Thursday, 26 January 2012

An Essay in Support of Teachers

The Problem

            Recently it has become popular among a number of politicians and philanthropists who consider themselves education reformers, and even the general public to blame teachers for the undeniably low reading scores and lagging performance in America’s schools.  Geoffrey Canada (CEO of The Harlem Children’s Zone, and the major figure in the much-hyped movie Waiting For Superman) claims that once teachers get tenure and are assured of reasonable working conditions and salaries, they stop exerting themselves in the classroom and just let the children teach themselves.  This view of teachers has resulted in calls to abolish teacher tenure and dismiss those teachers whose students earn the lowest reading scores.

            Anyone who has taught in an inner city urban school knows that most teachers work very hard indeed. For the great majority of teachers these negative judgments on their work are discouraging, frustrating and close to libelous.  But the most frustrating part of this scenario is that the real cause of failing schools and low reading scores is neither the teachers, the parents nor the children, but the continuing disarray in the field of American  reading instruction.  It has been many years since American teachers were free to teach children this essential academic skill as they thought best. Today teachers put their job at risk if they deviate from the currently approved method while simultaneously being blamed for that method’s poor results, which in turn influence every aspect of education.

Reading - A Classroom  History

            America’s problems with reading instruction date back to the earliest days of the republic. The first American public school system was established in Massachusetts in the eighteen thirties.  For centuries before that a child learning to read by the alphabetic system had been introduced to reading by being told to “spell out” each word by naming its letters.  The new American school system aimed to be modern and was anxious to improve on this “spelling out” system, which they considered somewhat antiquated and unscientific.

            One problem with the old spelling system was that the mostly rural students who entered these new American schools had never seen letters or print before coming to school, and were mystified by these strange shapes called “letters” and the meaningless syllables that were their “names.”  In an effort to make schooling less alien to these students Horace Mann, the Secretary of America’s first Board of Education, traveled to Europe where he was impressed by a new reading teaching method being used in Prussia.  He brought it back to his newly created public school system in Massachusetts.

            The “word method,” as this new system was called, did not require that children be taught letter names.  Instead children were asked to learn to recognize written words as wholes.  The idea was that at least whole words had some meaning for them.  After a few years teachers who tried this method began complaining that the word method worked all right “until the child tried to read new material.”  Since reciting memorized sentences could hardly be considered reading, the word method was dropped.

            Some teachers returned to the old spelling method.  Others were attracted by a new method becoming popular in Europe in the eighteen fifties.  This second method was called the “phonic method” and asked children to spell words out by their letter sounds instead of their letter names.  While this newly imported approach to reading worked well in the Continental languages of Europe, American teachers and children were having a terrible time with it.  The problem was that in English writing some letters had several different pronunciations many of which did not follow any workable rule.  The beginner spelling a new word by its sounds often had to choose among a number of possible sounds for a letter and might easily choose the wrong one, producing either a non-word or a different word than the one on the page.

            Education publishers recognized the problem and provided letter pronunciation charts, and when that didn’t work, a system of diacritical marks.  Both efforts to solve the problem of multiple possible pronunciations for the same letter proved so complex and impossible to follow that early in the twentieth century the phonic method was abandoned in its turn. Some method was needed to take its place.

            The traditional spelling out method was by now considered so old fashioned that no modern teacher would suggest it.  The only option in sight was the old “word method.”  Its failure a century earlier was remembered only dimly, if at all.  Any lingering doubts about returning to that method were erased when experiments performed by a psychologist named James McKeen Cattell proved that adult readers recognize words instantly as wholes without paying attention to individual letter sounds or names.  Why teach letter sounds or names when adult readers didn’t use them, they reasoned.  Apparently it did not occur to anyone that beginning reading might have entirely different requirements than adult reading.

            The major reading historian of the time, Edmund Burke Huey supported the return to the word method in his influential 1908 book, “The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading.”  His endorsement apparently removed all doubts.  The word method, now also to be known as “the sight method” or “look-say” was dusted off and refurbished.  For the next fifty years the great majority of American children were taught no letter names or letter sounds but were instead expected to learn to recognize the words in their “Dick and Jane” readers by seeing them over and over again in stacks of flash cards. 

            No one provided any sensible explanation of how children were to transform these groups of nameless, soundless shapes into the twenty thousand words in a third grader’s spoken vocabulary.  In this system, the letters provided no clue to the identity of a word, not even the sound it began with.  They could have been replaced with Arabic script without making the beginning reader’s task any more difficult.

            Children were thus forced to help themselves as best they could.  One child was reputed to have explained that she knew the word on the card in front of her was “house” because of the smudge in the corner of the card.  Not surprisingly, many children still were not reading by third or fourth grade.

            Theories about why children were failing in such large numbers were fanciful.  Some experts explained that reading was basically a psychological process and could not be hurried.  The theory was that children would learn to read “when they were ready.”  Other psychologists claimed that non reading was often the fault of parents who had not “created a sense of security” for the child at home.

            Parents who asked why their children not only couldn’t read, but did not even seem to know the letter names, were told firmly to leave reading to the experts and warned that any parental interference could be dangerous to their child’s learning.  Those children, whose old fashioned parents had taught them their letter names at home, however, were often able to teach themselves to read by taking advantage of the letter pronunciation clues provided by most of the names of the letters in the written word they were trying to identify.  

            Later studies of adult illiteracy found large numbers of marginal and functional illiterates among the adult population that was in school during these years, as famously recorded by Jonathan Kozol’s 1985 book, “Illiterate America.”  This haphazard and hands-off approach to the education of children in elementary school might have gone on forever if it had not been for two things that happened in the nineteen fifties.

            In 1957, Russia sent successfully launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. Russia, our greatest competitor, was beating us in the new frontier of space technology.  For the first time in many decades, America began paying serious attention to its schools, including the elementary years.  

            The second significant reading related happening during that period was the publication, in 1955, of a book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read.”  Its author, Rudolph Flesch, was an Austrian born writer of popular how-to books on a variety of topics.

Flesch had been appalled to find that his twelve-year-old American nephew could not read after spending seven years in school, and had no idea that written letters stood for spoken sounds.  Flesch urged in his book that America waste no time in adopting the reading teaching method that he remembered from his Austrian childhood and which made learning to read so easy for German speaking children.  This was, of course, the phonic method in which children identify written words by “spelling them out” by their letter sounds.

            The topic of Flesch’s book was timely, and the book made its way steadily up the best seller list.  Neither Flesch nor the reading teaching establishment remembered that a century earlier America had imported this same method from continental Europe, tried it and abandoned it as unworkable in English.

            As Flesch described his method it was simple, easy and logical.  All children needed to do to read words was to memorize the sound associated with each letter of the alphabet, then when they ran into a written they needed to identify, they just said the sound for each letter in the word in turn.  They could then be confident that the sounds they said were the same sounds in the same order that they would hear in the spoken word they were trying to identify.  Flesch did acknowledge that the five vowel letters had two sounds each instead of one.  “Every word in English contains a vowel,” he wrote, “so you have to start with teaching the child the letters a, e, i, o, and u, in spite of the fact that each of them spells a long and a short vowel.  The only way to solve the problem is to begin by teaching only the short vowels (which are far more common than the long ones) and postpone the long vowels to a much later stage.”

            The problem was that Flesch was writing from his memory of learning to read as a child in Austria.  The language he was describing was not English but German.  It is in German that each vowel has only two sounds and each of those ten vowel sounds is judged long or short by the reader according to the letters surrounding it in a written word.  

