Dr Daisy Powell of Reading University gave this talk at Imperial College last Saturday.
I can’t hope to cover all Dr Powell’s keynote but will attempt to summarise the salient points (I have omitted the writing research which I’d like to cover at a later date – but let’s just say it’s linked to reading and there aren’t enough studies).
Dr Powell first reminded us how difficult the opaque English language is compared with more transparent languages such as Italian. This means we have an inconsistent relationship between graphemes (letters, or groups of letters) and phonemes (sounds that make up spoken words).
English is still an alphabetic language however so teaching children how to map phonemes to graphemes will allow them to read and spell. There is strong evidence that fostering these decoding skills is effective for early literacy. (Bradley & Bryant 1983, Hatcher et al, 2006)
Causes of Reading Difficulties
Since The Rose Report (2009) reading difficulties have been predominantly linked to a phonological deficit and ‘visual processing has been broadly ignored in research’. Dr Powell however has been researching reading difficulties using a particular visual element called Rapid Automized Naming (RAN).
Denckla and Rudel (1974, 1976) first showed that the fluency with which children can name familiar items is strongly related to reading. This is called RAN and is now a common test used in reading difficulty assessments due to strong RAN-reading links (RAN is tested used a standardised test involving children naming objects, colours, digits or letters at speed).
There are three main profiles then for reading difficulties:
- Phonological deficit
- RAN deficit
- Or RAN-phonology deficit (known as the Double Deficit theory) – this is the least common but causes the most severe reading difficulties (Wolf, Bowers and Biddle, 2000)
A randomised control trial was set up using a norm group (no deficits), then three other groups using the phonological, RAN and double deficit profiles (Powell, Stainthorp and Stuart 2007).
Initial findings were consistent with the double deficit account of dyslexia; that those with both poor phonological awareness and RAN had the most severe reading difficulties and those with a single deficit had a more moderate reading problem. The low RAN group were however significantly worse at both reading and spelling than the control.
Children with a RAN deficit also performed more poorly than a control group on low level visual processing tasks (Stainthorp et al, 2011).
There are children then who do have reading and spelling difficulties which are not linked to a phonological deficit. This raises the question about the type of intervention given to children with poor RAN.
Policy on Phonics
To try and identify children with poor letter sound correspondence, the government has introduced a screener known as the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) in Year 1. The PSC comprises 40 real words (e.g.‘shut’) and non-real words (e.g.‘jound’) and the pass mark usually sits around 32.
An interim study looked at younger children with intensive phonics teaching (post phonics check) and found exception words (irregular) were significantly harder to read than regular words or non-words whereas older, pre-phonic check children could read irregular words, regular words and non-words equally successfully (Powell, Atkinson & Stainthorp 2014).
Those students who do not have a phonological difficulty but a RAN deficit are currently receiving a phonics rich environment but what they may require, are opportunities to memorise irregular words and receive lots of exposure to print. The possibility also arises that for those with RAN difficulties who have little print exposure in the home environment, could be doubly disadvantaged.
Interestingly children with poor RAN showed better performance on a visual memory task than the control group. This may also point to requiring alternative strategies other than phonics. There is still a chicken or egg question here: are strengths in visual memory and comprehension a cause or consequence of deficits in RAN? Early perceptual difficulties could lead children to adopt strategies other than alphabetic decoding (e.g. relying on visual memory/semantics).
Is phonics all you need?
Some questions which need answering:
- What about words with inconsistent spellings (50% of early vocabulary).
- What about children whose reading difficulties make alphabetic decoding very difficult?
There are also teacher concerns that such an emphasis on phonics, led by the statutory phonics check, may be leading to laborious and dis-fluent (or dysfluent?) reading in some children.
The home literacy environment
Dr Powell said there was a clear link between children’s reading experience in and out of school and their progress learning to read.
Cunningham and Stanovich (1991) developed a checklist which measures exposure to print using an Author/title recognition task – this was asking children to recognise familiar story books.
‘Exposure to print accounted for unique variance in reading over and above IQ and phonological processing skills’.
Similar results were found by Sénéchal and LeFavre’s (2002) home literacy model. This showed better oral language and early literacy for children with positive home reading habits.
What might be relevant for schools?
In conclusion then, there is little doubt that phonics is the best way to foster decoding skills, but in a very rich phonics environment, students may be finding irregular words more challenging to read and spell. There might be a need to memorise irregular words and have opportunities to be exposed to inconsistent spellings through exposure to print. Phonics rich teaching could come at a cost to those students with RAN difficulties who also lack print exposure in the home environment. (Dr Powell did say longitudinal data was necessary to confirm this).
Impact on Literacy
Predictors of reading are print exposure, vocabulary and home literacy environment. In addition, the precursor to reading is oral language (Snowling 2014). Writing skills come from good reading skills and habits.
I would also add that comprehension is an ongoing concern when teaching reading and a rich language environment in the classroom is vital for early literacy alongside phonics and print exposure.
Thank you for Dr Daisy Powell who gave us such an insightful keynote at the Patoss Conference last week; I hope I haven’t misquoted her or plagiarised or stated speculation as fact or done anything else awful.
Thanks also to Patoss for a great day at Imperial College.