For many years, there’s been an intense debate on the best way to teach a child to read. A research group in London decided to find the answer to the argument; which is a more effective learning process for kids – teaching “whole-word meanings” or sounding out words (phonics)?
The findings found that the phonics method was the clear winner.
In order to assess the effectiveness of using phonics the researchers trained adults to read in a new language, printed in unfamiliar symbols, and then measured their learning with reading tests and brain scans.
Professor Kathy Rastle, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway said, "The results were striking; people who had focused on the meanings of the new words were much less accurate in reading aloud and comprehension than those who had used phonics, and our MRI scans revealed that their brains had to work harder to decipher what they were reading."
Children learning to read in the United Kingdom are required to use the phonics system. The impact of phonics is measured through a screening check administered to children in Year 1 of school. The results of this screening check have shown year-on-year gains in the percentage of children reaching an expected standard -- from 58% in 2012 to 81% in 2016.
Critics of the phonics only system say, while this method may help children read better aloud, it doesn’t necessarily promote reading comprehension. Some educators suggest combining the two methods to help children read aloud well and increase comprehension.
However, the study’s authors say teaching phonics is the most effective.
"There is a long history of debate over which method, or mix of methods, should be used to teach reading," continued Professor Rastle "Some people continue to advocate using a variety of meaning-based cues, such as pictures and sentence context, to guess the meanings of words. However, our research is clear that reading instruction that focuses on teaching the relationship between spelling and sound is most effective. Phonics works."
The paper describes how people who are taught the meanings of whole words don't have any better reading comprehension skills than those who are primarily taught using phonics. In fact, those using phonics are just as good at comprehension, and are significantly better at reading aloud, researchers noted.
The researchers say they will continue investigating how reading expertise develops in the brain.
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.