            The English writing system is quite different.  The English consonants serve the reader in the same way the German consonants do, but the vowels do not.  Spoken German uses ten vowel sounds.  Spoken English uses at least nineteen.  In written English, you will not find just ten vowel/letter vowel/sound associations, but over a hundred.  Our nineteen vowel pronunciations follow no rule or system.  Unlike German, our English-written vowels or vowel combinations may stand for many different sounds:  hat, call, many, was, are, etc.  And the same sound may be spelled in a variety of different ways:  fall, long, off, thought, daughter, etc.  This peculiarity of English explains why English speaking children have to study spelling.  Continental children are spared this trial, since all they have to do to spell a word correctly is listen to its spoken sounds and write the letter for each (French being the exception).  

            Teaching English as though it were German does not work.  However, in deference to Flesch, beginning reading in our kindergartens and first grades now focuses almost entirely on training the child to use the five short vowel pronunciations.  Children practice those sounds for months and even years on lists of specially chosen words and in nonsense sentences called “manipulated text,” in which the word choice is limited to those words in which the vowel is pronounced with its short sound.  Examples:  “The cat drops the gas.”  “The glass drops on the cat.”  “The dog cuts the grass.”  (“Explode the Code 2,” page 26)

            It remains unclear what beginners are expected to do with their knowledge of the five short vowel sounds.  The implication seems to be that students should use the short sound to pronounce any vowel alone in a syllable that they encounter.  However, a child who does so will mispronounce well over half of the syllables in any regular story making that story incomprehensible.

            When children have learned the short vowel sounds, the common practice is to teach a rule for when to use the long vowel sounds.  According to phonics lessons, if a word ends in a silent e, the vowel within it should be pronounced with a long sound (take, kite, rope, cute, etc).  However this information, although more explicit, is just about as useless  as the phonics advice about the short vowel sounds since the beginner will constantly  run into such words as “give,” “have,” “move,” “shove,” “none,” etc.,  as well as many cases in which a vowel has its long sound even though there is no silent “e” in sight.

            Consider, for example, the following randomly chosen passage from a Random House “Step Into Reading” book called “My New Boy.”  This story is written in normal language, not manipulated text, and is designed to be read by children in pre-school and grade one.  What happens when a phonics student tries to read it, using the commonly taught pronunciation rules? 

Sample passage:  “I am a little black puppy.  I live in a pet store.  Soon I will have a kid of my own.  Many kids come.  This one pulls my tail.  This one kisses too much.  They are not for me. Here is another kid.  He pats my head.  He says hello.  Woof.”

            In this passage, the phonics-taught child attempting to read it will encounter the following:

            Five different pronunciations for the letter “a:” am, many, are, another, says.

            Six different pronunciations for the letter “e:” kisses, they, me, here,          another, hello.

            Two different pronunciations for the letter  “i:” I, little

            Five different pronunciations for the letter “o:”  store, of, own, one, not  

            Two different pronunciations for the letter “u:”  puppy, pulls 

            Five syllables are spelled with vowel combinations, but since most vowel combinations have at least two pronunciations and some as many as half a dozen, no reliable phonics rule for pronouncing two vowels together in a word exists.  In this passage alone, there are several two-vowel combinations which have at least two different pronunciations:  tail (said); too and soon (good, blood); head (bead, great, idea, ocean); and woof (roof).

            What about the long vowels?  There are eleven vowels pronounced with their long sound in this passage.  They are:  “I,” “a,” “own,” “me,” “here,” “he,” and “hello.” However only one of these long pronunciations is signaled by a final silent e.  Additionally, there are three single syllable words in this passage that do end with a silent “e” but do not have a long vowel sound: “come,” “live” (pronounced in the sentence as rhyming with “give”) and “have.”  The vowels in “have” and “live” are pronounced with the short sound and the “o” in come is pronounced as short u.

            In summary, virtually nothing beginners learn about vowel pronunciation in their phonics lessons has proved true in this passage.  Instead of helping them to learn to read, their instruction has forced them to mispronounce so many of its words that they are left with nothing but incomprehensible gibberish.

            This will happen over and over again to phonics-taught beginners when they try to read anything but those daily doses of manipulated text and word lists that follow the rules they are taught.

            If you are tempted to believe that a few more vowel pronunciation rules would solve the problem, make up your own list of the vowel rules a child would have to keep in mind in order to read the passage quoted above.  Not only would this be difficult to do, but the child would need a whole new set of rules for the next paragraph they tried to read.  Indeed, if you think this paragraph is exceptional, pick at random your own excerpt from any text that an elementary school student might be expected to be able to read. You’ll find that this text poses the same challenges.

            The unworkability of the phonics system in English is a result of the fact that Flesch, speaking with a foreign accent, apparently overlooked the distinctive character of written English.  He recommended a reading teaching system which is no doubt excellent for a child speaking German, but will not work at all in English.  How then did it happen that even in the face of chronic reading failure in America’s schools, phonics remains the reading teaching method of choice in those schools?

            Most responsible for our unwillingness to abandon phonics and look for a better reading teaching system has been a group of reading experts appointed by Congress in 1997 to the so-called National Reading Panel.  Congress asked this group to settle an ongoing argument about reading instruction caused by the sudden popularity of a new reading teaching “philosophy” called “Whole Language” that closely resembled the old word method of the “Run  Dick, Run”  era. During the nineteen eighties many schools adopted whole language, banishing letter names and letter sounds once again from their classrooms.  The argument between partisans of the two essentially worthless methods became so bitter that it came to be known as the Great Reading Wars and was heavily politicized.

            In the year 2000 the National Reading Panel issued a four hundred and fifty page report in which its members documented research that they claimed proved scientifically that systematic intensive phonics (teaching letter pronunciation rules before reading was attempted) improved reading performance more than non-intensive phonics (teaching letter sounds while children were reading) or no phonics (whole language, the word method). 

            However, the only “reading performance” the Panel seemed to be interested in was the children’s ability to pronounce words in manipulated text or in contexts in which the vowel was pronounced with its short sound.  That is, the panel did not emphasize the reading of natural text, but only the ability of phonics instruction to enable the correct pronunciation of those words that follow phonics rules:  a somewhat circular definition.  

            Very little attention was paid to the reading of normal sentences and stories.  One small paragraph in the Panel’s final report notes that in the few studies comparing children’s ability to read and understand “connected text” (the kind that appears in books) researchers found no evidence that systematic intensive phonics was superior to the other methods tested. “Likewise, phonics programs did not produce significant growth in reading comprehension….. Substantial growth occurred in learning to decode regularly spelled words and pseudowords” (National Reading Panel Report p2-116). Phonics, in other words, was good at helping kids learn how to apply phonics rules – but this did NOT translate into helping them learn how to really read. This stunning finding was buried in page after page of statistics extolling phonics.  Congress and most of the reading establishment disregarded this paragraph and remained convinced that systematic intensive phonics had not only been proved scientifically to be superior to all other competing methods, but was the best possible way to teach American children to read.

            In the year 2001, Congress duly passed an extension of the old Elementary and Secondary Education Act that required any school receiving federal funds to teach reading using systematic intensive phonics according to federal guidelines described in publications based on the National Reading Panel Report and known collectively as “Reading First.”  This Act became known as the No Child Left Behind law. 

            Under this law children’s progress in reading is assessed by the DIBELS test in which children are asked to pronounce lists of so-called pseudowords such as, “neg” “gup” “nid” “zan” and “wob,” using the short vowel sound.  A high score is considered proof that the child has mastered decoding and other reading skills. Of course, the focus on these non-words is, in a sense, proof of the failure of phonics to effectively aid actual reading.  If it worked with natural language text, there would be no need to focus on pseudowords – and the ability to correctly pronounce pseudowords does not facilitate actual reading, since it will often lead to the incorrect pronunciation of actual words.  

