Pilot study suggests benefit in teaching an integrated programme of phonics and language skills to children at risk of low reading ability in schools and specialist deaf units.
A report on a new study suggests that children starting primary school may benefit from a new approach to teaching reading, that fully integrates phonics and language teaching, compared to the standard literacy teaching currently provided in schools.
Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the report by academics from City, University of London, the University of Oxford and University College London suggests that this new approach is feasible and acceptable and now merits a larger research trial.
Learning to read is a complex process involving phonics skills and language skills. Phonics involves teaching letter-sound correspondences and awareness of phonemes (sound units), and language skills include vocabulary, grammatical knowledge, and comprehension.
Current educational practice focusses on phonics with less emphasis on language. Although many children progress with a phonics approach, a significant proportion struggle, particularly those with weak language skills.
These include children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children with English as an additional language, and those with language difficulties, of whom deaf children form a significant group and one that is typically excluded from reading intervention research.
Two groups of children at risk for poor reading took part in the study: disadvantaged hearing children in mainstream schools and deaf children in hearing impairment resource bases. The schools were located within the lower 10% to 50% of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. There were 138 children (77 boys, 61 girls) of whom 23 were deaf, with an average (mean) age of 4.9 years. Children were tested at the start and end of the school year to assess their reading, spelling, phonological (speech sound related) and language abilities.
The integrated programme combined two practitioner-developed programmes that target the components of reading in a complementary way: ‘Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters’ for developing phonics skills and ‘Word Aware’ to develop language skills.
The study suggests that children who received the integrated programme made significantly more progress on key outcome measures of single word reading and spelling at the end of the study in comparison with the control group who received the standard literary teaching in schools. Analyses of some measures presented mixed findings, in part because many of the children could not manage these tests, even though they are used widely with this age group. In addition, the integrated programme was found to be feasible and acceptable for teachers to deliver in both study settings.
Rosalind Herman, Professor of Child Language and Deafness at City, University of London and lead investigator said:
“Very low levels of reading ability meant that some of our original tests were not feasible to use with all the children involved in our research. This highlights the challenges disadvantaged and deaf children face when learning to read, and the need for new approaches such as our integrated programme to give them the best start in life and education.
“We’ve learned valuable lessons from this pilot study and look forward to developing the full trial to answer important questions that could help these children and their families.”
The report is available open access from the City, University of London website.
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The study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.