary of print words, which have been connected to words in their spoken vocabulary.