            The NCLB law is scheduled to run until the year 2014, when all children are expected to be proficient in reading.  However, well before then, there were signs that the law was not working as expected.  In 2008 the U.S Department of Education released the findings of “one of the largest and most rigorous studies” ever undertaken by that agency.  The reading achievement of between 30,000 and 40,000 first, second, and third graders was tested.  Unlike the DIBELS test, measures of reading comprehension were included.  The testers commented:  “Reading achievement was low and did not improve significantly over the course of the three year study.”  The NCLB program was costing a billion dollars a year, but there has been little to show for it beyond children’s ability to pronounce pseudowords and manipulated text. We were teaching our kids to read nonsense – directly thwarting one of the most important elements of beginning reading: the notion that reading is about comprehension. 


The Solution

            Contrary to the stated conviction of Diane Ravitch, the highly respected reading historian, there is a silver bullet for fixing the education system – at least when it comes to reading instruction. No one should be surprised to hear that the solution to our reading teaching problems is ready to hand. After all, every year many thousands of American children teach themselves to read at home before they encounter school reading instruction or know what a vowel – let alone a vowel sound – is.

            As someone who has successfully taught reading to students in schools both public and private, and from a wide range of backgrounds, I can tell you that if you want your students to learn to read you will not mention vowel sounds.  Vowels are useful in our language for signaling syllables and essential for making it possible to identify written words out of context, but they have no active part to play in beginning reading. Students who are exposed to vowel rules and end up learning to read do so despite, and not because of, this instruction. Successful reading instruction should be patterned on the approaches used by speakers of written languages like Hebrew and Farsi that work perfectly well without vowel letters in their alphabet. People reading these written languages rely solely on the consonant sounds and sentence meaning to identify written words. The same approach can be followed in English, as long as students are allowed to follow their natural tendency to use only those letters that are useful to them, skipping over the vowels and relying on the consonants to pick a word that makes sense in the sentence they are reading.

            Be advised however, that this sort of reading instruction cannot begin until the children know the names of the letters of the alphabet, and have had plenty of experience listening to, and most importantly, enjoying, stories told or read aloud to them.  When children play the games that teach them the letter names, they are storing in their minds clues to the sounds of most of the letters of the alphabet, ready to be used later when they need them.  

            Enjoying stories read aloud builds children’s vocabulary, gets them used to responding to decontextualized language by creating a picture in their mind, and teaches them that “reading” must make sense and should lead to enjoyable stories (by contrast, it should be pointed out, reading pseudowords is a miserable and brain-numbing task).

            A variety of learning games that do provide children with interesting and satisfying tasks can help them learn skills that are relevant to reading.  For example, children can acquire the habit of dealing with print from left to right by playing games in which they spell words attached to the picture they name (“Who wants to spell  HALLOWEEN?” during a lesson in October, for example).  These games and many similar ones help children grasp the relationship between spoken and written words.  All these skills; learning the letter names, learning to enjoy stories read aloud (which is a skill that has to be learned and must be taught), and adopting the habit of dealing with print from left to right, are a vital foundation for learning to read.  It is the school’s responsibility to make certain that they are in place before reading instruction begins, even if it means devoting the first half of kindergarten to them.
      As soon as these skills are in place, the letter names can be put to work. Children can learn to match written words with the picture they name by matching the sound in a consonant letter name with the sound at the beginning of a spoken word (they can look at a picture of a tiger, for  instance, and tell you it begins with a "T")  This is a difficult and sophisticated skill, and mastering it marks an important milestone in children’s progress toward learning to read.  Only after all these skills are mastered in contexts that are interesting and rewarding for children, should they be introduced to reading  sentences and stories.

Once children are comfortable with these skills, which they have learned in games and activities without being aware that these had anything to do with learning to read, the teacher can guide them to succeed  in reading.  The children will use  the consonant sounds  to identify whole words  both by using them  to suggest a suitable word and to eliminate wrong  choices. 
A  “big book “ copy   of a simple  commercially published  children’s book is a good way to introduce the class  to written sentences  in books.  They begin to experience  the fact that when they concentrate on the meaning of the sentence a strange thing happens. Their mind , automatically and subconsciously  proposes a choice of suitable (in terms of both grammar and sense) words for the next word in their sentence.  They also begin  to understand   that  the correct word  will be the one  in which the consonant letters in the word  on the page  match the consonant sounds  in one of their word choices.  Using these  tools children who follow  the word identification method  described above  are often able to  identifiy new words  so quickly  that it seems as though   the words  are identifying themselves.  This natural word identification system  will only work  for the beginner  who approaches reading  with one goal in mind—to find out  what the sentence  is saying.

     The best way to be certain that an aspiring reader  is concentrating on what the sentence is saying is to have the child  read to him- or herself or aloud to the class from a simple commercially published children’s book. This activity is completely voluntary.   The role of the teacher  and the rest of the class  is simply  to listen  and enjoy the story being read to them. To keep the student who is reading aloud from getting stumped  on a word  and losing track  of the meaning of the sentence being read,  the listening  teacher  readily identifies  for him or her any word  that he or she cannnot figure out. The child just spells  the problem word aloud and the teacher pronounces it and the child repeats it and simply reads on. 

     Such an approach  breaks the frustrating oscillation  between  phonics and whole language approaches  that has characterized the history of reading  instruction  in the United States.  Children learning to read this way  use meaning and consonant sounds  together to identify whole words.  They are not taught to build up words from their constituent sounds, instead they use consonants as reliable cues to arrive at a whole word that fits in their sentence.

    When children using this method are deciphering a sentence in a book or a story,  the expectation  of sense and meaning  eliminates from their consideration  any word  that would be senseless or ungrammatical in their sentence, thus leaving so few choices for each succeeding word  that the consonant sounds  are usually enough  to instantly suggest  the correct word  and eliminate a wrong one. The conjecture is confirmed when the word fits sensibly into their story.  
     This teaching  method  poses  the child with no threat of  failure,  and rewards the reader and listending students with an entertaining story.  It is so easy and agreeable  that by the end of the school year  the whole class  has been swept up in it,  regardless of ethnic identity,  socio-economic  level, or previous exposure to reading.

Indeed, the students are so eager to read to the class, that the main challenge facing the teacher will be to find enough time to give everyone who wants a turn a chance to read. If this facilitating  method is continued  in the next two years, by the end of second grade virtually all children will be able to decipher in print any sentence they would  have understood  when it was spoken. They will have successfully  mastered  the tool  that will make  further education  possible  throughout  the grades  and beyond. It must be added that this description is only a thumbnail sketch of a method that has met with great success in a range of schools and with students of a variety of backrounds, and that such a sketch can only give an idea of the major issues involved in teaching according to this method. 

            It is time to abandon the fiction that we are teaching reading successfully in our public schools.  Every attempt to improve reading instruction during the last century has been a failure, including our latest attempt, the No Child Left Behind law.  According to reading scores, a third of the children in our schools are marginally or functionally illiterate and that statistic holds true from primary school to twelfth grade.

            Not surprisingly, our crippled schools have become prey to politicians and venture capitalists who see enormous sums of tax money being spent for a service they are convinced they could perform just as well and for far less money, reaping tremendous profits -- though they have not yet been successful in doing so. The school system has become vulnerable in this way because it has excluded teachers from the educational dialogue, and is completely dominated by the theories, ideas and practices imposed by writers who have never set foot in a classroom (including people like Rudolph  Flesch, Jeanne Chall, Marilyn Adams and the thirteen non-teacher members of the fourteen-member National Reading Panel). English instruction is alone among the educational systems for alphabetic languages in introducing children to reading by giving them nonsense sentences and words in lists to read.  In virtually all other alphabetic language systems children are introduced to reading by means of a simple story written in normal language.  This is impossible in English because students taught using the phonics system are only prepared to read manipulated text – an outcome that Flesch failed to foresee.  Manipulated text is our effort to find something that the phonics student can read. 

