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A Right Way to Read?

Guest post by Emily Harrison.

Is there a right way to learn to read? The education system in Britain (and the wider world probably!) is extremely pro-phonics. By this I mean that the majority of teachers, teaching assistants, special educational needs co-ordinators, and other school staff have very little (if any) knowledge, interest or belief in any method that strays from the curriculum. In addition, little is done to raise awareness for interventions beyond those that are currently used widely in primary education, such as reading recovery for example, which has received a lot of research support.

Schools tend to stick with what they know, and with more and more demand being put on schools to raise standards and achieve excellent Ofsted reports, there is little in the way of ‘free time’ to be allocated to testing out new interventions. But what I didn’t understand was that if schools (and the government) want their children to achieve better results, why isn’t reading tuition more sensitive to the needs of individual pupils?

The problem with phonics.

Phonics is based on training children’s segmental phonological awareness (i.e. raising their awareness of letters and sounds, and teaching them segmenting and blending skills). However, despite a wide body of evidence supporting phonics teaching as a successful method of reading tuition, there is also evidence which suggests this method does not work for all children, particularly those who have existing reading difficulties.

There is a second part to phonological awareness known as suprasegmental phonology. I appreciate this is a bit of a mouth full for someone who doesn’t work in this area, so basically, it refers to the rhythmic components of spoken language that accompany the segmental elements, such as stress placement, intonation/pitch, and timing. There is a growing body of evidence which supports the idea that awareness of, or sensitivity to, these rhythmic components is related to reading at various levels, including reading acquisition, comprehension, and more interestingly, reading difficulties. What this means is that children who have reading difficulties also tend to have poor speech rhythm sensitivity, and the better a child’s speech rhythm sensitivity is, the better their reading skills tend to be.

So surely, if we can somehow improve children’s speech rhythm sensitivity, their reading skills will also improve…right?

The intervention.

This interested me enormously, because at the time I began my PhD, there was no intervention in the literature that had attempted to train children on their awareness of speech rhythm as a possible way of enhancing literacy skills. So I set about designing a set of training materials to help children gain better awareness of these rhythmic elements of spoken language.

I wanted the intervention to be suitable for children who were non-verbal, as well as children across a range of ability levels, so I decided on a ‘picture and sound’ format, whereby children would be presented with a picture card and a corresponding pre-recorded audio sound for each item. This meant that children didn’t have to give a verbal response, and that the format of delivery was repetitive to ensure some level of understanding between sessions. The intervention was designed to run for 10 weeks, giving time for pre- and post-test assessments to be administered within a school term.

I ran two experiments, one with reception children who were right at the beginning of their journey in learning to read, and one with Year 3 children who were falling behind in their reading. In each study, the intervention was compared to a traditional phonological awareness intervention and a control.

So, what was found?

The results were fantastic – in both the beginning readers, and the older struggling readers, the speech rhythm intervention resulted in significantly greater gains in reading than the control intervention. This means that speech rhythm training is effective both at the beginning of reading tuition, and once children have already received some formal training.

One of the things that interests me the most is that the children in the second study were categorised as being struggling readers, meaning that they obviously didn’t respond to the phonics tuition they had already received in school (otherwise they would not have been struggling in the first place). For the speech rhythm intervention to work in these children is amazing, and means that this could be an alternative way of teaching these children the skills they need to become successful readers.

There have since been two published papers describing similar findings, supporting the notion of speech rhythm training in struggling readers. However, there are no other studies to date which have investigated the effects of such training methods in beginning readers. What my research adds is that speech rhythm training can also be effective in children who have not already had any formal reading tuition, meaning that it can be implemented effectively from the beginning of primary education.

This is an exciting prospect for reading researchers, and opens many doors for further research. Could this one day be incorporated into literacy teaching nationwide? Watch this space!

You can read more about my research in the upcoming issue of Innovate magazine, and for further details feel free to email me on: aa7289@coventry.ac.uk.

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Coventry University