            Our school system will only be successful when teachers are returned to their rightful position as judges of which educational practices will work in the classroom.  Once the teachers are freed to teach reading in this rational manner, American schools will return to the norm.  Teachers will succeed, and their students’ achievement can be confidently expected to, at the least, rival the best in the world.

The Trouble With Vowels

Vowel Trouble: Revisiting the Difference between Consonants and Vowels in a Phonics-Based Approach to Beginning Reading

Abstract: Drawing on a survey of the teaching practices of more than 100 randomly selected reading teachers and specialists from across the U.S., this article considers the implications for reading instruction of the gap between consonant- and vowel-based pronunciation guidelines. We outline some hurdles faced by decoding-based approaches to reading and argue that phonics-based instruction needs to address the well-established discrepancy between vowels and consonants as guideposts for beginning readers. Our findings reveal that, despite the attempt of current approaches to avoid the use of inaccurate phonics generalizations, these remain a staple of classroom instruction, most likely because of the perceived need to provide cues for reading words out of context and because of the unquestioned assumption that if children are taught consonant sounds they must also be taught vowel sounds. We conclude by outlining a phonics-based alternative to decoding, as it is currently understood, and to approaches that either dispense with phonics instruction altogether or attempt to integrate it, as a whole, into hybrid approaches.

Vowel Trouble: Revisiting the Difference between Consonants and Vowels in a Phonics-Based Approach to Beginning Reading

This article starts with an indisputable fact and a potentially controversial challenge to the way in which phonics is currently conceived in contemporary teaching practice. First, the indisputable (if still controversial) fact: that the most recent large-scale initiative to improve reading instruction in the United States has proven unsuccessful. As the Reading Teacher noted in late 2008, “One of the largest and most rigorous reading studies ever undertaken by the U.S. Department of Education, found that the six billion spending for Reading First has helped more students ‘crack the code’ to identify letters and words, but it has not had an effect on reading comprehension among first and second and third graders in participating schools” (Manzo, 2008, p. 1). This report is striking not just in noting the failure of Reading First, but in highlighting an apparent disconnect between decoding skills and reading comprehension. The three-year study noted that despite the fact that first graders in the program scored significantly higher on tests of decoding skills than peers in comparison schools, the program left proficiency levels largely unchanged, at dismal levels: “Fewer than half of the first graders and less than 40 percent of second and third graders showed grade-level proficiency in their understanding of what they read” (Manzo, 2008, p. 1). The report revealed that the program increased both the instructional time and the amount of professional development received by teachers in decoding instruction without, however, affecting the ability of children to comprehend what they read. G. Reid Lyon, who helped draft the Reading First legislation, criticized the study for not looking at “which kids did respond to Reading First style instruction, and why. And which kids did not respond and why” (Manzo, 2008, p.16).

The Department of Education study is not the only one to have indicated potential problems in the form that decoding-based reading instruction has taken. In a study of a special reading intervention that attempted to teach children decoding rules that would help them pronounce words letter-by-letter, McCandliss (2003) noted that, “…gains in Word Identification raw score were minimal and standard scores actually document a slight decrement in performance over time relative to the sample of children used to construct the norms…” (p. 96). He offered as one quite reasonable explanation for this finding the fact that the word identification test used to measure reading achievement, “contains a high proportion of irregular or inconsistent words that cannot necessarily be read more accurately by enhancing grapheme-phoneme decoding skills…approximately 60% of these items were nondecodable using the grapheme-phoneme elements trained in the 77 lessons of the intervention.”  (2003, p. 96). One of the problems of teaching inaccurate generalizations is that they lead to an expectation of regularity that is defeated by an encounter with actual words. Hebert et al. describe the challenges posed by words that do not follow the rules as peculiar to “less skilled readers” who “display a tendency to regularize the words – for example, to pronounce deaf as “deef” or touch as “towch,” (as described in Adams, 1990, p. 172). The difficult (to put it mildly) challenge faced by beginning readers is to know when not to use the generalizations they have been taught without knowing what word they are looking at.
This article proposes an alternative explanation for the significant research finding that even when decoding skills are successfully taught, reading skills do not improve, and it explores some logical challenges to the way decoding is currently conceived. Then, drawing on original research about teaching practices in the classroom, it argues for the importance of distinguishing between the utility of vowel- and consonant-based phonics generalizations as reliable cues for decoding. The first section outlines the problem with vowels as a guide to beginning readers and the second section explores how these problems relate to existing reading teaching practices in the U.S. and, to the extent that phonics instruction is used, in the U.K. 

The Trouble with Vowels
The reading teaching profession is still, in many ways, coming to terms with the legacy of Clymer’s seminal 1963 article on the utility of phonics generalizations. One of Clymer’s main findings – a discovery repeatedly invoked by his successors, is that consonant rules tend to be significantly more reliable than vowel generalizations. As Johnston (2001) puts it, “Consonants…are mastered more easily and are much more regular. Of the 45 generalizations investigated by Clymer, 10 involved consonants and all but one of those had a utility of 95 percent or better” (p. 134). By contrast, she noted that, “vowel generalizations are much less regular and more subject to interpretation” (p. 134). This distinction has generally been used to license attempts to place more emphasis and spend more time on instruction related to vowel generalizations. Thus, for example, the fact that vowels “pose the most difficulty for beginning readers” is used by Johnston to justify the conclusion that, “vowel generalizations may be the ones they need most” (p. 134). 
Although the opposite conclusion may be drawn from the same set of facts (more on this later in the article), phonics-based instruction has largely taken Johnston’s observation to heart and has attempted a range of strategies for dealing with the vagaries of vowel pronunciation. One approach has been to emphasize rules that apply not to words but to what Caldwell, Roth, and Turner (1978) call “higher order units” – that is, consistent subunits of words that are spelled and pronounced the same. This is the direction that has been taken up by approaches that rely on teaching rhyming patterns and focusing on sub-units of words. Thus, Stahl, Duffy-Hester, and Stahl (1998), describe a category of approaches they call “analogy-based,” (see, Cunningham, 1978, 1979 and Gaskins, Gaskins, and Gaskins, 1992) in which, “students learn how to decode words they do not know by using words or word parts they do know” (Stahl, Duffy-Hester, and Stahl, 1998, p. 347). This approach has also been taken up by teaching strategies that combine “onsets” (beginning letters or letter combinations) with “rimes”—phonogram families that are pronounced and spelled consistently (such as “-ack,” “-ice,” “ick”).
Wiley and Durrell (1970) found that nearly 500 primary grade level words are based on a set of only 37 different “rimes” and that 272 rimes account for 1,437 words in, “Murphy’s inventory of the speaking vocabularies of primary grade children” (as summarized in Adams, 1994, p. 321). In the first case, the “rime” families average 13 words each, in the latter only about five. However, even the not insignificant effort of learning 272 rhymes would assist the beginning reader in recognizing only a fraction of the words in the typical elementary school vocabulary, which is estimated to range from between 24,000 to 40,000 words. Much more work would be necessary to read the remaining words that do not fit the pattern. In the end, the difficulty of approaches that focus on “higher order units” is that they generate a dramatic increase in the number and complexity of generalizations that need to be taught, while providing a relatively small payoff.
If one attempt to increase the reliability of reading cues has been to focus on sub-units of words, another is to craft whole-word rules that incorporate exceptions and qualifications. This is perhaps best illustrated by one of the rules proposed by Gates (1983) and cited by Johnston (2001): “her generalization for silent e, which is reliable at 93 percent, is restated as follows: When a word ends in a single vowel +consonant+ e, the e is silent and the vowel is long, or has the short-i sound (except for words ending in ‘some’, ‘ove’, and vowel + re)” (p. 133).  Johnston charitably described such rules as “unwieldy” – several rules like this would be prohibitively difficult to memorize and would still leave most cases uncovered.
An alternative to creating more complex rules and exceptions has been to narrow down or invent the words to which beginning readers are exposed. If meaningful running text is riddled with exceptions to the generalizations, and it is too hard to change the generalizations, we can respond by changing the text. Thus, current so-called systematic, explicit phonics systems rely largely on teaching individual words out of context or in manipulated text. The pendulum has swung so far away the use of normal, meaningful texts in the U.S. that it has become common to rely on the use of so-called pseudo-words – invented words that “follow” vowel pronunciation rules – and on exposing students to carefully crafted nonsense sentences and stories that “follow” the rules. Open Court (Adams et alia, 1995) exercise books, for example, include stories such as, “Tim skims, Tim dips, Tim tips his hat. Tim hits a pit and sits” (a story about an ice-skating bear, pp. 31-32), and Explode the Code (Hall  & Price, 1981) uses sentences such as, “The deer feels safe in the tree” and “Will a whale wipe its wet hands?” (p. 71, p. 46). The strained, unnatural, unmotivated, and nonsensical tone of this type of writing makes it all but impossible for children to use context and storyline as tools for narrowing down word choices. Adams (1994) highlights the difficulty of such approaches: “Research has shown that text that is composed of high proportions of orthographically and phonologically similar words is inordinately difficult to process. Even when read silently by skillful readers, such texts produce the disruptiveness of tongue twisters” (Adams, p. 322).
 The attempt to increase reliability via pseudo-sense and pseudo-words ends up increasing the effectiveness of one tool at the expense of another. The sentences quoted above may follow the generalizations they are chosen to illustrate, but they are difficult to make sense of and do not help children read normal text. A beginning reader using his or her knowledge about the world, for example, would be unlikely to expect a sentence about a whale to refer to the animal’s “hands.” The sacrifice of meaning and context is a grave loss, since it is the entire point of reading. 
We realize that much current reading practice views the process as one that takes place in stages: skills in decoding are seen as precursors to reading for meaning. This is the sequence outlined by Samuels (2007): “one must identify the words on the page and one must construct their meaning.  If all of a reader’s cognitive resources are focused on and consumed by word recognition, as happens with beginning reading, then comprehension cannot occur at the same time. However, once beginning readers have identified the words in the text, they then switch their cognitive resources to constructing meaning” (p. 964).
This description envisions a process wherein meaning and context come into play only after the fact of word recognition. They have no role to play in the recognition process, which relies on the letter-sound correspondence alone. It is worth stopping and thinking about what the claim here really is: that beginning readers can arrive at the correct sound of a word (for only this would constitute recognition) solely on the basis of the letter-sound correspondences they have learned. For this to be possible it would require a system in which every letter in the word – including the vowels – gave an unambiguous indication of how the word is pronounced. It would mean, for example, that the letter sequence “h-o-w” somehow indicates -- even prior to any recognition of the word (for what is being explained is how the word is recognized in the first place) -- that the letter “o” is to be pronounced to rhyme with “cow” and not with “tow.” Otherwise, of course, the child would “recognize” a very different word (and wonder what a garden implement is doing in the middle of the sentence). 

The Trouble with (Omitting) Context
The attempt to separate out a process of decoding as distinct from comprehension and thus meaning and context is one of the legacies of the vowel-consonant distinction – the fact that, as Johnston (2001) puts it, “Consonants...are mastered more easily and are much more regular” (p. 134). The problem with so-called “authentic” text, from the perspective of phonics instruction, is that meaningful, comprehensible, natural-language sentences are composed of many words that do not follow generalizable pronunciation rules.  Since phonics generalizations that include the vowels do not apply to many of the words that appear in these texts, phonics is taught in controlled contexts such as nonsense or rhyming sentences or lists of pseudo-words where compliance with the taught generalizations can be ensured.
Decoding is, consequently, taken to be an antecedent skill to comprehension – one that can be taught as a distinct process in which pronunciation precedes word identification and word identification, apparently precedes comprehension at the level of the sentence. This distinction is reproduced by Stanovich’s (1984) claim that attempts to use meaning to decode words slow down beginning readers, who should be freed up from the requirement to understand context in order to decode words as rapidly as possible. However, it is not clear that Stanovich’s own findings justify either the distinction between context and comprehension or the importance of dispensing with the cues provided by context. For example in every case, the readers he tested exhibited so-called context effects: that is, context made a difference in the speed of recognition of a written word at the end of a sentence, although he concludes that, “Contextual effects diminish with development” (p. 14).
The resulting assumption is that more advanced readers are less reliant upon context and that therefore the developmental goal of reading instruction should be to facilitate automatic decoding that minimizes the cognitive drain associated with attending to context. This argument suggests that what experienced readers are doing amounts to a speedy version of letter-by-letter decoding. However, it is not clear from the evidence he provides that advanced readers engage in ultra-rapid decoding. Cattell’s classic research (detailed in Adams, 1994, p. 95), still generally accepted in the field, demonstrates that experienced readers recognize whole words as rapidly as they do individual letters. In the face of these and other findings, Adams points out that, “the idea that skilled readers recognize words by translating their letters, one by one, into sounds and then blending the sounds together seems preposterous” (p. 95). “Automaticity,” at least in the case of experienced readers, appears to refer not to ultra-rapid decoding, but to rapid word recognition (these are clearly different processes: it is possible to recognize a word without decoding it.
The fact that Stanovich found that readers at all levels could recognize so-called congruous words   context-based difference between the speed at which experienced readers can recognize congruous and incongruous words bears further examination. It suggests what every experienced reader knows: that the alleged difference between context and comprehension is a vexed one. Experienced readers do not wait until the end of a phrase or sentence (or paragraph, or chapter, for that matter) to attempt to make sense of it. Rather readers build up a sense of the meaning of sentences as they go along, creating and adjusting their mental picture of what the sentence means along the way. Imagine, for example reading a sentence that starts out, “The blue sailboat bobbed up and down in the rippling water...” An experienced reader would not hold off on creating a mental image, but would rather start to form a mental picture that adjusted itself as the sentence swung through even such abrupt changes as, “beneath the faucet dripping into the bathtub.” Meaning is not something that waits to form until the words have been properly decoded, it develops along the way, adapting to the changes that take place in the text as it unfolds.
The insistence upon decoding prior to meaning actually helps suppress the distinction between the reliability of vowel and consonant generalizations long acknowledged in the literature. If decoding is to take place absent meaning altogether – as a mechanical process whereby letters yield sounds that add up to the accurate pronunciation of a not-yet-recognized word which can only then be identified – then every letter in the word is crucial to the process. The vowels must somehow be made to provide meaningful and reliable cues as to how they are to be pronounced. Thus, the decision to teach phonics has been construed as an all-or-nothing one: if you teach the consonant generalizations, you must also teach vowel generalizations, and if that is to work, then a bottom-up decoding process that distinguishes decoding from comprehension becomes necessary. It is this all-or-nothing approach that has pitted phonics instruction against meaning and posited decoding as prior to comprehension. The power of context is sacrificed to the principle that both vowel and consonant rules must be taught.

The Trouble With Decoding
It has perhaps become obvious that the thrust of this article is to challenge the notion of decoding, at least as it is currently understood as a necessary intermediate step between exposure to written text and comprehension. Before exploring some of the empirical evidence in further detail we seek to raise some issues of logic. Taught as a skill antecedent to meaning – that is, as a skill that simply links written letters with spoken sounds – and hence as a skill that can lead readers from letters to spoken words in the absence of content or context, decoding faces impossibly high hurdles. 
The notion that decoding is prior to comprehension is a necessary presupposition of approaches that teach decoding as a meaning-free process. The underlying assumption of such approaches is that letters can, on their own and with the proper developmental sequence of training, yield correct word pronunciation.  It is worth making this assumption concrete. It presupposes, for example, that there is something in a written word that provides guidance, on its own, as to how it is to be pronounced. This seems, on its face, to be the essence of common sense, but further consideration renders it suspect. The letter combination that comprises the word “plow,” for example, cannot provide, on its own, guidance that it should be pronounced to rhyme with the word “brow” and not the word “slow.”  There is nothing in the word “bow” that indicates when it is to be pronounced so to as to rhyme with “how” and when it should be pronounced to rhyme with “tow” (and thus to mean something different).  What might it mean to decode the word “bow” in a sentence prior to grappling with the question of what it means? Is there a correct pronunciation for the three-letter combination “b-o-w” that is antecedent to the meaning of the word it spells?
It might be possible to argue that these words are merely exceptions that do not undermine the general utility of decoding as a process that precedes comprehension. However, the list of so-called exceptions goes on and on. How do we know whether the word “come” is to be pronounced as in “some” or “home”? What about the word “tear” – should it be pronounced as in “near” or “bear” or even as in “heart” or “learn”; does “move” indicate that it should be pronounced differently from “love” or “stove,” and so on. We could make the point somewhat more simply, and without having to calculate percentages of “regularly” pronounced words by simply highlighting what experienced readers already know: that, given a written word they have never seen before and do not know, the spelling cannot serve as a dependable guide to its correct pronunciation. Such a word cannot reliably be “decoded” (in the sense described above) even by the most experienced of readers. That is why dictionaries have pronunciation guides (these would be redundant if spelling, on its own and out of context, indicated the correct pronunciation). When we ask children to arrive at the correct pronunciation of an unknown word solely from its letters, we are asking them to do what experienced readers cannot. It is important to clarify this point – when we say “unknown” in this context, we do not mean a word that is not in a beginning readers’ spoken vocabulary – but rather a word that has not yet been identified (and is thus unknown to them at the moment they are trying to read it). To put this differently, knowing the meaning of a word is presumably irrelevant to the initial step of decoding, which, according to its own account, precedes meaning. Decoding is supposed to yield the correct pronunciation (independent of context), which in turn is supposed to lead to meaning, assuming the spoken word is in the reader’s vocabulary.
If, on the other hand, one were to make the case that meaning is an integral part of decoding, the notion of decoding as antecedent to and distinct from comprehension would disappear. Decoding as currently understood is founded on the assumption of the existence of an internalized knowledge of spelling patterns that, absorbed over time, allow readers to predictably and accurately pronounce words prior to knowing what they are.  Anyone who wants to make the case for the existence of such patterns, needs to be able to explain two things: 1) why is it that these patterns cannot be clearly articulated as rules (as they are in other languages such as, for example, German, Russian, Spanish, etc.); 2) why is it that experienced readers cannot be expected to accurately pronounce English words that they have not previously encountered based solely on their spelling.

Actual Teaching Practice
For lack of a better system, a reliance on variants of decoding remains a staple of contemporary reading practice. Our survey of 110 teachers involved in beginning reading revealed that several very unreliable pronunciation rules are routinely taught during the first six months of instruction.  This section takes a closer look at the rules that are actually taught in the classroom and follows up on the fact that consonant-based generalizations are significantly more reliable than vowel-based generalizations. The remainder of the article seeks to offer an explanation for why rules that are often unreliable continue to serve as staples of classroom instruction, and to suggest a possible alternative.
As part of the background research for this article, we surveyed 110 teachers across the U.S. on the letter-sound correspondences they used in teaching beginning reading. The survey was conducted in the summer of 2009 and posted on several e-mail lists for reading teachers, reading specialists, and elementary school teachers in the U.S.[1] The rules listed in the survey were taken not just from Clymer’s original list, but also from interviews with teachers about contemporary teaching practice, and from contemporary reading programs. A complete version of the rules included in the survey is included in the appendix. We supplemented the responses to the listserv with appeals to randomly selected school districts by region and demographics (urban, rural, and suburban). Respondents came from 35 states and included first grade teachers (43 percent), kindergarten teachers (27 percent) and reading coaches and specialists (including resource and special education teachers) (30 percent). Almost all of the respondents (98 percent) indicated that they believed the ability to name letters was either useful (58 percent) or a necessary prerequisite (40 percent) for learning to read. In keeping with these findings, the most commonly taught pronunciation rules, according to our survey, were associated with individual letter names. The majority of respondents (90 percent) indicated that they taught the consonant sounds within the first six months of reading instruction, whereas 97 percent indicated that they taught the short vowel sounds during the same period (almost two-thirds -- 63 percent -- also taught the long vowel sounds during the first six months).
In both cases these letter-sound correspondences were the most commonly taught by the teachers surveyed. The findings are suggestive: they strongly indicate what those in the teaching profession already know well: that letter sounds – of both the consonants and the vowels – serve as the backbone for current reading teaching approaches. Indeed, the short vowel sounds are actually taught more often than the consonant sounds. While we are strong believers in the importance of knowing the alphabet for beginning readers, we are also concerned that the reliance on vowel-sound associations in current forms of decoding instruction necessitates teaching unreliable generalizations.
Theodore Clymer’s (1963) simple and straightforward assessment of the effectiveness of vowel generalizations remains a widely acknowledged study whose implications have yet to be fully absorbed by the field of reading instruction. Johnston (2001) describes Clymer’s study of the utility of phonic generalizations as a “classic” work that “continues to be frequently cited almost 40 years after it was originally published” (p. 132).  The import of Clymer’s study is that it calls into question a significant number of the phonics generalizations he found in contemporary teacher manuals. After eliminating those rules that he deemed too general or unclear to either “aid or hinder in the pronunciation of a particular word” (186), Clymer found that only 18 of 45 generalizations (many having to do with syllable division rather than pronunciation of particular vowels) were useful at least 75 percent of the time when applied to a list of words children were likely to encounter. Applying the rules to a list of some 2,600 words compiled from the same readers from which he selected the phonics generalizations (along with the Gates Reading Vocabulary for the Primary Grades), he discovered that the majority of phonics generalizations mislead students more than a quarter of the time. Clymer’s response to this somewhat stunning fact was tentative. He observed that his standard of 75 percent utility for accepting a generalization, “may be too high. Classroom research might reveal that generalizations with much lower percentages of utility should be taught because they encourage children to examine words for sound and letter relationships” (1963, p. 187). 
            We think that Clymer’s findings provide a greater challenge to the teaching of vowel generalizations than he realized, for reasons that will be developed later in this section. First, however, it is worth considering some of the academic responses to Clymer’s findings in the intervening years.  Caldwell, Roth and Turner (1978) noted that studies of phonics generalizations, including Clymer’s, tended to overlook the importance of considering how the rules applied  to running text, rather than relying on word lists like those compiled by Clymer. As they put it, “The real world of English may be considerably more or less consistent than these studies suggest…A more appropriate measure would be the frequency of occurrence of the rule in running text” (p. 91). The main difference between their findings and Clymer’s was that the utility level for the two of the broadest vowel generalizations (the “silent e” generalization and the vowel-pair generalization) dropped significantly: from 63% to 42% and from 45% to 26% respectively (pp. 94-5).  Nevertheless, they conclude with the observation that, “The most apparent result is the fairly high agreement” among all of the various studies they consider (p. 93). Johnston’s (2001) overview of attempts to replicate Clymer’s findings reaches a similar conclusion: “Overall, however, no matter the number of words or the source, the results still show that less than half of the generalizations, as stated, meet Clymer’s criteria of 75% utility applied to at least 20 words across all types of text” (p. 133).
            We take a different approach to updating Clymer’s research, drawing not on primers but on a survey to see what generalizations are most commonly taught to beginning readers. We then test these generalizations on samples of running text selected from popular children’s books – not course readers, but actual trade books.  For the sake of comparison we divided the generalizations into vowel-based and consonant-based categories. Unsurprisingly, and in keeping with past research, we found the consonant-based generalizations were significantly more reliable than the vowel-based ones, but the latter are still taught by a majority of the teachers and specialists we surveyed. We take up the reasons for this, along with possible alternatives to current teaching practice, in the concluding section.  
Our findings for the teaching of vowel-based generalizations are listed in Chart 1, which also includes the results of applying these generalizations to randomly selected samples of running text from children’s books.  We tested the generalizations on a total of 1,870 words in samples of running text taken from eight books ranging from pre-school to fourth grade reading levels.[2]  The eight samples of running text ranged in length from 164 words to 287 words. The chart indicates the percentage of teachers who use a particular rule as well as the percentage of words for which the generalization was relevant and then the smaller percentage to which it applied accurately. Thus, for example “when two vowels go walking, the first does the talking,” is relevant (that is, it can be applied) to the word “great” (and not to the word, “bird,” for example), but it does not provide an accurate cue. A child applying the rule to “great” would mispronounce it as “greet,” (a word to which the rule does apply accurately) and would likely have a hard time making sense of it in the context of a meaningful sentence. Thus the chart is meant to give a sense not just of how commonly taught a rule is, but of how useful it is for a child attempting to read meaningful sentences in a story.

Table 1: List of Phonics Based Generalizations Taught in US Schools during the first six months of reading instruction (the most frequently taught rules are listed first)

Percentage who teach it
Percentage of words to which it is relevant
Reliability (percentage of the time it is correct when applied to relevant words)
Short vowel sound (as the most common way of pronouncing a vowel)
100 (every word has a vowel)
Typically taught in the context of consonant-vowel-consonant words (“hat,” “pot,” etc.).  Even in this context the rule will lead to many mispronunciations (“put” etc.) and thus hinder work identification.
The final “e” in a word is not pronounced (silent “e” rule)



The 222 final e’s that do not follow the rule are all accounted for by the following six words: be, he, me, we, she, the.
The silent “e” rule: “e at the end of the word makes the preceding vowel in the word long.
Even though this rule was taught by more than two-thirds of the teachers surveyed, it has a low level of reliability. Students who use it will be provided with a misleading cue four-fifths of the time.
When a word has only one vowel and this vowel is in the middle, it is usually short.


Again, not a particularly useful rule, despite the fact that it is commonly taught.  It applies to a quarter of the words encountered in the samples and is correct only a bit more than half of the time.
The long vowel sounds
See rules specifying when this sound is to be used
See rules specifying when this sound is to be used
See rules specifying when this sound is to be used
The combination “AR” is pronounced as in “car,” “far,” etc.

Applies to a small sub-section of the words, and is reliable in more than a third of the cases considered.
The combinations “IR,” “UR,” and “ER,” are pronounced as in “Her”

“IR” and “UR” are more reliable; “ER” brings down the percentage reliability. But since these are taught together as one rule, it will still provide an incorrect cue about one-third of the time.
The combination “OR” is pronounced as in “For”

This is a reasonably reliable rule, but helpful for only a very small percentage of words encountered in the running text samples.
When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking (in a two-vowel pair, the first is long, the second silent).

It is striking that almost half of the teachers surveyed taught a rule that works less than one-third of the time.
The combination “AY” is pronounced as in “Day”

This is quite a reliable rule – it will, however, mislead readers in the case of two quite common words: “says” and “always.”
If “Y” is the only vowel in a word, and comes at the end, it is pronounced as in “Fly”

A very reliable rule for a small percentage of words.
The combination “OU” is pronounced as in “Found”

A misleading generalization for more than half of the words in the sample, but still taught by more than one-third of the teachers surveyed. 
A single vowel at the end of a word makes its “long” sound.
All but three of the words that end in long vowels are accounted for by “be,” “he,” “she,” “we,” “me,” as well as “go.”  The only other words that followed the rule in the sample were “hero” (2x) and “Eskimo.”
The combination “EW” is pronounced as in “Flew”
Again, reliable, but only for a miniscule percentage of words encountered.

The pattern revealed by the chart is clear: the most commonly taught generalizations are not useful for reading words in running text. It would be incorrect to claim that a rule which works half the time is better than no rule at all, because this is also a rule that misdirects the beginning reader half of the time, obstructing the attempt to correctly pronounce and thus identify a word. Some of the more accurate generalizations are among those less frequently taught, most likely because these tend to only apply to a small fraction of words likely to be encountered by beginning readers. A generalization that only applies to one word in a book, for example, is only a tiny bit better than no generalization at all. If each word becomes its own “generalization” the result would be dispensing with generalizations as such.
By contrast, consider the reliability of the most commonly taught consonant generalizations, as illustrated in Table 2. Perhaps the simplest and most striking finding is that just teaching the sounds of the consonants (setting aside the other rules for the moment) yields 91 percent reliability. Interestingly, the reliability is lowered if the “g” rule (“g” is soft when followed by “e,” “i,” or “y”) is included – because this rule was accurate less than half of the time in our sample. Removing one rule improves accuracy (although knowing that there are only two common sounds for “g” is surely useful). Weighting the reliability of these rules by the percentage of words to which they apply suggests a reliability level well over 90 percent for the commonly taught consonant-based generalizations.

Table 2: List of Consonant Based Generalizations Taught in US Schools during the first six months of reading instruction (the most frequently taught generalizations are listed first)

Percentage who teach it
Percentage of words to which it is relevant
Reliability (percentage of the time it is correct when applied to relevant words)
Pronunciation of the consonant sounds
98 (“I” and “A” do not have consonants)
This assumes that “g” and “c” are taught as in “go” and “cat,” h as in “how” and w as in “way”
The consonant digraph  “TH” is pronounced as in “There”

The digraph  “SH” is pronounced as in “Show”

The digraph “CH” is pronounced as in “Chair”

The digraph “WH” is pronounced as in “Where”
Three instances of  “who” lowered the reliability of this rule
The consonant digraph  “PH” is pronounced as in “Phone”
No instances in the chosen samples
When “C” is followed by “E,” “I,” or “Y” it is soft (as in “Cell”)

When “G” is followed by “E,” “I,” or “Y” it is soft (as in “giant”)
The words that lowered the reliability of this rule included: "get," "give,"   "girl," "begin," and "tiger" (a key character in one of the books)

Discussion and Implications
There is nothing particularly new about the finding of a big discrepancy between vowel- and consonant-based generalizations. This is a well-known fact of phonics-based and decoding-based forms of instruction – although our findings illustrate the systematic difference between generalizations currently used in the classroom. What is striking about our findings is the fact that this knowledge seems to have little impact on classroom practice. Why are teachers continuing to teach generalizations that do not work and mislead beginning readers? Most likely, this choice was made in the name of consistency in decoding: if we are going to teach consonant rules and the letter names, the fear is that readers will be confounded if they don’t have rules to go along with all of the letters they encounter as they read.  If decoding is presumed to be antecedent to meaning and context is thereby removed as a cue for beginning readers, all that is left are the letters. That is, the reliance on a particular understanding of decoding goes a long way to explain why vowel-based generalizations continue to be taught despite their alarmingly low reliability.
The real question we should be asking is why the insistence on a notion of decoding as antecedent to meaning? This accords neither with the experience of skilled readers nor with the evidence adduced on its behalf.  Nevertheless, it is an insistence which has led recent reading instruction to choose vowel generalizations over meaning, in the full knowledge that these generalizations are at best unreliable. In practice, our experience in the classroom indicates that beginning readers can identify words far more effectively by using extra-linguistic information such as the subject of the story, real-world experience and other context clues such as knowledge of syntax, real-world information that would suggest what the sentence he or she is reading is likely to be saying, and his ability to judge whether or not a sentence makes sense. These contextual cues dramatically narrow the word choices available to them and make it possible for them to identify to identify words in meaningful text using the consonants alone.
The efficacy of context is demonstrated by psychologist George Miller’s observation (as summarized in Pinker, 1999) that, “[I]f speakers keep their sentence perfectly grammatical and sensible as they choose their words, their menu at each point offers an average of about ten choices [for the next word in the sentence]” (p. 7).  In other words, meaning allows the beginning reader to engage in a dramatic reduction of uncertainty: narrowing the possible options for the next word in the sentence down from the 10,000 or more words in the readers’ vocabulary to about 10. A reliance on consonants helps choose from among these 10 or so possibilities.
Systematic research needs to be done on such an approach, but first the underlying causes for the profound problems that plague the existing system need to be recognized. While this article does not undertake such research, it does attempt to outline the reasons for pursuing it and to demonstrate the impasse to which the current insistence on a decoding –based system that necessitates the teaching of unreliable generalizations has led.
To get a sense of how it might be possible to read a sentence without bringing any vowel generalizations to bear, consider the following sentence taken from a story about a dog named Ribsy:
R-bsy,  dr-pp-d  th-  b-ll  -nd  l-t  -t  r-ll.
With only a little effort, once the reader knows that this is the story of a dog named Ribsy, it is possible to read every word in this sentence, even without the vowels. It is no accident that we find it possible to read meaningful sentences even when the vowels are missing. The original writing system from which all alphabetic systems are descended had no symbols for the vowels and was able to function for centuries without them (Healy, 1990).  Alphabetic systems such as Hebrew, Farsi and Arabic continue to function effectively without vowel characters. This is not to say that vowels have no use – they do make it possible for those who already know how to read to identify words out of context.  Rather it is to claim that in English (as opposed to several other languages – including the European ones from which some reading methods are borrowed and adapted) they are not useful guides for helping beginning readers sound out words.  
Those who argue that any rule for the vowels is better than none might suggest the sentence about Ribsy would be even easier to read with the help of vowel generalizations. However, commonly taught vowel rules provide the wrong cues for three of the words: “ball,” “roll,” and “dropped,” introducing confusion and doubt where there needn’t be any. In such situations, the context suggests one word, which is contradicted by the preferred pronunciation indicated by the vowel generalizations. This contradiction might be readily resolvable in favour of context, were it common practice to teach phonics generalizations in meaningful sentences and stories.
When words are read in context, the beginning reader needn’t have a rule for every letter in a word, since the combination of the cues provided by the consonants and the context is sufficient and more effective than the often misleading information provided by vowel generalizations. The fact that phonics instruction has found it necessary to abstract away from meaning in order to teach vowel generalizations suggests just how incompatible these rules are with meaningful written language. Were it possible for vowel generalizations to serve as useful supplements to context, there would be no need to teach them in words taken out of context or in nonsense words or sentences.         
In many Continental European languages children are typically introduced to reading through little stories written in normal sentences. It is only in English that children are introduced to single words written out of context (in lists for example). Of all the alphabetic languages, it is only in English that beginning reading instruction may, for several years, consist of trying to teach children to read words by their letters alone.
Children taught this way approach print with nothing in mind but the sound they have been taught for each letter. Beginning readers taught this way have no anticipation of meaning for these words, but only seek to pronounce them through the specific rules they have been taught. As researchers including Hebert (Hebert, 1990, pp. 170, 172, 180) and McCandliss et al. (2003) have noted, the rules they have been taught will frequently produce the wrong pronunciation. Even one wrong word can make a sentence incomprehensible, as in the example (taken from an actual classroom example) of a student who correctly read, “The bunny hid in the bushes” and then stopped short, saying that the last word couldn’t be “bushes” because “bu” is pronounced “buh.”
The mental attitude of a child taught to approach print in complete sentences is wholly different then the mental attitude of children who believe that reading is a matter of sounding out single words. The first group approaches a written text expecting a sensible sentence.  These children already know a great deal about that sentence.  They know that it will advance the story in a meaningful way.  They also know that the words of a sentence will be in the normal order that they have known and used since they were toddlers (O’Grady, 2005). Using this information and any words in the sentence that they already happen to know, along with the sounds of the consonants, they achieve their goal of following the story they are reading. By contrast, children taught to abstract reading from meaning because they have been taught to read words in lists or in incomprehensible sentences like, “Will a whale wipe its wet hands?,” find themselves facing a world of text very different from the language world to which they have grown accustomed: a world in which any word might follow any other – and in which successful reading does not result in meaningful comprehension (there is no meaningful answer to the whale question – it is a nonsense question).
The goal of this article has been to argue that the distinction between vowel and consonant generalizations long acknowledged by the literature has not yet been accorded its full significance. It is a distinction that allows us to clarify the choices we make in deciding how best to use the letters in reading instruction. To date, this choice has largely been interpreted in ways that overlook the vowel-consonant discrepancy. That is to say, the decision to teach phonics has been construed as an all-or-nothing one: if you teach the consonant generalizations, you must also teach vowel generalizations. It is this all-or-nothing approach that has pitted phonics instruction against meaning in a fashion detrimental to reading instruction and resulted in an insistence upon teaching misleading letter-sound generalizations. The power of context is sacrificed to the principle that both vowel and consonant rules must be taught.
Recognizing the vowel-consonant discrepancy opens up the possibility of deciding differently – and teaching differently. The fundamental truth that all sides in the reading discussion need to grasp is that consonant-based phonics can be distinguished from vowel-based phonics and that the former can be used in conjunction with context and meaning in ways that the latter cannot.
Past attempts to develop a system based on context and consonants (see, for example, McKee, 1966) have not been able to move beyond an idea that plagues phonics instruction generally: the notion that beginning readers can use letters alone to arrive at the word they are trying to read. In practice, beginning readers need several different cues, since vowel sounds, even if they follow phonics generalizations (which they do not, in most cases), do not reproduce the word as it is heard in speech. The approach we are advocating recognizes that successful beginning readers rely on contextual cues to generate possible words while relying on consonant cues to narrow down their choices. In other words, beginning readers aren’t engaged in the process of building a word out of nothing from its constituent sounds, but in using the available cues to find a whole word that would make a meaningful sentence or phrase advance sensibly. 
The reason phonics has become, for all practical purposes, a complex and ultimately ineffectual science of the vowels is because using the consonants is so simple it can be taught easily and effectively – or even figured out by a child who merely knows the names of the letters. Dispensing with the vowel generalizations does not significantly hamper the ability to read a word in context.  It allows teachers to avoid the endemic practice of teaching highly misleading generalizations and it removes a barrier to using one of the powerful tools available to the beginning reader – a tool that is so effective not just because it narrows down the choice of words, but because it restores the point of reading to the child: the joy of making sense out of the world in which he or she is immersed.

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[1] The e-mail lists to which we sent an online version of the survey were the following: (, Kindergarten Teachers Mailring (, First Grade Teachers Mailring (, Second Grade Teachers Mailring (, Reading Teachers Mailring (, Remedial Reading Teachers Mailring (, The Reading Teacher listserv (, the Read Across America Listserv ( Additionally, we emailed links to the survey to reading instructors (where email addresses were posted online) and principals (with a request to forward the link to teachers involved in reading instruction) at fifty randomly selected school districts across the U.S.     
[2] The books from which the samples of running text were taken are:
Bulla, R.C. (1954). Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims. Scholastic Book Services;
Hoff, S. (1958). Danny and the Dinosaur. HarperCollins Publishers;
Lindgren, A. (1997). Pippi Longstocking. Puffin Books;
Little, E. (1987). David and the Giant. Random House;
Minarik, E.H., M. (1957). Little Bear. Harper & Row.
Perkins, A. (1969). King Midas and the Golden Touch. Beginner Books;
Phillips, J. (1986). Tiger is a Scaredy Cat. Random House;
Ziefert, H. and Nicklaus, C. (1985). So Sick. Random House.